All manner of speculation has run its course since the ‘special session’ of Parliament to be held from September 18 was announced on August 31. There was talk of legislation such as the Women’s Reservation Bill being brought forward to “early elections”, even though there is no supportive logic to any of the reports in the media. Such is the shock and awe Prime Minister Narendra Modi evokes among his political and ideological opponents that imagination has been running riot. There is, of course, a reason for the worry lines in the anti-BJP camp. Modi has displayed a capacity for springing surprises like demonetisation and passage of bills scrapping the application of Article 370 to Jammu and Kashmir, and the opposition is wary of more such ‘surgical strikes’ with state and Lok Sabha polls round the corner. Yet, a meeting of opposition leaders had very little to go on besides criticising the government for keeping the agenda shrouded in secrecy. There have been special sessions in the past as when India completed 50 years of independence in 1997 when the Vajpayee government was in office and social and developmental goals were discussed with a surprising lack of partisanship. Since the countdown for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls is ticking fast, there is a sense of anticipation and trepidation in the ranks of political parties and commentators. Given the hard-nosed pragmatic approach of the current BJP leadership, the session is unlikely to be just a talking shop. There is strong speculation that certain important and pending legislative measures might be taken up with the intent to get things rolling without waiting for the Winter Session of Parliament in late November. As there is no confirmation about the agenda, the political currents are providing more food for thought. With dissensions within the newly formed INDIA alliance generating more news than any purposeful move to take on the government, the special session can be expected to bring the alliance constituents together in opposing the treasury benches. Yet, from BJP’s point of view, this is not altogether a bad thing. BJP has argued that opposition to Modi is the only glue that binds the alliance and the discontented are joining hands to retard the nation’s progress. This echoes the prime minister’s remarks in Parliament that one person had prevailed over many. Elsewhere he has described the opposition leaders as “angry parivarwadis (dynasts)”. This space needs more watching.
Lack of political consensus has not deterred the government from pushing the envelope on “one nation, one poll”. It is evident that legislation seeking to synchronise national and state elections is not going to come ahead of the next Lok Sabha polls given varying opinions on the matter. The BJP brass would also think carefully before investing time and political capital when its priorities have to be identified as the polls approach. Yet, the discussion provides an opportunity for a debate on waste of resources and the “revdi (freebie)” culture that grips political parties due to frequent elections. Prime Minister Modi has been steadfast in his distinction between welfare and freebies, a point he reiterated in a recent interview to news agency PTI ahead of the G20 summit. This is a difficult discussion as purportedly opposing giveaways like free power or unemployment allowances can be unpopular. Arguing that such measures in fact harm the poor is a tough task and the ONOP debate helps BJP make its point.
Maratha Quota Storm
The demand for a quota for the Maratha community continues to roil Maharashtra politics, the latest spark being the lathi-charge on a restive mob in Jalna. The protests against the lathi-charge have drawn a mixed response but the BJP-Shiv Sena-Ajit Pawar NCP government finds itself under fire. The quota demand was a hot potato when the BJP-Sena government was in office and proved a headache for MVA, too. The problem is that the quota proposal is well and truly grounded in the Supreme Court’s 2023 refusal to review its order that reservation for the community is unconstitutional. The court has held that there is no case for exceeding the 50 per cent limit for the Maratha quota. The fact remains that Marathas are a dominant community with strong political representation. They have on the whole done well as agriculturists and benefitted from the state’s cooperative networks. Yet, like the demands for Jat and Gujjar reservation, the quota call is hard for the state’s political parties to ignore given the community’s clout although such concessions can anger other communities. The state government has called a meeting of a sub-committee set up to examine the thorny matter but it is unlikely that there will be any fresh traction on the subject.
Nitish’s Lonely Corner
Reports of moves to spike Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar being named as convenor of the opposition alliance should not be a surprise to the JD(U) leader. Kumar has a long experience in working with various opposition alliance leaders and should have known that naming a ‘convenor’ might be read as a possible claimant for the top job. As things stand, Kumar has found himself sidelined by Congress leaders who did not heed his misgivings about naming the opposition alliance INDIA and finds himself buffeted by strong-willed regional chieftains as well. His claim to being a wise and senior politician is not being given the due that might be expected. During his alliances with BJP, Kumar was given an importance that many in the saffron party felt was much more than his right as a partner. While it is true that Kumar helped in providing BJP support of the crucial OBCs in a caste-conscious state, he failed to accept the rise of Modi’s standing post-2014. Several grudges, real and imagined, led him to snap ties with NDA but he now seems to be finding out that the grass on the other side is not much greener.
Congress’ Sanatani Dilemma
The ideological moorings of parties like DMK might explain the party scion Udhayanidhi Stalin’s comments on Sanatan Dharma (though there is no excuse for arrogance) but Congress’ confusion over the subject is revealing. For a party that has accommodated many strands of Hindu political thought it has become more susceptible to fringe interpretations. Party chief Mallikarjun Kharge’s son Priyank, a minister in the Karnataka government and a leader who is fast earning a reputation for speaking first and thinking later, seemed to support the DMK leader by remarking that any religion that does not give equal rights or does not ensure the dignity of human beings is not a religion. The depiction of Sanatan Dharma as a casteist “savarna (upper caste)” creed might suit caste campaigners and activists or the Left, but even anti-Hindutva mascots like Lalu Prasad and the late Mulayam Singh did not cross a certain line wary of the appeal of faith in most sections of society. Despite its occasional lurches towards religious identity politics when its top leaders go on temple runs, Congress is in danger of being seriously adrift of Hindu sensibilities.