Economy

Jaitley Should Tell Us What’s the Policy and What’s the Diversion

If meat export is the policy, is it a deliberate “policy diversion” on the part of senior BJP leaders to discredit our thriving meat industry with their innuendo and even outright suggestions that beef is being exported along with buffalo meat?

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Economist Jagdish Bhagwati during the inauguration of the Deepak and Neera Raj Center at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York on Monday. Credit: PTI

To Beef or Not to Beef, That is the Question: Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and economist Jagdish Bhagwati during the inauguration of the Deepak and Neera Raj Center at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York on Monday. Credit: PTI

Finance minister Arun Jaitley has suggested during his recent visit to New York that the brutal killing of Mohammed Akhlaq by a lynch mob in Dadri could damage India’s image globally. He also appealed to the people to “rise above such incidents” which can cause “policy diversion”.

It is not clear what sort of policy diversion Jaitley is talking about. Yes, the BJP’s politics around the “Pink Revolution” – a broad metaphor for the thriving meat industry in India – was quite visible during its 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, when Narendra Modi attacked the Congress for promoting meat exports. This by itself was a huge “policy diversion”. It was also an implicit attack on the meat industry, which had been thriving in recent years – including in a state like Gujarat.

The export industry, dominated by processed buffalo meat, called carabeef,  has been growing at an impressive 20-25% in recent years, when overall export growth collapsed in most sectors of the Indian economy. The meat export industry is powered by the small and medium enterprises (SME) sector and provides huge employment opportunities to Indians. In short, Indian meat export has emerged as an island of excellence, earning precious foreign exchange worth $5 billion-plus annually.  It must also be noted that the foundation of India’s successful meat export industry was laid during the earlier NDA regime under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Now, the Modi government’s decision to set up special labs to check export consignments of beef  will lead to a new form of inspector raj which the Sangh Parivar might even encourage. Over time this could end up stymieing the meat industry in India, currently among the three largest exporters in the world.

If meat export is the policy, one may ask Jaitley whether it is a deliberate “policy diversion” on the part of senior BJP leaders to discredit our thriving meat industry with their innuendo and even outright suggestions that the high growth in meat exports is because cows are being slaughtered and exported along with carabeef. Just as Mohammed Akhlaq was killed on suspicion that his refrigerator had cow meat, Union Agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh also fears cows are substituting for buffaloes in the slaughter house.  There seems to be a paranoia among Sangh Parivar members about the cow population in the country, which they believe is dwindling.

Even though the latest livestock census figures – released in September 2014 – tell us that the population of milch cows (and buffaloes) is actually increasing, Singh, has called a formal meeting of industry representatives to test the official hypothesis that the big surge in India’s meat exports is possibly because of cow slaughter on a large scale. Illegal cattle trade across the Bangladesh border is cited as proof of this.

Mohammed Akhlaq’s lynching is being seen by BJP leaders as mere collateral damage within the larger politics and economics of meat being consumed and exported on a big scale. No wonder, the agriculture minister didn’t say a word on the Dadri killings and remained focused on scrutinising India’s meat exports. His deputy, Sanjeev Balyan – one of those accused of involvement in the 2013 Muzzafarnagar riots – has also added fuel to fire by casting aspersions on the Kerala beef industry. Kerala is a majority beef-eating state and Balyan is seeing ghosts of slaughtered cows there. Mind you, Kerala is going to the polls next year and the BJP may be looking to build its anti-cow slaughter campaign early on in order to make inroads there.

The NDA is running a clever political campaign by not saying it is against the export of carabeef while at the same time seeking to stir the pot on the pretext of preventing cow slaughter. Maharashtra was the first experiment in this respect.

It is evident that such an innuendo-driven campaign targets the Muslim community, which dominates the meat industry, and helps polarise voters. So Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who wants to encourage SME exports and the employment they generate, is clearly going along with the Sangh agenda of creating roadblocks for the meat exporting industry. There is even talk of reviewing meat export licenses based on an informal inquiry conducted by various government arms.

In July 2014, the national spokesperson of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Prakash Sharma, told the Times of India, “India should be a milk selling country, not a meat exporting one. The government , one hopes, will gradually ban meat exports”.

So Jaitley must remember that such “policy diversions” are coming from within his own Parivar, even though he is at pains to suggest that everyone should rise above Akhlaq’s killing by not  politicising the matter. Exactly  the opposite is happening now  as the BJP seems to have chosen to freshly inject anti-cow slaughter politics into the campaign in Bihar to polarise votes along communal lines. Newspapers have reported that Baba Ramdev – a Yadav – and other leaders of the BJP will impress upon the Yadav community, traditionally cow herders, that cow protection will be a big item on the agenda if the NDA comes to power in Bihar. Modi speaks of development and “vikaswad” but other BJP leaders campaign around cow slaughter. One didn’t think such diversions of policy and politics would start so soon after Mohammed Akhlaq’s burial.