City City Bang Bang, Columns

The things that don’t change: The oldness of new India?

For the first time in the last few months, the government seems to be losing control over the political narrative. A series of different events has forced this change of emphasis, away from the usual discussions that begin with the cow and end with JNU. Denied this comfort zone, where the governments and its supporters have a well-rehearsed script, a new tentativeness can be seen.

The violence in Panchkula and other parts of Haryana following the conviction of godman-rapist Ram Raheem is such a transparent act of failure that even hardened apologists for the government find themselves nonplussed. For once, even media is united in attacking the BJP government in the state, and its failure, and indeed complicity has been called out across the board. The BJP government acted exactly in the manner in which it accuses the Congress of having done all this time- it appeased a powerful religious figure, and allowed his supporters to inflict violence on the innocent, in a cynical attempt to play politics. The PM is predictably silent, as is most of the BJP ‘high command’, and no harm will come to Mr Khattar in all probability.

Just a few weeks ago, a terrible tragedy played out in Gorakhpur, the hometown of 5 time MP and ‘strong’ CM Yogi Adityanath. The callousness of the government, and the state administration in allowing over 60 children to die because someone did not pay oxygen bills is still too shocking to comprehend even after all the outrage that has already been expressed. Denial, obfuscation, a desperate search for scapegoats- the usual tricks of the trade were tried. However you frame it, this was the story of inhuman neglect and abject failure, which in any other part of the world would have led to top level resignations and a dramatic overhaul of the system. In UP, life continues as normal.

That nothing has changed when it comes to politics was underlined in the manner a Rajya Sabha election was contested by the BJP, which made it a prestige issue. Horse-trading, misuse of Government machinery and intrigue presided over a scenario where individuals changed sides without any guilt or shame. Ironically, what lost the election for the BJP was the need felt by the rebel voters to show Amit Shah that they had indeed done his bidding.

Rewinding just a little bit more, in Chandigarh, a young girl was nearly abducted on a public road, after being chased by two well-connected goons, one of then being the son of the state BJP president. The police acted as they do when the powerful are involved- charges of a much milder kind were filed and the surveillance video magically disappeared. It was only because of social media outrage and the fact that the girl in question was the daughter of a senior IAS officer that it mysteriously reappeared. The accused is now in jail but only because of overwhelming public pressure.

There is a governance gap that this government is simply unable to bridge, and it cannot keep up the pretense that it is somehow different. There is no New India that the state can lay claim to- far from it, this is unfortunately the very same India that we know only too well. Only, now we have to shoulder the additional burden of social media trolls and gau-rakshaks.

This government is usually criticized for its cultural agenda and the manner in which it is pursuing it. And it is easy to see why. Increasingly, it seems to be giving priority to issues that are importance largely in its own conceptual constructs. The cow and issues pertaining to it, nationalism and all the possible symbols that are associated with it – these are what seem to be taking up a lot of time and emotional energy. These are no longer electoral devices, but the foundation on which a new imagination of the country is being configured.

In doing so, it is losing track of a much more fundamental promise that it has made. The idea of ‘achche din’ may not find favour within the party any more, but there was an expectation among many who voted for the party that something dramatic would change. Its challenge today will increasingly come from its track record in delivering change that is palpable in an everyday sense. If corruption at the point of delivery is not tamed, if the sense of the impunity with which the powerful can get away with anything is not reversed, if incidents like  Panchkula, Gorakhpur and Chandigarh continue to take place without any sign of change, then the suppressed anger against the political establishment will begin to make a reappearance.

There is a contradiction between the position of political strength that the BJP is currently enjoying with the situation on the ground. The instability caused by the twin shocks of GST and demonetization has been deeply unsettling. Farmer distress is becoming a palpable force, unemployment is assuming critical proportions and Dalit anger is on the rise.

On the government’s part, hubris seems to have set in, and the BJP’s current political strength is likely to be its biggest weakness. The cow is not the nation’s agenda; nationalism strikes resonant chords on television, but is not a pressing everyday need. What the country needs above all is a drastic improvement in the performance of its key institutions and the delivery of everyday administration.

Last week, after a long time, we saw in the Supreme Court judgment on privacy, a sense of institutions acquitting themselves as they are meant to. Thoughtful, deep, independent, learned- the judgment reminded us of what institutional integrity can feel like. The government, on the other hand, seems to be absent on the things that matter. Its agenda seems to be increasingly self-indulgent. What it is seeing as ideological success could be paving the way for political failure.

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