Several years ago, director Ram Gopal Varma wrote a candid post in the aftermath of ‘Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag,’ a remake of the classic Sholay. Aag was an epic disaster. In a rare admission, RGV blogged about how he reinterpreted individual moments of the original film and people around him reacted enthusiastically. For instance, RGV said what if we change ‘Kitne Aadmi the’ to ‘Kitne?’ and the room burst into praise. From there, the director kept on improvising moments of the legendary film, but lost the plot and emotional core of the original movie.
According to his post: “The most dangerous thing a filmmaker can be subjected to … is to be surrounded by people who will not tell him the truth or lie to him. Not necessarily by intention to harm him but it could just be to please him or are scared of him or psyched by him or in cases they take it for granted that the filmmaker knows what he is doing.”
The reason i mention this incident is that political leaders face the same risk. Of yes-men surrounding the leader and not alerting them to the truth or what could go wrong. The reason for hiding the truth could be many, sucking up to the leader is just one of them. Fear, belief in the leader’s vision and not wanting to dampen the enthusiasm are others.
The current leadership too, does not seem immune to the yes-men culture. Four major decisions taken by this government – demonetisation, GST implementation, repeal of Article 370 and now the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, have all had issues after their announcements. Demonetisation didn’t give the intended benefits and caused an economic slowdown we are still reeling from today. GST implementation was clunky and there is still a lot of complexity in a reform meant to make things simple. Repeal of Article 370 was followed by internet shutdown in Kashmir, which continue until this day implying things are not normal, months after the change.
The latest one, CAA, has also had an adverse reaction, including nationwide student protests that the government probably didn’t anticipate. In a rare situation, opposition to the law is coming from two different quarters. The first, are Assamese people and north-easterners who don’t want any immigrants at all. The second set don’t want CAA to discriminate on the basis of religion. It does seem that CAA needed better timing, much better wording, a long period of public consultations to build consensus and frankly, better intentions.
The government is touting the law as a compassionate measure to help persecuted refugees. However, it seems to have been done to manage the north-east’s demographics and politics. These areas see an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants, both Hindu and Muslim. Hindus vote BJP, Muslims don’t. So keeping immigrant Hindus around must have seemed like a great idea, in terms of a solid vote bank as well as signalling to the broader BJP vote base nationwide.
Of course, Assamese people don’t want either Hindus or Muslims from Bangladesh. Neither did the move win that many brownie points in BJP’s core base. But it did cause enormous PR damage, especially due to images of crackdowns on student protests. Videos of the Jamia protests alone went viral worldwide, bringing shame to our country. We wait and see where the government will go with CAA. At present, apart from a face saving and ego preserving exercise, keeping the act doesn’t seem worth it.
The bigger issue is that such blowups seem to happen at regular intervals with BJP. Leave aside the morality of constantly stirring the Hindu-Muslim pot, which is never a good idea in a country like India anyway. Even if one were to accept BJP’s mandate of favouring Hindus to keep their base happy, CAA seemed a major miss in terms of timing, wording and the intended benefits versus the risks.
Timing wise, from BJP’s perspective, Hindu-Muslim issues should be dealt with infrequently, perhaps once every two years. But BJP just did Article 370 in August. Then the Ram Mandir judgment came in favour of Hindus a month ago. Was it really necessary to shove another one down Muslim throats? Is that the deal BJP has with its base? Every week is insult-a-Muslim week? The reason why CAA saw a disproportionate reaction is because the Muslims are getting pushed to the wall, with one decision after another in quick succession.
Does BJP not realise the economy is seeing the slowest growth in the past six years (or ever since they came to power)? Do they not know that constantly stirring the Hindu-Muslim pot, apart from being abhorrent, is also going to have a bad effect on investor sentiment and therefore our growth? Do they not realise that the headlines we want right now are about our economic recovery, and not videos of female students in hijab in a face-off with baton wielding cops?
The fact that many major decisions of the government have had poor fallouts, indicates that something is not right about the decision making process inside it. Yes-men surround the leadership. Sane voices, talented individuals and people with independent opinions are not encouraged. Given that BJP kept winning politically, changing this culture is extraordinarily hard. However, if it doesn’t change, we will continue to have such situations as today until one day, we have another policy that’s the equivalent of RGV Ki Aag. Or worse still, just aag hi aag on the streets.