New Frontlines Before Elections Force Modi Govt to Be Answerable on Bread and Butter Issues

The Modi government would want to lead off into the general elections with a focus on the Mandir and other allied issues. After a ten-year stay at the wheels of power, could several states making a popular case about a Centre that does not hold have the potential to upset the Modi applecart?

Can the Karnataka state government’s ‘My Tax My Right’ protest against the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Centre on ‘fiscal injustice’ become the new frontline of the Opposition’s campaign? From the Northeast states, Bengal, Orissa on the east, all the way to the south and Maharashtra in the west, to Delhi, Punjab, Himachal in the north, in the run-up to the general elections a few months away?

Have the Opposition parties found a new narrative that goes beyond Ram Mandir, communalism vs secularism, patriotic jingoism, neo-nationalism and all other zealotry that has defined political discourse ever since the Modi government came to power? The last few days have seen a stunning turn of events triggered by a combative Karnataka Congress that is in power in the state, perhaps even to the surprise of the normally inhibited Congress leadership in Delhi, to march to the capital and stage a protest that has not just got the southern states together, but also the Modi government in a twist.

Take-off point

Here’s how the events took off: On February 1, after finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman presented the interim Budget, D.K. Suresh, the Congress MP from Bengaluru rural and brother of Karnataka deputy chief minister D.K. Shivakumar, lashed out at the Modi government when he said, “Injustice is being served to south India… funds that were supposed to reach the south are getting diverted and distributed to north India.” However, the clincher came when he said there was no other choice but to ask for a “separate country… as a result of the situation that Hindi region has imposed on south India”.

It set off cries of outrage and fury in the Modi establishment as leaders, MPs and the BJP troll army denounced Suresh as a secessionist and anti-national out to break the country into north and south. The Congress leadership went from first denouncing Suresh’s statement when party president Mallikarjuna Kharge said that anyone speaking of splitting the country will not be tolerated, to party spokespersons saying later that Suresh may have been inarticulate in wanting a separate country for the south but fiscal unfairness to the south was real. Meanwhile, Suresh clarified he’s a proud Indian but will continue to fight against injustice.

Barely a few days later, on February 6, the Karnataka government splashed full-page ads in national dailies for ‘Chalo Delhi’, asking people to march with chief minister Siddaramaiah, Shivakumar and all 147 MLAs “to protest against the financial atrocities by the Central government on Kannadigas and Karnataka”. The chief minister also invited BJP leaders, MPs and MLAs from the state saying the protest was “apolitical”, as it was about safeguarding the interests of the state.

Can Chalo Delhi become the new INDIA slogan, in more ways than one? While the Karnataka Congress’s boisterous protest in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar got the usually reluctant media to actually report and examine the allegations of fiscal unfairness, the Modi government too got into action – with both Sitharaman and Narendra Modi lambasting the Congress particularly in Parliament in the ongoing Budget session, accusing the party of propagating lies, and saying that it was a politically vitiated narrative of some vested interests. Sitharaman flatly said that no one can deny funds earmarked for states by the 15th Finance Commission as per its guidelines.

Modi was equally vehement when he slammed the Congress, saying in Parliament, “Divisive politics over government funds is dangerous. Our tax, our money, what kind of language is this? Stop searching for narratives to break the nation,” he said. Funny, but in the same speech, the prime minister recalled his time as chief minister of Gujarat to stress his commitment to federalism when he said he “understands regional aspirations”. Of course, he underlined the fact that the Congress-led UPA government at the time “tried its best to do injustice to Gujarat”. “I don’t cry over it,” he added.

States give back

Now what if regional chief ministers decided to clone chief minister Modi’s bold and unabashed bid as in 2014 as Vikas Purush or Development Man, of making brand Vibrant Gujarat go global even while stressing on Gujarat Asmita and pride? After all, it was a beleaguered chief minister then who had the ghost of Godhra and its murderous riots of 2002 follow him persistently, yet 12 years later, Modi has catapulted himself on centre stage after a year of a constant and an extravagant re-branding venture, from a regional, divisive leader to a decisive development man.

For instance, if Karnataka has to take a cue from Modi’s rebranding strategy, it only has to turn the Modi tactics on their head and focus on how the Centre is depriving an already developed state because of its discriminatory practices. The Siddaramaiah-Shivakumar duo has calculated a financial loss of an astounding Rs 1.87 lakh crore in the last five years because of the formula defined by the 15th Finance Commission, as the state gets a paltry Rs 13 for every Rs 100 it collects in tax.

In fact, it was Siddaramaiah who first raised the 15th Finance Commission’s “anomalies in federal fiscal transfers” when he spoke at a national seminar on fiscal federalism on January 20 this year, on the challenges before his government in sustaining an inclusive and balanced economic growth, in addition to budgetary implications of centrally-sponsored schemes.

“Karnataka has experienced the biggest cut among states,” said Siddaramaiah, “despite being the second highest tax paying state after Maharashtra, yet it does not get adequate reward for its contribution.”

Also read: ‘Fiscal Injustice’ Powers a New Axis of Protest Against Modi Govt

How about some Kannadiga Hemmeya or pride for India’s Silicon Valley’s hi-tech and start up glitz and geek squad who never tire of their newfound status as a proud Indian both at home and abroad? Techies and the cyber crew today believe the Indian passport carries pride and self-esteem, and rightly so, but pop neo-nationalism does not stop at wearing patriotism on the sleeve but pride in one’s state, region and distinct culture. If the citizens of the state capital have deplored the calamitous and crashing infrastructure because of poor, unplanned growth, even as concerned groups have raised alarm about the inequities in the rural areas, imagine the transformation and progress that can be waved in with due allotment to the state.

Forging a united fiscal front

If the run-up to the state assembly polls last year was defined by a divisive Hindu-Muslim campaign when a pliant media was agog with hijab bans in schools and colleges, ‘love jihad’ and Tipu Sultan, though it flopped at the polls; what if the Lok Sabha election campaign focused on a people’s movement, focusing on development and only development and making it a demand of the people, as economic and social progress, growth, revival and upliftment all depend on Central funds owed to the state?

The reverberations of the Karnataka protest are already being felt in other states – a day later, on February 8, Kerala led the protest in Jantar Mantar when chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan staged a similar protest saying the state had lost around Rs 57,000 crore because of the end of GST compensation, reduction in tax share and loan disallowance. Pinaryi Vijayan got Opposition leaders to share the protest stage with him: Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann from AAP; CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury; former J&K chief minister Farooq Abdulla; and D. Raja from the CPI. The DMK held a protest earlier in the day and Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin, a major detractor of Modi’s policies, expressed solidarity when he deputed cabinet colleague P.T. Rajan to the Kerala protest.

It was fairly noticeable that non-Congress Opposition leaders staged their protest on a separate day.

It must also be said here that the Kerala government had filed a suit in the Supreme Court on January 12, desperately seeking the urgent release of funds for employee wages, flood rehabilitation and development work. The attorney general representing the Modi government opposed the plea, saying, “Thirty-three states have no issues, just one state has all the issues.” The court has asked the Modi |government for a reply to the suit.

In Telangana, newly elected Congress chief minister Revanth Reddy in the assembly yesterday appealed to all MLAs including the Opposition to join hands together to protect the state’s interests by setting aside politics. Replying to a debate on the motion of thanks to the governor, Reddy said, “Telangana is not just geography but an emotion of four crore people.” The AIMIM was swift to extend support to the Congress government if minority rights were protected, said AIMIM leader in the assembly, Akbaruddin Owaisi.

So, how true are the allegations of discriminatory fiscal allotments by the Modi government to non-BJP ruled states?

First, states that have been complaining of fiscal discrimination by the Centre have clearly outlined that they have no grouse against poorer states getting more funds to meet their expenditure. All they are saying is to simply give them their dues and not penalise them for not being part of the BJP or its ally. Dues should be paid according to the 15th Finance Commission criteria (45% for income distance, 15% for population, 15% for area, 10% for forest and ecology, 12.5% for demographic performance and 2.5% for tax effort). Opposition parties have shown how the Centre has tied them in knots by penalising or simply not returning the funds due to them.

If Garvi Gujarat and Vikas Purush have given a fillip to regional players perhaps the fault lines today lie with Modi’s touted ‘Double Engine Sarkar’ slogan? After all, the prime minister along with a fawning media have promoted the electoral battle cry, ‘Vote Modi in the Centre and states, for development’. Or else perish.