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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 45 October 29, 2022

Paradoxes of Public Policy and Protest Politics under BJP Rule | Rohit Kumar

Saturday 29 October 2022

by Rohit Kumar*

THE IMPORTANCE OF movements and protests for the good health of a democracy is inevitable, keeping in view that these consolidate new political consciousness and help to spread and form new political cultures. However, after 2014, the authoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party government has sidelined and de-legitimised every opposition, every protest and every movement in a syncretic India. Demeaning of dissent has, thus, become the new normal of Indian democracy and undoubtedly reflects the ideological ego and absolutism of the BJP’s governance.

When the Modi government came to power, the parliamentary democratic process came to a halt; it was substituted by ‘one leader’-centric populist appeals and rhetoric through conformity and for the benefits of only the majority, simply because the ruling party had majority. The eruption of diverse protests and movements against the public policies adopted and enacted by the BJP government only elicited un-accommodative responses to these, followed by categorising protest movements as ‘unwanted hindrances’ to the Hindutva version of a ‘strong nation’.

It is no secrete that in a country like India, due to its diversity in terms of culture-language-religion, and because of its caste-class divisions, protests and movements become un-avoidable and crucial to its societies and polity. Geography also became a differential in respect of uniform public policy in a country like India. The eruption and occurrence of protests, especially in reaction to the public policies of an elected government (when discriminations became apparent in the formation of specific policies) that favoured only a particular community, class and ethnic group, deserves, if not anything else, a reconsideration of its implementation.

The political developments in India after 2014 paint a unique picture of democracy in the 21st century. Anti-incumbency frenzy was fueled by the media and social media that turned misconceptions into reality, so that a conservative-majoritarian-ideology emerged through the process of the ballot. The second important fact that needs to be emphasised is the absolute absence of opposition to policy moves like de-monitisation and GST implementation. The Modi style of governance in which the ‘one leader’-centric populism against the democratic processes, especially parliamentary democratic ethics, is ignored became clearly evident in these early policy moves in BJP government’s first term. The number of examples increase as the years go by: De-Mon as people call it, amendment in SC/ST Anti-Atrocities Act, changes in the Article 370 and changing the status of Jammu and Kashmir as a State, amendments in the Citizenship Act (CAA), 10 per cent reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS, since February 2019), and the neo-liberal reforms in the Farm Bills are some of the dominant examples.

The first protests against the Modi government’s public policies, perhaps, took place in the north-eastern States of Assam, Arunachal, Tripura etc when the Citizenship Act was amended in December 2019. The Modi government had won a second term and was arrogant. The amendments to the CAA put the spotlight on the BJP’s vision of a New India, a majoritarian Hindu state and nation, and on its un-accommodative, authoritarian mentality in governance. The CAA protests were very localised and resulted in not only police crackdown but sedition charges. The March-April Covid lockdown too did not evoke any public protest, people were too stunned to protest and the economic impact of this lockdown came to be known only later. The government’s vaccine policy, however, opened people’s eyes and by mid-2020, the citizen in India had a clearer understanding of the BJP government.

The Farmers’ protest again is unprecedented in the world of protests. The Farm Bills were tabled in parliament in September 2020. Small protests began in the States as early as 9 August, even before the three Farm Bills were tabled. The government just ignored it. In a democratic setup, these protest voices ought to have been taken into consideration and the government should have ensured amendments before tabling the Bill. With more than 300 seats in parliament, the BJP obviously thought ramming it through was possible; no democratic discussion or consent needed. However, this happened after de-monitisation, GST and the Covid pandemic and CAA. The Farm protest lasted through two terrible winters from August 2020 to December 2021. About three hundred million people were involved in some way or the other and farm unions say about 750 people died in the unfolding events. Withdrawing the Bills, for the first time in seven years, prime minister Modi appologised.

Legacy of a Past No Different 

The phenomenon of demeaning and denigrating every opposition and protesting voice cannot be attributed to the BJP alone. It has a very long past where such oppositions and protests against governments have been crushed ruthlessly and authoritatively.

One prominent example from the past of not allowing democratic dissent was the Emergency regime of Indira Gandhi. But the scale and nature of protests against the BJP government has shown a very depressing trend in the context of the decline of democratic values in India. In this article an attempt has been made to highlight how the ‘governmentality’ of the BJP’s Hindu majoritarianism has delinked the importance of movements and protests politics from any inclusionary democratic public policy. How the BJP, with its majoritarian ideological ego and agenda, has polarised the subcontinent’s different religious and caste identities by provoking group-specific anxieties which have definitely brought electoral benefits to the BJP but is harmful for India and its democratic future. Let me present a theoretical proposition which links the importance of protest politics with the formation of a good public policy, which eventually strengthens democracy in itself.

Political Capacity and Ideology

The capacity of a democratic political system can be defined mainly in two ways: the redistributive capacity which solely depends on the availability of resources (goods and services) and on reach and effectiveness of a state. Next comes the ideological preferences of a state and the ideology of the government which runs the particular state.

When a difference in the ideology of the state and the ideology of a government come into loggerheads, then the conflicts become public in the form of movements and protests; especially when a government wants to subordinate the autonomy of democratic institutions according to its party-ideology. In India, the state has the declared ideology of a democracy with having shown in the past a particular preference to socialist-welfarism. What becomes important in such a case is the ideology and governmentality of the government, especially in adoption of public policies. The recognition and accommodation of feedback from movements and protests of the diverse groups of a state’s population against and in favour of these policies is a part of such democracy.

India being a liberal-democratic state provides enough space in its constitution for every voice and demand from those who found themselves unrecognised, marginalised, victimised and discriminated against by any state action and policy. Indian constitution came up with many welfarist policies like reservations for lower castes and protections of cultural/religious minorities to eradicate longstanding social discriminations and to provide a fare opportunity for equitable development. The journey of the Indian state witnessed many oppositions to such affirmative arrangements by diverting the original purposes of these arrangements and by extremist oppositions either to end these affirmative provisions in the constitutions or to change the criteria of providing these social, educational and economic concessions. Indian politics after 1980s is full of examples where affirmative actions have been challenged. But one important challenge that demands attention is the Hindutva politics since the 1980s.

Remaining on the political periphery since the assassination of Gandhi, Hindutva became a dominant and prominent force in the 1990s and a matter of concern, especially keeping in view its history and ideology that always worked to eradicate the welfarist character of the Indian state under its majoritarian agenda. Till 2014, it conformed with the state ideology of secularism and social justice, even after the neo-liberal turn of Indian state (Hansen and Jaffrelot 1998). Hindutva had to camouflage its militancy and authoritarian governmentality due to the compulsions of politics and opted for a line similar to other political outfits in India.

In 2014, after attaining majority in parliament, Hindutva’s political wing, the BJP started its version of politics and governance with the agenda of making India a Hindu state (Chatterjee, Hansen and Jaffrelot 2019). The BJP’s governance became more ruthless and questionable even as every major legislation for forming a public policy it envisioned, resulted in the eruption of criticism from every circle. Working to establish India-wide electoral hegemony by 2024, it also worked to change the foundational character and nature of Indian constitution and democracy.

The illogical adoption of policies like demonetisation and pandemic lockdowns highlights its ill and authoritarian governance. Interferences in institutions like universities and then changing the pedagogical curriculum are prominent examples of its majoritarian agenda (Palshikar 2015). What is crucial is its neglect of public-intellectual criticism of its policies and governance and the government’s un-accommodative authoritarian nature while adopting and implementing any policy. Let us see in greater detail how the dialogue and protests which constitute the fundamentals of the success of any policy in a democratic political system have been sidelined and made unwanted under this regime.

Public Policies and Protest Politics after 2014

Modern India, as we know it today, grew out of Gandhian Satyagraha. Hartals, dharnas, non-violent sit-ins are part of the Indian ethos, cutting across religion. Even in today’s India 300 million people can sit on a non-violent protest.

 The importance of protests in raising socio-economic questions to draw attention of state agencies and the government towards untouched aspects and problems of a society is necessary in a democracy. It is supposed to motivate a democratically-elected government to make policies that resolve specific problems. Protests draw attention to half-heartedly adopted policies of a government and are necessary to the success of a democracy like India. The BJP government has completely altered the course of this dominant acceptance of protests that are important for the accountable and responsible working of any and all governments. The Modi government’s goal is to at first converge the right-wing idea of an organic democracy with that of the liberal-welfarist democratic vision of the Indian constitution and then consume it. All the policies put in place so far by the two Modi governments are indicative of BJP’s longstanding vision of making India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in which varna, caste, religious hierarchy and suppression is justifiable and acceptable. The public protests against these policy shifts have been few and unimpressive against well-organised and well entrenched propaganda techniques of BJP which defined all protests and oppositions as ‘anti-national’. The BJP’s propaganda machine framed all protests as unwanted interruptions in the path of a strong nation by proposing its own version of the ‘nation’. The idea of homogenous ethno-religious Hindu nation has been converged and conflated with the strong assertive right-wing brand of nation which has become non-understandable for the layman in India. Protest politics, which for a hundred years has been recognised and stands for reformation and inclusive democracy in India, has today become unwanted anti-national interruption under the BJP’s authoritarian regime. Demonitisation and the Farm Bills are just two examples of violation of democratic ethics under a parliamentary system. When demonetisation was done, neither was a proper parliamentary process followed nor party members acquainted with the policy measure. The policy adopted became a one-way traffic between Prime Minister Modi and the masses, and the success of the declared purpose of demonitisation was expected through populist leader-centric rhetoric and appeals. The measure, however, resulted in economic chaos (Ruparelia 2015; Jayal 2016; Sen 2016). The failure was reflective of the government’s half-hearted, unplanned, irrational process and became a misery for the common masses. The tabling of the Farm Bills was clearly an indication of BJP’s neo-liberal economic agenda. It is also an unconstitutional move because according to our written constitution, agriculture is a State subject, not a Central subject and this is what became the major cry of the farmer’s movement. Even in majority governments, parliamentary consultations, dialogue with the opposition is a part of the democratic process. This did not happen for the Farm Bills. The ruling BJP showed its colours by using terms like ‘tukde tukde gang’, urban Naxals, Khalistanis for the protestors. This response was not surprising. Since 2014, journalists, writers, artistes, comedians and activists like Sudha Bhardwaj, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha and many others have been at the receiving end of an intolerant government. Since 2014, it has been very obvious that the BJP is not afraid of losing power and broader support under its ideological vision; nevertheless, the farmers struggle challenged it territorial spread and had the potential to dent BJP’s continuous political hegemony and that is why it was defensive for the first time after 2014 (Ali 2020: 9 December).

The nature of protest politics after 2014has raised concerns regarding the survival of constitutional democracy and democratic culture of protests and movements undermajoritarian Hindutva challenge. The future of opposition and protest politics is also in question.Not every protest and every demand can be justified and called legitimate and genuine, but closing the channels of dialogue and negotiation in particular cases and opening up these in specific cases is also not reflective of democratic culture. The increasing communal polarisation in India is a similar sort of development under the BJP regime. To make a democracy all-inclusive and citizen-friendly, protest politics is the most important tool of negotiation between a government and the citizens it governs.

(Author: Rohit Kumar (rohitpolsci[at]gmail.com) is a doctorate student in the Department of Political Science of Himachal Pradesh University, Summer-Hill Shimla, 171005)

References

  • Ali, Asim (2020): ‘Farmers’ Protest Shows Modi’s Politics is caught between India’s Two Middle Classes’, The Print, 9 December, https://theprint.in/opinion/farmers-protest-shows-modis-politics-is-caught-between-indias-two-middle-classes/563096/
  • Chatterji, Angana P., Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot (2019): Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India, Noida (Uttar Pardesh): HarperCollins.
  • Hansen, Thomas Blom and Christophe Jaffrelot (eds.) (1998): The BJP and the Compulsions of Politics in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Jayal, Niraja Gopal (2016): ‘Contending Representative Claims in Indian Democracy’, India Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 172-195.
  • Palshikar, Suhas (2015): ‘The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centrist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 719-735.
  • Ruparelia, Sanjay (2015): ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance: The Restructuring of Power in Modi’s India’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 755-775.
  • Sen, Ronojoy (2016): ‘Narendra Modi’s Makeover and the Politics of Symbolism’, Journal of Asian Public Policy, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 98-111.
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