On October 12, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman made several announcements meant to boost the economy. One of the schemes allowed government employees to avail cash vouchers for LTC if they can’t travel due to the pandemic. Other announcements included long term interest free loans to Northeast states.
The impact of the announcements will be moderate, but they signalled something positive. The October announcements showed the government’s cognisance of the economic distress caused by Covid, and its attempts to come up with innovative schemes to boost consumption. The government deserved praise for it. It also needed to be encouraged to keep moving in that direction.
However, right around the time another controversy blew up, which overshadowed these economy boosting announcements. It was regarding a Tanishq jewellery advertisement, which showed a Hindu bride in a loving Muslim household. There was no problem with the advertisement, which in fact was a sweet representation of national harmony. However, far right activists on Twitter blew up the issue, calling it love jihad.
They cursed Tanishq, the ad and company employees. Ironically, these activists said it would be OK if the girl was Muslim and the boy was Hindu, thereby demonstrating a combination of bigotry and patriarchy at the same time. The company withdrew the ad and issued a semi-apologetic statement. While it was unnecessary, perhaps the company felt the withdrawal was needed to keep their showrooms with their expensive inventory safe.
The issue is that the Tanishq controversy trended for days, overshadowing all the wonderful announcements on the economy. This has happened before too. The hard right, while extraordinarily loyal to the BJP, is managing to destroy the legacy of this government.
While we keep urging the government to take more steps towards economic reform, we hardly acknowledge it when they do so. Too many times, news headlines have been dominated by hard right agendas, which basically involve: (a) showing Muslims are somehow bad/ to blame/ caused some problem; or (b) some rigid, regressive, conservative Hindu moral code of the past needs to be applied to Indian society; or (c) a sense of natural Hindu entitlement in India.
Sure, these issues make for far more entertaining, sensational TV than boring economic announcements. However, if this becomes the norm, it risks destroying the current government’s legacy. For legacy is what it is all about. How would this government like to be remembered? For putting India ahead economically, or for serving the hard right agenda?
If you see the attempts of the government over the past year – the May 2020 economic stimulus package, the farmer bills, labour law reforms, October 2020 announcements and this month’s stimulus package – there is definitely an intention to work towards a stronger economy. However, almost every week, a hard right agenda item comes and dominates headlines. This takes attention away from real issues, gets India horrible international press, makes businesses nervous and most of all – damages the legacy of the government.
How can the government fix this? For this same hard right is the most passionate supporter of this government. The hard right is part of BJP’s base. Some of BJP’s agenda items overlap with the hard right. Article 370 revocation and the Ayodhya temple are prime examples. However, these issues had millions of centre-right supporters too.
The problem is, ever since the government acted on some of these issues, the hard right is getting harder. They are noisy and unruly. They want permanent conflict, frequent bashing of Muslims and frankly things that truly harm India’s growth prospects. They want a return to some semi-imagined historical Hindu state, which is a practical impossibility. Attempts to set up one will only create more strife and disharmony, and come with terrible economic consequences.
The issue isn’t a right wing agenda. Clearly, a lot of Indians are OK with right wing policies, and that is why they have elected this government twice. However, the issue is the ‘hard right and getting harder’ agenda. Most Indians aren’t hard right. Most Indians want to make money and have a good life. They want a good economy. Most Indian Hindus also don’t want to fight Muslims on a constant basis.
The challenge for the government, if it wishes to protect its legacy, is to tame this hard right. It is like the drunk uncle at a marriage party who creates a scene, but can’t be thrown out as he paid for part of the wedding.
The only thing the government can do is to channel the hard right in the ‘right’ direction. It can educate them that the only way their India will be great is if it’s rich, which will require social harmony. It can redefine what it means to be a great India – doubling our per capita GDP, for instance, rather than a reversion to a historical society.
The current government’s strategy seems to be to ignore the really extreme right wing elements, thus denying them credibility. No senior government leader commented on the Tanishq ad, for instance. However, sheer indifference is not enough. The government will have to take active steps to channel the hard right in the correct direction.
Like the hard left, the hard right exists and manages to make a lot of noise. However, at some point, both the hard left and hard right risk damaging governance. Any party in power has the responsibility to check its extreme elements, while somehow not upsetting their base. BJP needs to do it, as it risks spoiling its legacy despite all the good work.