April 28, 2007

BJP will be 'back in the office' ,French scholar


Aditi Phadnis / New Delhi April 29, 2007

Well-known French scholar, Christophe Jaffrelot, talks on the social and political churn in India.

What do you think is happening in India?

It depends which India you are talking about. The urban middle class is doing well but the gap between them and the rural poor is growing larger: This is a case of growth without development for almost two-thirds of India. Elections are taking place but there is a disturbing erosion of rule of law and freedom of expression in some parts of India. In Gujarat, for instance, a Bajrang Dal leader accused of rape and murder has given to himself the mission of “rescuing” Patel girls who have married Muslims or men from a lower caste. He and his boys do their job even when families of the girls have complained to the police and approached the judiciary.

Elsewhere, Hindu nationalism is usually back to a more moderate approach of politics, but secularism is certainly not what it used to be — not only in Gujarat where the plight of Muslims in the colonies where they have been housed after the 2002 riots is really disturbing, but also in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and most of the BJP-ruled states.

The rise of the lower castes is very significant in most of India, but the oppression of the Dalits has not receded, even in areas where their movement has some momentum. On the surface, India is more vibrant than ever, but this “shining” or “rising” India is not unidirectional.

But surely there are gaps in consensus, in the BJP, in the Congress…

On the BJP side, I do not view tensions between groups as really significant. There has always been a division of labour, the offering of a moderate face and a radical face. Maybe the division is for the good, on some tactical issues like Ayodhya. But they will continue to stick together.

On the UPA side, things may not be so different. The Communists have made a lot of fuss. But they are swallowing the rapprochement with the US and the policy of economic liberalisation. What is happening in West Bengal is very telling. The ruling Left is willing to accommodate the corporate sector at any cost and does not hesitate to repress demonstrators.

I would go one step further and ask: how different is the economic policy of the Communist-supported UPA government from that of the NDA in 1998-2004? In both cases, priority is given to the urban sector, whereas 60 per cent of India lives in the villages.

The State alone is in a position to develop agriculture — investments in irrigation are badly needed and India will not take off without a land reform. Also, the growing disparities between states can only be corrected by the State.

There are at least two Indias today: The West and the South on the one hand and the North and the East on the other hand. Who is going to bail out the other India? Not the corporate sector for sure!

What do you see in 2009?

Anti-incumbency has ruled every election in the last 15 years. From 1989, no outgoing PM has been voted back except Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999, and that specifically because of Kargil. Already, the Congress is losing ground in the states — the BJP or NDA coalition partners are ruling more states than the UPA and things may not improve till 2009.

The Congress has had two years to capture the mind of the voters. But they have shown they too believe in the trickle-down theory of its neo-liberal ideologues.

Inequalities have increased and the UPA may well be punished for that the same way as the NDA in 2004: even if the lower classes may have marginally benefited from the growth, it does not compare to the boom for the urban middle class. Incidentally, the new urban middle class doesn’t vote. They seem to think they can fix things bypassing the political process. It is as if democracy is not something to value any more, at least not as much as prosperity! The depoliticisation process is striking: “get rich” is the motto — India is going the American way (or for that matter the Chinese way!)

So what is the future you see for the BJP?

It may well be back in the office in two years. At the same time, it is difficult for the BJP to be in power! To govern means to make compromises, especially when you have to accommodate coalition partners, and the BJP will have to build alliances once again if it wants to win elections. In a way, it will be back to the contradictions of Vajpayee’s government: on the one hand, it will have to dilute its agenda by putting on the back burner issues such as Ayodhya, Article 370 and uniform civil code; on the other hand, it will have to resist pressures from the RSS, the VHP, the BMS, the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and all the other advocates of a staunch Hindutva.

Last but not the least, what is your assessment of India’s foreign policy?

There has been a major shift on that front during the last few years. Who could have imagined in 1990 that India would become the US’s other ally in Asia (along with Japan)? Not to say Israel? This shift has much to do with economic liberalisation: after all, the US has become the first investor in India and its first trading partner. But it owes a lot to the diaspora too, and, of course, to strategic considerations, as evident from the nuclear deal. Incidentally, such a shift, like liberalisation, has been achieved without any serious debates in Parliament beforehand.

India, because of its rise, will wield more weight in world affairs. But will it retain its distinctive voice? New Delhi may have to bow to Washington — vis-à-vis Iran, for instance. And it may not feel the urge to say anything different anyway! There was a time when India had a message of its own to the world —think of Nehru’s years — but no power to implement it; the country, today, has more power, but nothing different to say.

India is more and more obsessed with power, like the West. Paradoxically, the more it resembles the West — in terms of materialistic tendencies too — the more nationalistic it becomes! And after Hindu nationalism, economic nationalism is gaining momentum too! But such a paradox is quite normal. As I have shown in my work, nationalism is a reaction of emulation as well as stigmatisation of a so-called threatening Other.

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