Originally Published 2019-04-04 09:28:22 Published on Apr 04, 2019
The incredible BJP-Congress role reversal

How did this happen? How can it be that the Congress - by 2014 near-universally accused of mismanagement and intellectual bankruptcy - produces a manifesto full of thought-out policy proposals (even if some seem like bad ideas)? And that while the Congress puts out a policy-heavy manifesto, the BJP under Narendra Modi, supposedly the party of "maximum governance", indulges in the most blatant communal rhetoric and pushes the Election Commission over and over again?

The Election Commission had a bad few weeks. First the Prime Minister's damp squib of a speech announcing an anti-satellite missile test - an interesting development, but hardly Pokhran-3 - met with no serious objections from the election body in spite of a complaint by CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury. And now the commission will have to rule on "NaMo TV", a television channel that has mysteriously appeared on every single direct-to-home platform, and does nothing but broadcast BJP propaganda and Narendra Modi speeches (as if everyone hasn't already heard enough of the latter). We don't know who paid for this and how much; how it got on DTH platforms when other channels have famously struggled to find slots; whether the spending on this has been reported by the BJP. Most absurdly, if it is being treated as a government-sponsored channel, and receiving government advertisements, then it is clearly a case of government money going into electioneering at the time when the model code of conduct is in operation. How blatant a violation of rules and of propriety can one expect to see? Remember the offence for which Indira Gandhi's election was disqualified by the Allahabad High Court in 1975: - using government servants to help build a small stage. Now compare that to where we are as a country today. I wonder what Modi's reaction would be if, in the middle of his second term, some independent-minded judge declares his election disqualified because of this behaviour. The parallels between Modi and Indira Gandhi, always strong, are really stacking up at this point.

It is the Congress that is supposed to be the destroyer of institutions - what else is corruption, after all, other than the tarnishing of the bright steel frame that gives democracy structure? But as the election campaign has intensified, it is appalling to see how completely the BJP has abandoned the rhetoric and positioning that it has had since the golden era of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In this campaign, it has not even pretended to run on better administration or policy. It is quite unbelievable that the Modi of the "Gujarat Model" has so completely ceded policy innovation and economic reform to the Congress.

The Congress' manifesto has many flaws - most importantly, the flagship NYAY scheme is not completely and properly explained. We do not know how the recipients will be identified, for example. An income transfer scheme should ideally be universal or of the "negative income tax" format. But the first is expensive and the second is difficult to implement in an economy that is still largely informal. Yet I think it is obvious that basic income guarantees like NYAY are an idea whose time has come; the BJP will come up with an alternative in time, I am sure. But the fact is that the Congress' manifesto reveals careful engagement with the issues and the state of the Indian economy that is not visible in the BJP. Perhaps the BJP, having spent years claiming that Modi is fixing or has fixed all the problems with the economy, that there is minimal rural distress, plenty of investment and more than enough jobs, believes that an economics-first approach to campaigning would reveal to voters how little has actually been achieved in five years.

Instead of attacking the Congress for its welfarism and asking how it intends to meet its fiscal targets while raising spending on farmers, on the poor and on government salaries, the economic voice of the BJP, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, made headlines claiming that the manifesto was essentially written at the behest of the "tukde-tukde gang". Is this the most rational reply the BJP can come up to a manifesto that is full of economic proposals? Jaitley surely knows better. Especially since the section on Kashmir and on legal reform that is being attacked is hardly distant from the mainstream. Discussions on the reform of AFSPA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, have never been off the agenda. Even the BJP, when it went into coalition with the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, had agreed to minimise the use of the Act. As for ending the sedition law and decriminalising defamation, far from making the country insecure, these are demands that legal reformers have made across the economic spectrum. The BJP's Subramanian Swamy, for example, fought a case in the Supreme Court on decriminalisation of defamation. Is the BJP claiming one of its own leading intellectual lights is part of this "tukde-tukde gang"?

This is not to say that the BJP's approach may not prove to be politically fruitful. The Congress can be as responsible as it likes, but if Modi and Amit Shah believe that communal polarisation and hyper-nationalism will win them this election, then I, for one, would not necessarily bet against them. They are, after all, proven electoral performers. Still, the degree to which the BJP is willing to jettison its image of a modern, inclusive and governance-focused party has surprised even me. I would never have expected the prime minister to deliver the sort of speech he did at his rally in Wardha, Maharashtra. According to The Telegraph, the Prime Minister used the word "Hindu" 13 times, accused the Congress of tarnishing the country's 5,000-year old culture, and repeatedly asked if Hindus would "forgive" the Congress, and finally added that Rahul Gandhi was "compelled to take refuge in a place where the majority is the minority". This was a reference to Rahul Gandhi's decision to contest from Wayanad in Kerala, a hot-pot of multiculturalism which is just under half Hindu. I wonder if NaMo TV carried the speech in full.

And we return once again to the Election Commission - will it uphold the law of the land, which forbids the gathering of votes on the basis of religious division? And if not, who can ordinary Indians expect to stand up for fairness and the law?

This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.

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Mihir Swarup Sharma

Mihir Swarup Sharma

Mihir Swarup Sharma is the Director Centre for Economy and Growth Programme at the Observer Research Foundation. He was trained as an economist and political scientist ...

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