How To Start A Political Argument: 2019 Elections Edition

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We’re now less than 100 days away from the next big national election in India. The 17th Lok Sabha elections will be held between April and May. Things are heating up. Like before any big election, the Opposition will bring up all the things that the incumbent government has done during their tenure – from GST to demonetization, the Rafale Jets deal to the Swachh Bharat Program – and try to poke holes in their policies. The Government will counter these arguments; either by pointing out that they’ve done better than the previous government – surely the NDA Rafale deal was better than the UPA Rafale deal – or justifying why they did what they did – didn’t over 17 lakh more people file their taxes thanks to demonetization?

Spoiler Alert: There’s going to be a lot of finger-pointing and name-calling.

But this won’t only rage on in the Parliament or on your TV sets, it will be all anyone can talk about – at dinner parties, Sunday brunch or during the Diwali Poker game, and as a responsible member of the Indian electorate, it’s your duty to join in – even if it’s just to stir up the argument.

Here’s a list of things you can say to get these debates started.

“Acche din. As if!”

Back in 2014, BJP was voted into power because of the promise in their campaign slogan, “Acche din aane waale hai” – in terms of socio-economic growth and development. Ever since their victory though, the phrase has become a popular way for the Opposition to mock the government and its policies. Still, the question remains, have the better days truly arrived?

The NDA’s Swachh Bharat program – to end open defecation and bring better sanitation to rural and urban India – while slow in its uptake, is finally seeing some progress, mostly thanks to a push from Bollywood and better-designed advertising. Seventeen states and union territories are now open defecation free. Of the remaining 16, three are almost there (>90%) and six are at more than 85%. Of the people who had access to toilets, 93% used them regularly and 70% of the villages surveyed by the National Sample Survey Office had a minimum litter or stagnant water. (Warning: We got all these figures from official sources and they’re know to fluff things up, so we’d take this statistics with a pinch of salt)

The Direct Benefit Transfer system saved the government about Rs. 83,000 crore, to redeploy into other welfare schemes like the Ayushman Bharat scheme that promises to provide free healthcare to over 10 crore vulnerable families. We’ve also made great progress in terms of financial inclusion, with 22.27 crore new bank accounts opened from 2014-17.

This brings us to economic growth – The numbers show that India’s GDP is doing much better under this government than it did under the last one. While our GDP growth rate was 6.6% in 2014, it’s now 7.1% and is predicted to go up to 7.5%. The biggest reforms introduced by the NDA Government were the Made in India program, the GST system, demonetization and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (to fight out non-performing assets problem). The government likes to laud itself and its reforms for this GDP growth rate, but many economists believe that the government’s reforms were a combination of hits and misses.

While Make in India has increased business for Indian companies, with FDI going up by 40% from the UPA period, Jayati Ghosh, Economics Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University says, “Demonetisation was a terrible mistake by the government, for which the common people paid the price. It has reduced people’s trust in the banking system, as they were denied their own money during the period of cash crunch.” While the much-needed Bankruptcy Code freed up over Rs. 2.5 lakh crore for redeployment in the Indian economy, our NPAs actually went up by Rs. 6.2 lakh crore under the NDA government because there was little follow up to regulate our banking system. Like for GST, which had strong value on paper but poor implementation, the NDA seems to have a recurring problem of inadequate execution and follow up on promising policies. We may have made some social progress, but without simultaneous economic growth “Acche Din” will still be a while away.

“The bhakts are taking over the country”

Considering that the country is being run by a party that historically has Hindutva affiliations, there has been a dominance of ‘bhakt’ culture around the country in the last few years. Right-wing groups have seemingly been more active in their propaganda, forcing hard nationalism onto a secular democracy. A classic example of this was the national uproar that ensued when muslim Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi refused to chant “Bharat mata ki jai”. Another example of this would be the mob lynching of muslims over suspicions of beef consumption by cow vigilantes. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (AVBP), a right-wing student organization affiliated with the RSS, morally policed couples at Delhi University, attacked students for protesting against the hanging of 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, making the protest communal even though it was more about human rights. When Gurmehar Kaur, – a 22-year-old who lost her father in the Indo-Pak conflict – made a video calling to end the Indo-Pak war, ABVP members labeled her anti-national for sympathizing with Pakistanis.

While these incidents were extreme, even Congress is practicing a kind of ‘soft Hindutva’, as witnessed in the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections. Rahul Gandhi became a ‘Shiv bhakt’ going from temple to temple on his campaign trail to pander to a Hindu population, which is not Congress’ typical vote bank. In Karnataka, a similar approach was used to appease the Lingayat community. In both instances this strategy backfired, leading to the polarisation between the Hindus and Muslims, and the later felt ignored and betrayed by the Congress party, a party many of them had been loyal to for generations.

As political trends move more and more towards communal appeasement to get the most votes, instead of actually framing strong policy manifestos, it may seem like everyone in the 2019 race is become a “bhakt”.

“Did someone say, Ambani? Because I smell a scam”

With the complete lack of transparency in India’s political funding laws, it’s virtually impossible to tell who is backing political parties. The BJP declared Rs. 5.708 billion in total income for 2015-16, 81% of this came from unknown sources. The INC declared Rs. 2.615 billion in total income and 71% were anonymous.

If these anonymous donations are coming in exchange of political favors, some corporations would get an undue advantage over others in business opportunities. Many opposition leaders allege that such a corporate-political nexus exists between the Ambanis and the NDA government, evidenced by the Rafale Jets deal and the Jio Institute case. According to the initial draft of the Rafale Jets deal, as drafted by the UPA government, the Rafale jets would be built in partnership with the public sector enterprise, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. But as per the new deal, framed and finalized by the NDA government, the Rafale deal would be executed by Dassault (the French aviation company that is selling us the jets) alone. Only, after a month of the deal being signed, Dassault announced Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence Ltd. as their ‘offset’ partner in India. While the Modi Government and Anil Ambani insist these were independent decisions, former French President François Hollande claimed that the Indian Government ‘suggested’ Reliance as a possible partner. Here’s the full Rafale deal story.

This isn’t the only troubling Ambani-NDA link. PM Modi himself lent his face to promote the sale of Reliance Jio’s (a private company) mobile network under the guise of promoting the digitization of the country. Mukesh Ambani’s Jio Institute was granted ‘Institute of Eminence’ status by the HRD Ministry, even though the University has only been planned on paper and is yet to be established.

Not just apparent business affiliates, the NDA government allegedly benefits family associates too. Case-in-point, Jay Shah, son of BJP President Amit Shah. According to this infamous article published by The Wire, the turnover of a company owned by Shah’s son increased 16,000 times after BJP won the election. The firm, whose business was initially stock trading, began to generate power after receiving a PSU loan.

Sure, all of the government’s claims of coincidence and chance could be true, but their abysmal transparency record doesn’t help their case. The Modi government has the worst track record in replying to RTI questions with an 80℅ increase in RTI queries rejected without reason. It also doesn’t help that the PM himself is eerily silent while all these accusations fly at him.

“Ha! And they said Dr. Manmohan Singh was the silent PM”

PM Manmohan Singh was famously known as a silent PM. Not because he did not want to answer for the issues plaguing the country during his term, he did that by calling at least 2 press conferences a year, but because that was his natural temperament. He was dubbed “Maun” Mohan Singh by his Opposition, and the nickname stuck. But recently, the former PM said in an Indian Express interview, “He used to criticise me for not speaking up. I feel that the advice that he used to give me, he should follow it himself.” This statement is amply justified.

He didn’t address the beef-related mob lynchings against Muslims and Dalits by right-wing extremists, especially the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri. He didn’t ever mention the anti-national debate or the clashes between ABVP and other student unions. He’s remained mum on the murders of dissident journalists like Govind Pansare, Gauri Lankesh, MM Kalburgi and Narendra Dabolkar. He’s never once condemned Nirav Modi, the businessman involved in the Rs. 11,400 crore scam involving Punjab National Bank. And possibly the worst of them all, it was months before he mentioned the rapes and murders that took place in Kathua and Unnao.

Sure, PM Modi is a great orator and speaks to crowds every chance he gets. But from his stadium speeches to his frequent tweets, his NAMO app and his radio monologue “Mann Ki Baat”, he prefers all his talking to be one way. He’s the only PM in the history of India to have never once held a press conference or to not have a press advisor. The press is an important pillar of every democracy, responsible for being a watchdog and holding elected officials accountable for their actions. However, if the officials freeze out the media as the current NDA government does – by not allowing the press access to their MPs – democracy becomes authoritarian. This is one of the Opposition’s and media’s biggest complaints against the Modi Government.

Considering that all the incidents on which the PM has remained mute have the potential to completely polarise his vote bank, his silence seems very shady and suspicious. By not openly addressing these incidents, he’s isolating himself from the electorate, and this decision may come back to haunt him during election season.

As the conversation around the 2019 Lok Sabha elections continues to evolve – at a faster rate as the election gets closer – we promise this article will continue to evolve too. Try out these 4 opening lines over the next couple of months, and tell us how your arguments unfold in the comments below.

How To Start A Political Argument: 2019 Elections Edition was last modified: by
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