Will BJP stave off the latest challenges that could very much derail its 2019 plan?

By Achyut Nath Jha

Forty months – two-thirds of time mandated for this term – into ruling at the Centre, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government looks on the back foot. In recent weeks, it has come under sever attacks on its handling of the economy, lack of jobs and farm distress.

Significantly, the criticism came not only from the Opposition parties, particularly the Congress, but also from party veterans. Former finance minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) veteran Yashwant Sinha’s latest jibe (he called it his ‘national duty’ to speak up)) at the Modi government’s moves has given the Congress a major shot in the arm.

Earlier, BJP’s Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy and Sangh Parivar’s economist S Gurumurthy have also spoken about the poor state of the economy. Grabbing this opportunity to embarrass the ruling dispensation, Congress leader and another former finance minister P Chidambaram backed Sinha’s comments and told, “We are happy that Yashwant Sinha has echoed our criticism. Sinha said the truth about the economy. The Congress has, for nearly 18 months, highlighted these very grave weaknesses in economy. We were told, in effect, to shut up,” Chidambaram said.

As expected, the ruling party’s topnotch leaders rejected Sinha’s critique, saying the world acknowledges India’s growth momentum. “The world acknowledges that India is one of the fastest-growing economies. No one should forget it. Our image at the international level is very strong,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh said.

Sinha, Swamy, and Gurmurthy aren’t the only ones to raise the issues that have raised heckles in the corridor of power. Some of the senior ministers are said to be upset with the way things are being run within the party and the government. They also rue that they are consulted on various issues. Earlier this month, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi had also referred to that in his interaction at a university in the United States.

Most of recent attacks seem to be aimed at Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and there are all signs of a churn within the BJP, even as Modi and party chief Amit Shah prepare for forthcoming electoral battles in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Interestingly, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly, where she spoke about the achievements of successive governments in India, came for much praise from the Congress and otherr Opposition parties.

Recently, two successive-term BJP Lok Sabha member Varun Gandhi had publicly disagreed with the Modi government’s policy on Rohingya refugees. He had called for the Indian state to show more empathy towards them. Party leaders, however, told that they disagreed with Nehru-Gandhi scion on the Rohingya question. Meanwhile, organisations associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — BJP’s pater familias — have been pointing to a growing economic distress. The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, Laghu Udyog Bharati and Swadeshi Jagaran Manch have all highlighted the impact of the GST and demonetisation on BJP’s traditional support base of traders and small business. Industry watchers say that the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector has been hit grievously.

A member of the BJP’s ‘margdarshak mandal ’ ( mentors’ group), Sinha took a stand opposed to his party’s policy. Bureaucrat-turned politician has lately frequented Jammu & Kashmir and stressed the need for the Centre to reach out to the various stakeholders in Kashmir. Not just the Modi government but the Congress-led Opposition has also ignored his efforts. He had even met dissident Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav and reached out to Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief Sitaram Yechury on the question of Kashmir. Earlier, following the BJP’s defeat in the Bihar Assembly polls in November 2015, he and other members of the mentors’ group had made public their unhappiness with the way the party had been run under Shah.

Back to the latest attack by Sinha in what looks like a battle between the BJP’s new dispensation and its old guard. Sinha hit back at Jaitley and mocked the finance minister for never having won a Lok Sabha election.

While taking Jaitley’s jibe that he was a “job applicant at 80”, Sinha said: “Had I been a job applicant, he (Jaitley) would not have been there.” Sinha, who was finance minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, told that Jaitley, instead of answering these, had launched a personal attack on him.

“Can he (Jaitley) deny that real estate is in distress? Can he deny that farmers are in a bad shape? Can he deny that the telecom sector is struggling? Sector after sector is in dire straits, and I’m ready to have a debate with Jaitley,” he said.

Was the veteran speaking out of frustration at being marginalized? Many in the BJP believe that the tussle between Modi’s and Vajpayee’s finance ministers is a proxy battle between the older leaders, such as L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, and the BJP’s new leadership. However, Sinha made it clear that he had opted not to contest the 2014 election.

He recalled that he had joined politics and fought elections after quitting the civil services (as an IAS officer) with 12 years of service still left. “Those who have not seen the face of the Lok Sabha are questioning and attacking me,” Sinha said. For the record, Jaitley fought his first Lok Sabha election in 2014 from Amritsar but lost.

Referring tp HSBC Bank’s disclosure and the Panama Papers controversy, Sinha took on Jaitley for what he said was inaction against black-money holders. “Why has no action been taken against them? While Pakistan’s then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, had to resign, no action was taken in India”, Sinha said. The father-son tussle also continued to play out. Sinha’s son and junior minister Jayant wrote an article that seemed to rebut his father’s criticism of the economy.

Though his attack is by far the most scathing and direct, Sinha is not the only one to do so. “Today, the economy is in a tailspin. Yes, it can crash. We need to do a lot of good things to revive the economy. Even a tailspin can be made to steady. If nothing is done, we are heading for a major depression. There will be mass scale… banks might collapse, factories might start closing,”

BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy told a TV channel earlier this month.
In January, former BJP leader and Minister Arun Shourie had minced no words while calling demonetisation the “greatest blunder in 70 years”.

“Demonetisation is the symptom of a pattern of government where there is no consultation. It may happen again and again. The fact that somebody keeps winning elections is no reason to change our mind. Those who vote will vote on other considerations, and they do not know how economy should be run,” Shourie said at a public event in Bengaluru.
All is not well

If one takes a clue from the above criticisms, it seems that all is not well with the Modi-led NDA government. There is a clear sign of emerging disenchantment and dissatisfaction with the government from among multiple sections of people — the youth, the business community, and sections of the middle class across the country. The changing perception will open up the debate once again on the possible outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha election which, till a few months ago, looked like a foregone conclusion.

In India, the ballot remains the only option for the people to express their disapproval against the government. The electoral verdicts in the student elections of universities and the Bawana by-poll in Delhi may not be a good indicator of the overall national political mood, but they do give some indication of the mood amongst young Indians.

The BJP-supported ABVP lost elections in JNU (it has been a Left bastion, no doubt), Delhi University and Hyderabad Central University. These verdicts were certainly against the BJP-supported ABVP. The mishandling of the recent incidents at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) has only added fuel to the fire amongst students.

Young voters played an important role in the victory of the BJP in 2014. They not only came out in large numbers to vote, but that they also came out to vote for the Modi-led BJP in sizeable numbers. What may prove even more dangerous for the BJP is the growing unemployment due to the government’s inability to generate more jobs, which Modi promised in numerous election speeches. The unemployment rate in September 2017 is at its highest in the last 10 years. The decline in GDP growth rate – from 7% during the last few years to 5.7% last quarter — has made matters worse for the ruling dispensation.

To top it all, farmers are agitating across the country — in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat. While their main demand is for a minimum support price there are other issues, including loan waivers that are bothering farmers. Demonetisation, which resulted in shortage of cash, which is the main mode of transaction in the farming sector, has made matters worse for them. Touted as a war against the poor, it has adversely affected their lives. Traders, who had been the backbone of the BJP’s support base, are extremely unhappy with the government as they are facing enormous difficulties in filing tax returns under the GST regime. It has created a massive slump in the real estate business and small-scale skilled and semi-skilled enterprises.

Needless to say, these are not good signs for the government. Notwithstanding the absence of a leader who could challenge the PM at the national level, one is not sure how only Modi factor would resurge the party again. How long will Modi be able to hold the wave turning into a tide against his government and party?

Writer is a Political Commentator and Strategic Analyst