By promising, in response to a query in London, that the law will not spare those disturbing social harmony in the land of the Buddha and Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken much of the sting out of the complaints of those protesting against the supposedly prevailing “intolerance”.
The heightened prospects of economic cooperation with Britain are also likely to dispel some of the doom and gloom enveloping the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after the Bihar debacle.
On both these counts, which have been worrying a section of the intelligentsia as well as Modi’s pro-development supporters inside and outside the saffron camp, the prime minister and his party can be said to have retrieved some of the lost ground after Bihar.
But whether these latest developments will take the wind out of the sails of the party elders who have suddenly raised the banner of revolt is unclear since there is some substance in their accusation that the party is run by a Gang of Two, comprising Modi and his Man Friday, Amit Shah, the BJP president.
The veterans, or the old fogeys, as they might be called behind their backs, are also unlikely to give up their quest for seeking accountability for the Bihar defeat, which is another way to nail the Gang of Two for treating the party as their personal fiefdom.
It is too early to say, therefore, that Modi’s troubles are over if only because the BJP’s present-day leaders at the helm cannot afford to dismiss the grouses of the party’s senior citizens as a “manufactured” rebellion, as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley described the decision of a section of the writers, historians, scientists, film-makers and others to return their awards in protest against the climate of “intolerance”.
The voluble disdain which the party felt for the “Nehruvian” and “Leftist” intellectuals , to quote the finance minister again, was accompanied by silent disapproval of the “brain dead” golden oldies, as Yashwant Sinha said was the Modi-Shah duo’s attitude towards those in the 70-plus age group.
Following a brief promise to listen to the complaints of the elders, the duo took a step backwards and deputed union minister Nitin Gadkari to tell the critics that they are embarrassing the party.
The battle, therefore, has been joined between those below and above 70. Which side will emerge victorious will depend, first, on whether Modi and Co. can win a major election, say, in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 – next year’s elections in Assam, Kerala, Puduchery, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are in states where the BJP doesn’t have much influence – and, secondly, on whether there is a perceptive improvement in the economic situation.
It is with the latter objective in mind that the government has gone in for what can be called small bang reforms on foreign investment. But these take time to bear fruit.
Of greater urgency for the government is to keep the prime minister’s London promise to crack down on the wild-eyed saffron militants who have been killing rationalists and beef-eaters.
The result has been that regional leaders promising to eradicate corruption and pursuing their own model of growth in an atmosphere of communal harmony have won two assembly elections in a row.
The reason why Jaitley earlier and Gadkari later have been erecting a protective ring around the Nos.1 and 2 in the BJP is easy to see. As in any other party, interwoven links of patronage and privilege tie the denizens of the corridors of power with those just outside.
To be fair, the BJP is not the only party which tends to be impervious to criticism. The Congress, for instance, enacted the farce of its Nos.1 and 2 offering to resign after the party was humbled in the 2014 parliamentary polls and were urged to stay on by their loyal courtiers.
That there is an element of jealousy in the revolt of the sidelined elders is undeniable. While L.K. Advani had resolutely opposed Modi’s elevation till he realized that he was fighting a losing battle, others like Murli Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha were disappointed at not being accommodated in the cabinet. There is little doubt that they were waiting for an opportunity to strike back.
It is not clear, however, whether the veterans are as distressed by the antics of the Hindu Right as, say, the secular camp. After all, as home minister, Advani had casually brushed aside any suggestions about the Bajrang Dal being involved in the arson attack on the Christian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two sons in an Odisha village in 1999 while the then human resource development minister Joshi, and defence minister George Fernandes, described the grisly deaths as the result of an “international conspiracy”. The views of Arun Shourie, now a regular critic of the government, were similar.
Joshi’s other claim to fame is that he was Smriti Irani’s predecessor in the task of saffronizing education and in proclaiming that foreign investment was tantamount to “looting”.
Since personal pique rather than any ideological difference is behind the stirrings among the mothballed elders, who do not seem to have anything substantial in the way of policies to offer, Modi still holds the upper hand. He now needs a few victories to maintain his lead.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)