Are senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, feeling that the oft-used public but notional political barometer, hawa, is not blowing as favourably for them as it was a few months ago, in January 2023 to be specific?
Back then, there was virtual unanimity that the 2024 Lok Sabha election was a ‘done deal’. Because of the resulting confidence, most matters ran on auto-pilot mode except when various investigative agencies turned their glare on political adversaries.
In contrast, efforts over the past few weeks became hands-on. A series of knee-jerk or hastily conceived actions and reactions over several weeks, culminating in the hastily drafted and passed Women’s Reservation Bill under a Hindi name, is evidence of this.
Despite available ‘empirical’ data from surveys, commissioned by media organisations, suggesting little change from the ‘mood’ in January, these actions over the recent weeks were strikingly dissimilar from the steps smacking of political vendetta (such as the unsuccessful bid to disqualify Rahul Gandhi from parliament and elections). It added credence to the question posed at the outset.
The emphasis during this phase has been on springing surprises. On August 31, the Special Session was dramatically convened. It met the immediate objective – speculations began over reasons for convening such a session barely 20 days after the Monsoon Session concluded.
The uppermost thought was simple: Was Modi calling an early poll?
Theories floated as no agenda for the session was officially listed. The government gave out little information, limited to the dates.
Union parliamentary affairs minister Pralhad Joshi’s opaque announcement on X (formerly Twitter) enhanced suspense: “Amid Amrit Kaal looking forward to have fruitful discussions and debate in Parliament.” Most concluded that probably Joshi, too, was unaware of what was to be ‘discussed and debated’.
Credence to this was added when on the eve of the session, another minister, Prahlad Patel, deleted his tweet stating that the Cabinet had cleared the Women’s Reservations Bill and congratulated Modi for this. Many even concluded that probably Modi, too, was making up his mind.
The anxiety of people over what he was planning was typically a ‘Modisque’ act: Occupy everyone’s mind space and force them to discuss him and his plans without knowing what they were. Modi likes nothing better than being the centre of the universe is a truism.
However, when it transpired that even the majority within the BJP and perhaps even the council of ministers were clueless, it became clear that the final call was yet to be taken. In all probability, options were weighed in for several days between the Session being convened and its actual beginning.
This has provided an indication of the growing assessment within the regime that Modi’s popularity and the parroting of so-called welfarism would not suffice. The two prongs require bolstering but not just by the time-tested Hindutva chorus, although efforts were made for this.
Eventually, two forgotten rabbits were pulled out from the hat: The first being the Women’s Quota Bill, which had remained confined to the BJP’s 2014 and 2019 manifestos for the past nine years. After its passage, the BJP is now going around showcasing it as a major victory.
But this is a hollow claim as actual reservations for women remain a distanced half-possibility. Moreover, the opposition, especially the INDIA parties, have smartly backed the Bill.
The second issue was another that was patronised for long by the BJP – simultaneous polls. A day after the Special Session was convened, the government let it be known that a committee was being established to recommend ways to transit to simultaneous polls, rhetorically called ‘One Nation, One Poll’.
This too had been last heard of in June 2019 at an all-party meeting. Thereafter, there was absolutely no mention till a day after the Special Session was convened.
Again, the lack of details triggered speculations – would the government attempt to bring Bills whose passage will ensure simultaneous polls along with the parliamentary poll due in 2024? For a day and a half there was no further information on its composition and terms of reference save that former President Ram Nath Kovind would head it.
It emerged later that moves were afoot since June. But, like most crucial matters, total secrecy was the mantra.
A chaotic act of a worried leadership
Two plus two is not always four. On occasions when assessing moves of secretive regimes, the twos are often read as twenty-two. Conclusions were swiftly drawn. Discussions on the agenda of the Special Session swung from one probability to another, from the Women’s Reservation Bill to the legislative package for One Nation, One Poll and so on.
Eventually, the government came out with a ‘tentative’ agenda. It included neither issue on which there were speculations. The list, however, included the law that would further weaken the hollowed-out Election Commission – the Bill to regulate the appointment process for the chief election commissioner and the election commissioners, for instance.
But even this was eventually not brought during the Special Session which was also shortened by a day. This only proves that there was little planning into convening it, but was just a chaotic act of a worried leadership.
The notification for the Special Session, it may be recalled, was issued on the eve of the weekend when opposition leaders were gathering in Mumbai for the third meeting of what had by then acquired the acronym of INDIA.
Media organisations had drawn plans to report and comment on the developments, outcomes, and emerging political drift.
All plans were forcibly altered, if not shelved. Eventually, multiple objectives were met – the Mumbai meet did not receive the kind of coverage it would have otherwise got. Modi and his intended moves were the only issues that got written about and discussed, on TV and among people.
This was the second time after the Opposition’s Bengaluru meeting that team Modi scheduled another ‘event’; in that case a resurrection of the NDA which met for the first time after the 2019 verdict. There was a third occasion too – when the first INDIA coordination panel was virtually blanked out by Modi’s visit to the BJP office to receive accolades for the ‘successful’ hosting of the G20 Summit.
Importantly, the BJP was forced to revive its alliance because now the bigger party ‘requires’ the smaller ones, not the other way around as Modi theorised once while stating that parties struck alliances with the bigger parties to improve ‘winnability’.
Weeks before, violence had erupted in Nuh, a district in the BJP-governed Haryana, and people had lined up against one another on the basis of religious identity, adding to similar happenings since May, courtesy of the Manipur mayhem. Another round of provocation in Nuh was quelled in August-end, demonstrating riots occur only when the government does not act to prevent them.
Days before the G20 Summit, another distraction was introduced in the discourse: Bharat becoming the preferred country name. More grist to the gossip mills – as President Droupadi Murmu’s dinner invitation, Modi’s tour itinerary for the 20th ASEAN-India Summit as the Prime Minister of Bharat, and finally the nameplate in front of him during the New Delhi Summit – seen by many as portent of formal alteration.
Significantly, the Union government turned down a requisition to rename India as Bharat in 2014-15 when petitioned by an individual. It did not alter its stance even when the matter went up to the Supreme Court.
Obviously, the opposition’s smart nomenclature has disturbed Modi. The alliance has to be dissed, but how can he refer to the alliance as INDIA? As a result, two words were added to the political vocabulary – INDI Alliance and ghamandia. The Bard was obviously wrong – names are important.
Somewhere in the middle of these fresh openings, the BJP-Modi combine was handed another playing card – Sanatan Dharma. Misquoting or distorting words of the tallest of nationalist icons – Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, even while glossing over arguments of their icons – V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar – is unsurprising.
Although the Sanatanis, despite their numerical strength, are not the only Hindus, and even people believing in the so-called Indic (do not ask if this word does not have similarities with India) religions do not owe allegiance to this sect. However, the BJP is showcasing all Hindus as Sanatanis and the INDIA alliance as anti-Hindu. Is this not a familiar ploy?
Obviously, much water has flown down various Indian/Bharatiya rivers since January. There are multiple causes behind Modi encountering an awkward terrain and calls for a different probe.
But, it is important to recognise the resulting anxiety that has pushed Modi to recklessly strap up issues with the forbidding potential of acting as flashpoints and reopening fissures on lines of religion, region, and language.
His worries may eventually be transitory or even illusory, and Modi could well overcome the challenge and assuredly head into the elections.
But, it is important to find the rationale behind new tricks being revealed one after another and examine if this is an indication of an opportunity for the Opposition.
Questions must also be asked – the most important being an elementary one: What was so ‘special’ about the truncated Parliament Session? And, will there now be a Winter Session at all?
The writer’s latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin