Cover Story

In damage control mode

Print edition : October 27, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and BJP president Amit Shah. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

RSS sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat delivering his annual Vijayadasami speech in Nagpuron September 30. He criticised the policies of the Modi government and called for a course correction. Photo: S. Sudarshan

Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. Photo: PTI

BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. Both Yashwant Sinha and Subramanian Swamy have warned of an impending economic downturn. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

The looming economic crisis, a result of reckless policies, has rattled the BJP, which leads the government, and the larger Sangh Parivar.

“The invincibility mode in which Narendra Modi and his team were cruising is over. It has become imperative to take course-correction steps and implement them effectively.” This was the dominant refrain in an informal gathering of a group of Varanasi-based Sangh Parivar activists, mainly belonging to the parent outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and the Akhil Bhartiya Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh, the associate organisation of teachers, as they analysed the Vijayadasami speech of the RSS sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat. According to many of them, the tone and tenor of his speech was a clear extension of the warning notes that had been sounded at a coordination meeting of 40-odd Sangh Parivar outfits held at Mathura in early September. The RSS leadership reportedly warned the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to be wary of a repeat of the kind of electoral defeat suffered by the BJP-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004. While the Mathura meet, held inside closed doors, repeatedly flagged the experience the Vajpayee-led government went through in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections when its “India Shining” campaign collapsed into a shock electoral defeat, Bhagwat’s speech openly raised some specific issues where the RSS found the government’s performance wanting.

Bhagwat said that though the Modi government had taken some bold decisions to curb corruption and enhance speedy development, there was a much-felt need for an integrated and holistic policy which would take into consideration the diversity and various requirements of the nation. He pointed out that this holistic policy should address the needs of industry, trade, agriculture and the environment together and, at the same time, safeguard the interests of everyone, from big, medium and small industries to small retailers, farmers and landless labour. “The compulsion to move on with the currently accepted global policies and standards, even if they are faulty, artificial, create a mirage of prosperity and cause erosion of morality, the environment, employment and self-reliance, can be understood to a certain extent. However, it is also universally being recognised that all these policies and standards need a rethinking, and nation-specific unique models of development should evolve. Our NITI Aayog and economic advisers of the States will have to come out of the same old economic ‘isms’, and will have to integrate the most up-to-date economic experiences with the ground reality of our nation.”

Activists from other parts of the country too share the opinion of the Sangh Parivar activists of Varanasi that this direct reference to government policy and institutions such as NITI Aayog is exceptional. Traditionally, the Navaratri festivals have had great importance in the organisational scheme of things of the Sangh Parivar, especially in the RSS. The rituals and ceremonies, spread over nine days and nights at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, also mark a period of annual stocktaking for the organisation, with the proclamations of the sarsangchalak on the 10th—Vijayadasami— day charting pointers to the future course of action. The organisational evaluation covers diverse aspects of the functioning of Sangh Parivar outfits, including the performance of the governments run by the BJP, the outfit that involves directly in electoral politics. Similar assessments had taken place in the past three years of the Modi government too, but the kind of plain-speaking that Bhagwat did this year was not witnessed on earlier occasions.

The prevailing sense in the Sangh Parivar in the context of the speech and developments relating to it is that while the Modi-Amit Shah duo and the team led by them have done considerably well in terms of pushing the sociopolitical agenda of the Hindutva combine, especially at the level of polarising society on communal lines and marginalising minority communities, especially Muslims, its economic track record is not satisfactory, particularly in addressing the agrarian crisis, the plight of small and medium industries and the welfare of poor people generally. Sangh Parivar insiders also say that feedback received before the Mathura coordination meet had pointed to widespread popular resentment against the Modi government over its track record in economic affairs. The agrarian crisis was triggering rural unrest in almost all the States, and the BJP governments of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Haryana had received intelligence agencies’ warnings about this turning into a major law-and-order problem. These reports also indicated that the implementation of programmes such as Goods and Services Tax (GST) was alienating the traditional support bases of the BJP, including the Bania community of traders. The alienation, it was reported, was most intense among small and medium traders. This section had started stating openly that Modi and his associates were only interested in promoting the interests of big corporates owned by the Ambanis and the Adanis.

Alarming signals

While these reports for the coordination meet were sourced from across the country, the RSS top brass had apparently received specific inputs in the latter half of September from the three States—Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan— that will go to the polls in 2018. According to a Varanasi-based academic who works closely with the RSS, the reports from Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were nothing short of alarming. “Both the States had witnessed massive and aggressive farmer agitations that pressured the BJP State governments led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje respectively to concede many of their demands. Still, the farmers’ anger over policy issues persists.” He added that even in Gujarat, the situation was getting increasingly problematic though the “Gujarat Gaurav” (Gujarat pride) slogan, built around the personality of Modi and the prominence his rise in national politics had given to the people of Gujarat, was working to a large extent. Overall, the conviction of the BJP and Sangh Parivar leadership about getting an unbroken stint across all the States currently ruled by the BJP was getting undermined in a big way. It was in this context that Bhagwat’s speech pointed to the need for policy course correction. It was in the same context that the discussions on the speech within the Sangh Parivar acquired the “end of invincibility mode” slant.

Other insiders also pointed out that earlier too the RSS had issued warnings, but they were issued internally in the organisation and were not made public. A case in point of this sort of warning, said a Delhi-based RSS activist, was witnessed in April 2015, when a joint meeting of the top leadership of the RSS and the BJP was convened at the house of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari to give the message to the Cabinet leadership to initiate steps to dispel the impression among the public that Modi and his Cabinet were anti-farmer and anti-poor. “But now, the RSS’ assessment is that these initiatives and the course correction suggested then have not reflected in government programmes and policy.”

Interestingly, Bhagwat’s Vijayadasami speech was preceded by the criticism of two senior BJP leaders—former Union Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and former Minister of Commerce and Industry Subramanian Swamy—who also focussed primarily on the economic situation. Subramanian Swamy did not mince words when he said that the Indian economy was heading for a “major depression” and it could “crash” soon if efforts were not initiated to revive it. “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,” he said in an interview to a television channel recently.

He also said that India’s growth rate was much lower than what was being presented. “It is lower than what is being told to you, and it is going to decline, according to what I call Samuelson-Swamy theory of index numbers, which tells you how to calculate the correct index numbers.” Swamy went on to add that last May he had written a 16-page letter to the Prime Minister “with stats from his own departments to show that there are five storm signals”.

Yashwant Sinha’s views, expressed in an article in The Indian Express, had closer resonances with the points raised in Bhagwat’s speech, which came three days after the publication of the article. Sinha addressed diverse issues, including the crisis in the agricultural sector and in the small and medium enterprises (SME) and the virtual collapse of the manufacturing and construction sectors. In a focussed analysis of three key economic policy issues such as demonetisation, implementation of GST and the constantly escalating non-performing assets (NPAs) of banks, Sinha pointed out that it exposed the government’s lack of planning and faulty implementation, leading to “unmitigated economic disasters”.

There is a stream of opinion among observers and in sections of the political class, belonging to the BJP and non-BJP parties, that all these expressions of unease and the call for course correction will ultimately end in the removal of Arun Jaitley as Union Finance Minister. This stream of opinion holds that Jaitley will be made a scapegoat, with the blame for all the economic policy foibles foisted on him, and that Modi will be given a clean chit so that he can lead the party in the Assembly elections to be held in 2018 and the general elections in 2019 with a refurbished image. While this could well be true, the initial responses from the BJP to the criticisms of Sinha and Swamy have vociferously defended Jaitley’s and the government’s economic policy track record.

In many ways, this counter attack also marked a departure from the contemptuous nonchalance with which the Cabinet had treated criticism of government policy by the opposition and experts in different fields. This counter attack was mounted by initially fielding an array of BJP leaders, including senior Ministers like Rajnath Singh, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal. Yashwant Sinha’s son and Union Minister Jayant Sinha was also pushed into service. He sought to give point-by-point rebuttal to his father. Later, Jaitley himself launched a virulent personal attack on Yashwant Sinha, saying that he did not enjoy the privilege of being an ex-Finance Minister and accusing Sinha of harbouring a desire to replace him. Modi too joined the counter attack, saying that “some pessimists can get sleep at night only if they spread despair”. He claimed that the economy was on track and that the slump was only temporary.

Notwithstanding this collective defence, indications from the BJP are that systematic efforts to placate Bhagwat and other top brass of the Sangh Parivar are under way. One manifestation of such attempts is in the move initiated by BJP president Amit Shah to translate and publish Bhagwat’s speech as a booklet in various Indian languages. The booklet, apparently, would be distributed across all BJP units and studied as some kind of a primer.

At the political level, Shah has apparently contended before the Sangh Parivar top brass that the reverses caused by the economic policy issues can be overcome by weaning away more regional parties to the NDA fold, just as it was done with the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, and Narayan Rane in Maharashtra. Yet another contention from Shah was that noone in the opposition could still match Modi in terms of communication with the masses and that at the level of leadership too there was no alternative to Modi. The response of the RSS top brass to these arguments and proposals, say a number of Sangh Parivar insiders, have been positive, but the top brass has continued to insist on concrete course correction initiatives. Whether it would happen or not is a moot question. What form it would take even if it is done is also to be seen. Beyond all this rumination on the possible course of the BJP, the entire sequence of events has thrown up one discernible and unambiguous fact: that both the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar are displaying a sense of being rattled by the popular response to the economic crisis.

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