Monday 25 January 2016

BJP’s forgotten truth: Perception trumps reality (Sunday Guardian)

It is a wonder that Bollywood has yet to wake up to the star in its midst. The Hyderabad University ABVP student, who initiated a series of complaints which finally claimed the life of Rohith Vemula spoke about a gang of thirty students from a rival student body “assaulting” him. Only in the movies can an individual escape with so little visible damage from an attack by such a number. He further claims that the five students whom an obliging Vice-Chancellor expelled from the university also “attacked” him mercilessly. Looking at this physically unimpressive but apparent superman in our midst, it is a bit difficult to believe that both attacks — assuming they took place — were anything other than verbal. In common with other parts of India, Hyderabad too has bigots who look with unease at the way in which Dalit students have broken through scholarly and occupational barriers, and it is a fact that several from the “backward” communities resent having to compete in the job market with highly trained Dalits. Hence, to lump (economically prosperous and politically powerful) Kammas and Kapus with still disadvantaged Dalits, as apologists for the Vice-Chancellor have repeatedly done on national television, is to be frugal with the facts. It is hard to accept that the intervention of a Union Minister or repeated missives from the HRD Ministry to the university constitute anything other than an unusual interest in the campus politics of an institution autonomous only in name. Those who believe that universities in India are “independent” are ignorant of the reality of the control exercised by the MHRD and bodies such as the UGC on universities in India, a primary reason why they fare so poorly in international rankings.

To quote an example, a university in the South two years ago entered into routine MoUs with four universities in China, each of which incidentally has already more than one partner universities from India. However, in the case of this university, the MHRD — then under the control of globalised liberals such as Shashi Tharoor — ordered through its agencies that the MoUs be scrapped. Soon afterwards, the same authorities who have made it their business to stifle the autonomy of centres of higher education in India, declined to give permission to the same university (which is among the best in Asia in global rankings) to act as the mentor university of the proposed University of Afghanistan. Surely, having an Indian rather than a US or Pakistani university as mentor would significantly boost ties between Afghanistan and India, something which apparently escaped the minds of those in government who killed this proposal through refusal to give permission. Incidentally, in most other democracies, universities have genuine autonomy, and do not need such nods from government in their routine work. Since the Narendra Modi government took charge on 26 May 2014, educational institutions across the country have been waiting for a departure from Kapil Sibal’s chokehold over universities by the MHRD and its affiliates. Twenty months after the swearing in of the new government, they are still waiting for such a change. The same Stalinist attitudes prevail, as do the same bureaucrats who were in control of the levers of decision-making then and now. Prime Minister Modi is nearing the close of his second year of governance, and this columnist still believes that before the close of this period, he will liberate his government from the Nehruvian coils of a 19th century colonial system of rules and procedures designed to kill initiative and convert citizens into chattels of the state.

If Prime Minister Modi is facing headwinds in his efforts at crafting a 21st-century system to replace the British-Mughal era construct that has kept India in a state of poverty when other Asian powers have made rapid progress, much of the reason vests within his own party, which has been in a tearing hurry to ensure Modi does not get a second term. Had the Land Bill and the GST Bill got passed, especially in the first or second parliamentary session after the Modi sweep of the Lok Sabha polls, across the world confidence in the capacity of the NDA government to effect reforms would have shot up. Even in the case of the Land Bill, it was surely not impossible to reach out to opposition parties and get a modified version passed, while the Congress Party has several times assured the public that it would help pass the GST Bill if the three conditions set by it were accepted. For a starving man, half a loaf is better than nothing and ours is an economy which has within itself hundreds of millions of the destitute. However, the BJP adopted a stance that closes the door to such accommodation, as in its view, “no bill is better than a flawed” bill, i.e. a bill that incorporates the opposition’s suggestions. This is a wrong approach.

Even if both bills got passed with modifications, that would nevertheless have given a signal of pragmatism to the rest of the globe, and encouraged investment into India. Waiting indefinitely for Rahul Gandhi to change his mind and accept the BJP version or holding back on vital bills till the NDA secured a majority in the Rajya Sabha means that key reforms will get rolled out too late — if at all — to have an effect on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Along with choosing a more effective team in the next reshuffle, Prime Minister Modi needs to pay attention to perception, for this affects voter behaviour even more than reality, especially if the real benefits of policy have yet to reach a level which would make an impact on voters. Looking at their arguments, BJP spokespersons seem to believe that they are arguing in a courtroom before a judge. Unfortunately for their party, the chemistry of the public is a tad different from that of a trained jurist, and arguments which work with the latter may fall flat with the former. Whether it be over the Hyderabad incident or elsewhere, the BJP seems to be disconnected from the voter in the fashioning of explanations meant to blunt criticism of its moves. The loss of the “independent” vote explains the BJP’s serial defeats in the year just past.

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