India’s poll is nationalism versus economy


Being first off the block in releasing the pre-election manifesto, the Congress made the most of it by unravelling its second version of “garibi hatao”(remove poverty) after Indira Gandhi’s first, admittedly abortive, attempt to eradicate poverty in India nearly half a century ago. Now, her grandson Rahul Gandhi has announced his intention to launch a “final assault” on indigence by providing an income of INR 6,000 (86 USD) per month to an estimated 20 per cent of the population (about 50 million people) under the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (minimum income scheme) or NYAY.
In the wake of this bonanza, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) only option in its manifesto was to play catch-up. It is with this game in mind that it has promised to spend INR 25 lakh crore (USD 361,537,500,000) on rural areas in the next five years.

It is a toss-up as to which of these two munificent gestures will attract the electorate the most. While the Congress’s promised largesse covers the people in both rural and urban areas, the BJP’s focus on the former suggests that it has realized the seriousness of the agrarian situation. At the same time, the perceptive voter cannot fail to notice that while the main template of the Congress’s manifesto is the economy, that of the BJP is nationalism. Evidently, the BJP believes that man does not live by bread alone and that what matters more to him is the safety of home and hearth.
So far as the BJP is concerned, therefore, the real threat at the moment before the nation is not impecuniousness but terrorism, whether it is sponsored by Pakistan or is home-grown, such as ultra-left Maoism. To counter this danger, the only option before the country, according to the BJP, is a display a muscular nationalism to scare away the traitors.

According to Subramanian Swamy, the maverick BJP MP, upholding patriotism and fighting corruption are the two sure-fire winners for the party. He doesn’t think that a focus on the economy will do the trick. Hence, his belief that the economic plans mentioned in the manifesto were “badly prepared”. There is no hint, as a result, on how the BJP will amass INR 25 lakh crore for the rural sector.
However, at the receiving end of the party’s macho nationalism is not only Pakistan and terrorism, but also Kashmir. The party intends, for instance, to “integrate” Kashmir more closely within the Indian Union by dispensing with the constitutional provisions which give the Muslim-majority state a special status via Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. Since the objective of the BJP (even from its forerunner Jan Sangh days) in the 1950s was to scrap such Articles, it cannot be argued that the reiteration of this message is a response to the present-day situation.
Instead, what can be said is that the BJP’s confidence that it is all set for a second term has made it present its hardline agenda with greater gusto than what it did in the earlier manifestos. 

This hawkishness is probably also intended to camouflage any reference to the party’s less than successful attempts to fulfil the electoral assurances of five years ago with regard to jobs and a buoyant economy. The tough outlook also fits in with the recent air strikes against “terror camps” in Pakistan and the successful testing of an anti-satellite missile, which underline the government’s muscular approach to national security, unlike that of its more cautious predecessor. What these postures and declarations emphasize is the stark difference between the BJP’s outlook in 2013-14, when the focus was on the economy, and the present patriotic/jingoistic attitude. It is also noteworthy that this preoccupation with nationalism has led the BJP to brand its opponents virtually as anti-nationals, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley describing the latter as a part of what has come to be known as the “tukde-tukde gang,” from alleged speeches about breaking India into pieces, allegedly given by leftist students at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2016.

Not surprisingly, Jaitley has accused the Congress of preparing the ground for the “balkanization” of India by calling for the dilution of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and abrogation of the colonial-era sedition laws. Both the AFSPA and the sedition laws are favoured by the BJP as safeguards against subversive elements.
Considering that the Congress had earlier resisted modifying the AFSPA with former Defence Minister A.K. Antony being among those who wanted it to continue as a means to immunise the armed forces from legal action in insurgency-hit areas, the party’s latest stance carries Rahul Gandhi’s liberal imprint, demonstrating that a new generation is taking charge.

Interestingly, Jaitley has juxtaposed the “tukde-tukde gang” with those in the opposition who harbour an “Ivy League mindset”. The reference presumably is to the reports that the NYAY has been vetted by distinguished academics like the Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, French economist Thomas Piketty, former Reserve Bank governor Raghuram Rajan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Abhijit Banerjee. The reference to the Ivy League harks back to a familiar BJP jibe about how different its ingrained nationalism is from the deracinated, cosmopolitan left liberals who supposedly look at India with the eyes of a foreigner.

While the BJP’s postures as the sole saviour of the country and Hindu culture have long been known, the Congress appears to have turned to its war-on-poverty agenda following realization that its earlier thrust on the Rafale aircraft purchase controversy was not creating much of a buzz. Hence, its apparent belief that bread and butter issues will have greater traction.
Although the BJP’s pitch for nationalism is aimed at the heart and can have considerable impact on the middle class, Rahul Gandhi’s NYAY deals with impoverishment which is expected to have a wider appeal. It is anybody’s guess which of the two marketing hypes will succeed.