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Political Line newsletter by Varghese K George

Political Line | Congress, Sena, Savarkar; State matters

Here is the latest edition of the Political Line newsletter curated by Varghese K. George

December 11, 2021 11:06 am | Updated 11:08 am IST

(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu. You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)

The Maharashtra conundrum

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was disapproving of the party’s alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, when both parties, along with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) set up the Maha Vikas Aghadi or Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) and formed the government in 2019. The government led by Uddhav Thackeray completed two years in office recently, and things have changed dramatically between the Sena and Mr. Gandhi. Against the backdrop of Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee and NCP chief Sharad Pawar joining hands in a move that is widely seen as an attempt to displace the Congress as the lead of the anti-BJP formation, the Sena is openly batting for the Congress and Mr. Gandhi. Sena leader Sanjay Raut met the Gandhi siblings, Rahul and Priyanka, this week. “The Sena and the NCP, partners in Maharashtra’s ruling alliance, appear to differ on the prominence that their common ally Congress should have in any non-BJP political formation…The Sena emphasised the Congress’s inevitability in any Opposition unity effort, while the NCP noted that the strength of the non-UPA MPs exceeds that of the Congress. It insisted that the anti-BJP front cannot exclude anyone, even if they are beyond the UPA umbrella…” writes Sobhana K. Nair, in this widely discussed piece.

“An Opposition front is not possible without the Congress,” Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut said after a recent meeting with Rahul Gandhi.

“An Opposition front is not possible without the Congress,” Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut said after a recent meeting with Rahul Gandhi.

The Congress-Sena partnership had irked liberals, but it is turning out to be more durable than initially thought, and powerful as an instrument against the BJP.  The BJP would love to see the MVA government collapse, and until recently it appeared as if that was a desire that Mr. Gandhi shared with his political adversary Narendra Modi. The Maharashtra government -- along with the West Bengal government —has become the fulcrum of resistance against the expeditions of Central agencies targeting the Opposition. The NCP is central to this resistance to the BJP -- see how party leader Nawab Malik cornered Narcotics Control Bureau officer Sameer Wankhede. 

While the NCP is aligning with the TMC that is hostile to the Congress, the Sena is making common cause with the Congress. The Sena is turning out to be a friend in need for the Congress, and also showing some changes in its own thinking. The Sena mellowed its position on the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. The Mumbai police are also acting against online hate -- its personnel went all the way to Hyderabad and arrested a 23-year-old man for allegedly holding out threats of rape to Indian cricketer Virat Kohli and actor Anushka Sharma’s 10-month-old daughter.  Kohli had earned the wrath of the troll brigade for defending his Muslim teammate who was targeted by communal trolls. 

The MVA is instructive of a workable anti-BJP front. A puritan view of an alternative politics to the BJP centres around the secularism question. This view overlooks the fact that every party in India, including the CPI(M), uses religious symbolism for mobilisation. Additionally, the secularism prism blinds its advocates, oftentimes, to other reference points -- caste, language, ethnicity and economic interests of groups. The Sena -Congress alliance proves that non-BJP politics need not necessarily be based on secularism.   

One point of conflict between Mr. Gandhi and the Sena has been the former’s strident views on V.D. Savarkar, the Maharashtrian who theorised Hindutva as a political doctrine. The same Mr. Raut who is now friendly with Mr. Gandhi had clashed with him on the Savarkar question. Savarkar is a Hindutva icon, but also a Maharashtra icon, increasingly. Mr. Pawar hailed Savarkar’s legacy recently, but used the occasion to undermine the BJP’s politics. “He was scientific in his approach,” Mr. Pawar said, citing his opposition to cow worship.

NCP President Sharad Pawar with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. File

NCP President Sharad Pawar with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. File


Heading south: religious tolerance in India     

The BJP Government in Karnataka is keen to follow in the footsteps of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh by passing a law banning religious conversions  through “force” or “allurement”.

Meanwhile, the regional outfit Janata Dal (Secular) and the BJP are moving closer in Karnataka . Patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda met Prime Minister Modi recently.  


Federalism tract

Top court apathy 

Among the several cases that the Supreme Court of India is delaying hearings is the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, Gautam Bhatia points out. “…the case also raises the question of whether, under the Constitution, the Union Legislature has the authority not simply to alter State boundaries (a power granted to it by Article 3 of the Constitution), but degrade a State into a Union Territory (something that has never been done before August 5, 2019). If it turned out that the Union Legislature does have this power, it would essentially mean that India’s federal structure is entirely at the mercy of Parliament: Parliament could then, constitutionally, convert India from a union of States to a union of Union Territories, if it so wanted. Needless to say, this — as well — would signal a hugely significant shift in power to the Centre.”

A disturbing area   

The whole of the State of Nagaland is a “disturbed area” under the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives special powers to armed forces over citizens. The killing of civilians  in a botched ambush by the armed forces in Nagaland’s Mon district  recently and its violent fallout have put the spotlight on the AFSPA  of 1958.

People attend a mass funeral of civilians who were ‘mistakenly’ killed by security forces, in Mon district of the northeastern State of Nagaland on Monday.

People attend a mass funeral of civilians who were ‘mistakenly’ killed by security forces, in Mon district of the northeastern State of Nagaland on Monday.

Crossing the line   

The Centre has increased the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force from 15 km to 50 km from international borders in Assam, West Bengal and Punjab. West Bengal and Punjab are opposed to this move, as they see this as an encroachment into the policing powers of the State government. Now, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has instructed the State police not to allow personnel of the BSF in habitations without permission. “The BSF is allowed for 15 km, that too with the permission of the police, but they are going wherever they want. You all have seen what has happened in Nagaland. You have to be very careful,” she said.

Sword vs. speech 

The Assam Police have charged the editor and co-owner of a local news portal in the Barak Valley with sedition for a November 28 editorial deemed to promote enmity between the Assamese and Bengali-speaking people of the State. The Barak Valley is dominated by Bengalis and the Brahmaputra Valley by Assamese speakers. Bengali speakers fear domination by Assamese, while Assamese speakers fear domination by Bengalis. The State thinks this can be policed.

Not so NEET    

PL had discussed the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admissions into medical courses, earlier too, and objection of States such as Tamil Nadu on grounds that it undermines federalism. DMK member in the Rajya Sabha P. Wilson has introduced a Private Member’s Bill that would give States the choice to opt out of NEET.

Borders between us   

The High Court of Meghalaya has said the entry of Indian citizens through the implementation of the Meghalaya Residents Safety and Security Act, 2016 , may not be regulated.

Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K. Sangma said a gate for regulating the entry of Indian citizens, established on the highway to State capital Shillong, cannot be stopped as it doubles up as a checking point for COVID-19 protocols.   

In 2019, in a bid to protect the interest of tribal citizens, the Meghalaya cabinet had approved the amendment to the Act that seeks mandatory registration of outsiders for entering the State.

Our daily bread - and kebab

PL had discussed the attempts in Kerala to stir up religious animosity over halal practices. In a new piece, Biju Govind explains the political and economic factors behind this. “ The halal issue has to be read with the changing demography of Kerala , with Muslims now constituting over 26% of the population and appropriating the strong economic and political clout which the Christians earlier enjoyed.”

In Gujarat, the High Court pulled up the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) for seizing food stalls selling non-vegetarian food in the city, and asked the civic body how it could stop people from eating what they wanted. “What seems to be the problem? You don’t like non-veg. food? That’s your lookout! How can you decide what I should eat outside?” the Court asked.


And finally, some thoughts on the practice of journalism

The relationship between journalists and their interlocutors is a complicated one. Oftentimes an interview or a meeting is granted as a special favour, and with conditions. How do we deal with this? I explore this here .


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