The use of Article 356 was almost erased from our collective political memory. All the unsavoury institutional memories of a distant past are now being revived with a vengeance by a floundering regime.
On the face of it, it is hard to fathom why the Centre would commit political harakiri by imposing President’s rule in Uttarakhand, which is due for assembly elections early next year. Couldn’t the BJP have waited another 10 months and worked on the anti-incumbency sentiments generated by the Congress government headed by Harish Rawat? Conventional political strategists would have advised that imposing Article 356 would work against the BJP and generate sympathy for the incumbent — which may now turn out to be the case.
Yet the BJP has decided to take that political risk by dismissing an elected government, the way it did in Arunachal Pradesh. Of course, in both cases the Congress showed its weakness by not being able to manage rebels within its ranks. It appears that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP party president Amit Shah have adopted a conscious and cynical strategy of wreaking havoc on a regular basis in the main opposition camp, even if it flies in the face of constitutional propriety. In a way, both of them are thinking in unconventional terms that do not fall into the pattern of received political wisdom.
The BJP seems confident that it can constantly change goalposts and control the political narrative. The party seems emboldened in this respect by its own assessment that it has gained from recent debate generated on the nature of nationalism India must adopt. Of course, all such political assessments will have to be validated by about half a dozen state elections over the next one year, culminating in the all important Uttar Pradesh polls. The trend so far is that the BJP is losing, on average, about 5 percentage points from its Lok Sabha vote share in every state election since.
It is possible that the BJP leadership has internalised this reality and is attempting something wildly different, not hitherto attempted in Indian politics. It appears to have decided that it will play totally disruptive politics on the ground, even if it militates against constitutional morality. There is a clear pattern emerging in the way the Centre has dealt with Arunachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand. In both places, the Centre had the option of letting a conventional floor test happen to decide the majority in the assembly. But it chose not to do so, on one pretext or other. In the process, the Centre is also seriously damaging institutional processes. This is the biggest danger our polity faces today.
In this sense, what happened in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand goes well beyond a mere power struggle between the two main political parties. Important institutions are being subverted in the cause of wanton political disruption by the current dispensation. The raid on Delhi Chief Minister Kejriwal’s office must also be seen in this light; it was not just a simple case of the CBI investigating a chief secretary. Whatever happened to that case? The ways in which the BJP works could possibly put Machiavelli to shame.
To witness piety as an afterthought, you only have to hear the narrative of BJP General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargia who was assigned the task of talking to nine Congress rebels in Uttarakhand. He told The Indian Express a few days ago, “I was told by the party to go to Uttarakhand and analyse the political situation there. Some people who wanted the state government to fall approached us and said that they wanted to join the BJP. They gave me documents which showed what the present government is doing there. The forest mafia, land mafia, mining mafia and alcohol mafia, they are all active in the state, and these people approached me with proof of this. So we reached an agreement that during the last session of the Vidhan Sabha, when a money Bill would be taken up, we would demand a floor test, and if they (the Congress rebels) voted in our favour, then the government would collapse.” Have you ever heard of such ‘transparent’ and ‘principled’ deals taking place in politics? Vijayvargia wants us to believe the Congress rebels just walked over because the BJP offered them an opportunity for principled politics!
Truth is it was the BJP’s political machinations which forced the Congress chief minister to “buy back” his own rebels, and he was allegedly caught on camera doing so. It is quite evident that the Congress party is nowhere as efficient or competent as the BJP in dealing with such situations. Moreover, there is hardly any scope for display of morality in such cynical times. Ironically, Kailash Vijayvargia, who was incharge of Uttarakhand operations and spoke of the forest and mining mafia in Uttarakhand, himself comes from Madhya Pradesh where the higher education and public recruitment mafia are still at large in a post-Vyapam scam scenario.
Currently, the BJP is focusing on destabilising the Congress governments. It has also tried to disrupt other opposition governments who have displayed a mind of their own. Barely six months into power at the centre, the BJP made a serious attempt to stoke rebellion in the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) ranks in Orissa. And this after Naveen Patnaik had won unprecedented victories in both Lok Sabha and assembly elections. The BJD legislators closed ranks behind the chief minister.
In another instance, fresh from the Lok Sabha victory, Amit Shah had publicly declared he would throw Mamata Banerjee out of power. However, Mamata further consolidated her votes in local body and panchayat elections last year. In most states, including in Uttarakhand, the non-BJP parties have consolidated votes in local elections over the past year.
This is the main cause of BJP’s frustration. It cannot accept that the party’s vote share had peaked in 2014 and its decline is inevitable. Its economic performance has been below par and most of its big promises in regard to job creation and higher incomes for farmers, among others, are still far from being met. The overall economy too hasn’t taken off yet. Signs are it will remain tepid for another year. It is these circumstances which seem to be driving the ruling party into taking precipitate and risky actions like dismissal of elected governments on one pretext or the other.
Simultaneously, the attempt to force a change in the political discourse via debates on nationalism exposes a weakness rather than strength. There is no evidence yet that the BJP’s narrow nationalism campaign will impress the alienated Dalits and middle peasants of rural India, some of whom voted for Modi in 2014. Even as the ruling party goes about its motion of attempting some wild political experiments, the gravest risk is to established institutions of our federal polity which the opposition and civil society must protect from being damaged. The use of Article 356 was almost erased from our collective political memory. All the unsavoury institutional memories of a distant past are now being revived with a vengeance by a floundering regime.