New Delhi: The last two days will go down as a unique marker in the three-and-a-half years of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Until now, the establishment has displayed great speed in brushing aside all criticism against it irrespective of where it came from. Be it a series of brickbats it has had to face over demonetisation, increasing incidents of hate crimes under this government, partisan judicial appointments, or more recently, over its apparently hasty implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), the Modi government has refrained from responding to these concerns with even a semblance of transparency or accountability.
However, the alacrity with which the Bharatiya Janata Party machinery has responded to a scathing commentary on the Modi government’s economic performance, written by one of its own veteran leaders Yashwant Sinha, is a sign that all may not be well within the Sangh parivar.
The senior Sinha’s article has naturally come as a shot in the arm for opposition leaders who say that his criticism of the government has vindicated their own standpoint. However, what was more noteworthy was the way senior ministers like Ravi Shankar Prasad, Piyush Goyal, Rajnath Singh and many other national-level leaders of the saffron party rallied behind the government in the face of this sudden attack from one of their own.
Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, who was the primary target of Yashwant’s strident attack, went a step ahead and insinuated, in the style and fashion of Modi’s supporters on social media, that the 80-year-old politician was actually hankering for a job after having been denied a ministerial berth in the cabinet in 2014.
The first detailed rejoinder to the former Union finance minister’s critique came from none other than his son, Jayant Sinha, who in an earlier cabinet reshuffle was moved from the minister of state for finance portfolio to civil aviation. BJP-backed MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, too, put himself in the ring saying that the senior Sinha’s criticisms are “dictated by his antipathy to the government” and not sound economic thinking.
Although the junior Sinha has denied that the BJP machinery goaded him to write a response to his father’s criticisms and that he wrote his artucke out of his own free will, most political observers would agree that what now appears to be a father-son duel isn’t what it looks like from the periphery.
Crux of Yashwant Sinha’s criticism
Nothing that Yashwant wrote about was new. The criticisms he raised have been flagged by economists and opposition leaders. However, the crux of Sinha’s argument, while taking aim at Jaitley for allegedly messing up the economy, rested on three categorical points – demonetisation, which he called an “unmitigated economic disaster”, the flawed and hasty implementation of GST and the government’s lackadaisical attitude in bringing big loan defaulters to task or its failure to control the ever-escalating non-performing assets (NPAs) of banks.
Also read: Arun Jaitley May Be the Fall Guy, But Modi Is Truly to Blame for India’s Economic Slowdown
While he also touched upon various other problems like agrarian distress, a non-functioning manufacturing and construction sector and dwindling private (not foreign) investment, his main concerns were that of the crisis that the small and medium enterprises (SME) were facing at the moment because of these three reasons.
“The SME sector is suffering from an unprecedented existential crisis. The input tax credit demand under the GST is a whopping Rs 65,000 crore against a collection of Rs 95,000 crore. The government has asked the income tax department to chase those who have made large claims. Cash flow problems have already arisen for many companies specially in the SME sector. But this is the style of functioning of the finance ministry now,” he said.
He went on to say, “We protested against raid raj when we were in opposition. Today it has become the order of the day. Post demonetisation, the income tax department has been charged with the responsibility of investigating lakhs of cases involving the fate of millions of people. The Enforcement Directorate and the CBI also have their plates full. Instilling fear in the minds of the people is the name of the new game.”
In other words, Sinha articulated the current sentiments of that section of the Indian business community which forms the backbone of the SME sector. This community has always relied on cash flows, informal distribution and labour networks, and easy credit systems, all of which took a hit because of demonetisation and the hasty implementation of GST.
Interestingly, this community, which largely is composed of people belonging to the Hindu bania caste group, form the backbone of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Although the leadership of the RSS has historically been occupied by Brahmins from Maharashtra, the foot soldiers have always been the banias, who seem to have lost their grip on their regional economies in the past few months.
Political observers would agree that the senior Sinha’s criticisms represented a dominant view within the RSS. His point of view came at a time when RSS offshoots like the Bhartiya Majdoor Sangh, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and other trader organisations are also taking potshots at the government. “The RSS leadership is facing great resistance from the business community on issues of demonetisation and GST. It has also given clear signals to the BJP but the government has not moved on those fronts,” a mid-level RSS leader based in Indore told The Wire on the condition of anonymity.
“These policy decisions have brought several traditional business families on the verge of ruins. While this is the case, the sentiment that the Modi government is inclined to serving only the interests of big Indian corporates like Ambanis and Adanis has been growing among the small and medium businessmen. After all, the Modi government’s unilateral initiatives to formalise the economy give a clear edge to the big-moneyed capitalist class. Precisely for these reasons, our supporters have been asking us why there is no action against companies which have not paid back their loans or why this government has not acted against the names which appeared in the Panama papers,” the RSS leader added.
The failure or inability shown by the government to unearth black money from big corporates – which was one of the big promises this government made – has been the most common concern within the Indian business communities, the RSS leader said.
On the governance front, too, a BJP leader from the Barabanki unit of Uttar Pradesh told The Wire that the government has failed to crack down on corruption too. “When the Yogi (Adityanath) government came to power, the government officials cut down on their commissions out of fear but from the second month of this government, one has to bribe double the amount of money to get even a block-level work done. There is widespread resentment against the BJP governments both at the Centre and the state.” Incidentally, the leader also happens to be a trader operating in the grain market of his district.
In this context, the senior Sinha’s claim that his views articulate “the sentiments of a large number of people in the BJP and elsewhere who are not speaking up out of fear,” reflects the RSS’s way of responding to its supporters from within the business communities which have historically aligned themselves with the parivar.
Hindutva politics has, until now, kept the Sangh parivar united but a clear conflict of interest between the Modi government and the RSS on economic issues has foregrounded its fault lines. For the RSS to remain relevant on the ground, it has to articulate the interests of its foot soldiers. Sinha’s article did exactly the same.
But to read its impact beyond this may be misleading as the RSS has not initiated any full-scale resistance to the Modi government and does not plan to do so in the future. Why would Sinha take aim only at Jaitley, who is widely known to have never been in the good books of the RSS, and not prime minister Modi, who has been taking all the credit for the economic measures taken during the NDA regime?
Within the high-optics political strategy of the Sangh parivar, the senior Sinha’s opposition is, at best, an exercise to regulate equations between the BJP and the RSS at a time when the latter has been forced to appease its constituents. While doing so, however, the RSS has not only tried to insulate Modi from criticism as the 2019 election nears but also absorb similar resentment the opposition parties have been showing against the Union government.