Political Line | Perils and promise of Rahul Gandhi’s Punjab Operation

(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.)

In a swift, stealth political operation, the Gandhi siblings, Rahul and Priyanka, unseated Amarinder Singh in Punjab overnight, but the succession battle that followed exposed lack of planning or strategy. At the end of a chaotic jostling, Charanjit Channi became the Chief Minister. He happens to be a Dalit, and his selection is now being cited as an act of exceptional political calculus. At least six points that are notable about the entire Punjab episode need elaboration.

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi greets new Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi after the latter took the oath of office at Raj Bhawan in Chandigarh on September 20, 2021.

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi greets new Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi after the latter took the oath of office at Raj Bhawan in Chandigarh on September 20, 2021.   | Photo Credit: PTI

  1. Rahul Gandhi is being bold. He is no longer bound by the compulsion to defer to the old guards in the party who curried favour with his mother Sonia Gandhi. Though never hiding his feelings about them, Mr. Gandhi has been unsure of confronting them. By toppling Amarinder Singh in such an unceremonious manner, Mr. Gandhi has signalled that the gloves are off. What comes next is the question that is unsettling many a Congress veteran – the axe will fall on more.
  2. The other two Chief Ministers of the party, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and Bhupesh Baghel in Chattisgarh, are feeling the heat. Both have defied Mr. Gandhi’s wishes in bulldozing all other leaders in the State and concentrating all powers in their own hands. While both have played their politics well in keeping the siblings pleased, Mr. Gandhi has realised that it involves a continuing erosion of his own authority.
  3. The saturation of the Bharatiya Janata Party is emboldening Mr. Gandhi. He has dared those who want to quit the Congress to leave. He is also willing to welcome those who are willing to join the Congress. This boldness is linked to the diminishing desirability of the BJP in the eyes of power seekers. Many defectors to the BJP are finding themselves lost, and even humiliated. Many defectors to the BJP want to return to their original parties, for instance in Maharashtra. Congress leaders have narrowing options — either fall in line with Mr. Gandhi or risk their reputation and prestige for an uncertain future outside the party. Amarinder Singh is himself caught in a bind. He has limited options — any association with the BJP, which is seen as anti-farmer in Punjab, can be suicidal for him.
  4. The attempt to make a virtue out of a compulsion, in the selection of Mr. Channi, and the emphasis on an apparent social justice politics is more complex than many fans of Mr. Gandhi would like us to believe. It is not impossible that the Congress can mobilise the Dalits and OBC castes; but that might need more than the accidental appointment of a Dalit Chief Minister. As the BJP pointed out, the Congress’s history haunts it. In 2004, Sushil Kumar Shinde, a Dalit, was made Chief Minister in Maharashtra in the last few months, and after winning the polls under his leadership, replaced him with Vilas Rao Deshmukh. In Rajasthan in 1980, the party made Jagannath Pahadia Chief Minister in the last one year, and after winning the polls replaced him with Shiv Charan Mathur. Mr. Channi senses the possibility of such a fate, and has already upped the ante by building a profile for himself. If the party retains power in Punjab, he would likely assert himself, as Jitan Ram Manjhi did in Bihar some years ago. He was handpicked by Nitish Kumar to keep the chair warm and behave as an obedient subordinate but Mr. Manjhi had other plans. Accidental as his selection may have been, Mr. Channi has become a factor in Congress politics. And he is unlikely to act to the script written by the Gandhis.
  5. Then there is the question of whether the Congress benefits from the appointment of a Dalit Chief Minister in Punjab at all. Dalits are traditionally Congress supporters and any additional mobilisation of Dalits in the party’s favour may be bit too optimistic, as this piece argues. The party may also suffer among the Hindu voters who have been inclined towards it traditionally.
  6. Finally, there is a risk of yet another round of communal politics in Punjab. All reports indicate that the communal cauldron of Sikh fundamentalism is posing a danger yet again. International communal organisations and Pakistan are fomenting trouble and there is unrest among farmers. Pakistan is emboldened after the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Mr. Gandhi’s handpicked party chief in Punjab, Navjot Singh Sidhu, has been trying to outdo the Shiromani Akali Dal in Sikh communalism. That is a dangerous game at several levels. The precarious border State can be pushed into a turmoil; and the BJP’s charge that Rahul Gandhi encourages minority communalism will find more takers.

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A test for federalism, and social justice

As regular readers of the Political Line may have noticed, this newsletter engages with questions of federalism on a sustained manner. This week, issues related to the National Eligibility-cum Entrance Test (NEET), are salient. A uniform national exam, mandated by the Supreme Court and enthusiastically pushed by the current government, is evidently an intrusion into the powers of the State. Education is indeed in the concurrent list of the Constitution, but universities are exclusively in the domain of the States, according to Justice A.K. Rajan who headed the high level committee that studied the impact of NEET.

Besides unsettling Centre-State relations, NEET also tips the scale in favour of the rich, and urban students at the cost of poor and rural kids. Moreover, the medical workforce that will be trained through this selection process could even derail the developments goals of the country. More than 90% of the students selected through NEET have been through private coaching, eliminating the poorest even before the race began!

Not quite a clash of civilisations

Newfound evidence of farming and civilisation in Tamil Nadu dating back to 1155 BC is causing some excitement in the State in recent weeks. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin told the State Assembly that carbon dating analysis of rice with soil, found in a burial urn at Sivakalai in Thoothukudi district, by the Miami-based Beta Analytic Testing Laboratory had yielded the date of 1155 BC. “It is the government’s task to scientifically prove that the history of the Indian subcontinent should begin from the Tamil landscape,” he said. While Tamil cultural politics has largely been built on the question of its relationship with north India and the Hindi language in particular, Hindutva politics seeks to subsume all regional identities into a meta-identity. Which is what Vice President Venkaiah Naidu proposed, while seemingly coming out in support of Mr. Stalin.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin. File.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin. File.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Talking of linguistic and cultural politics, the number of Hindi speakers is increasing, quite literally. Ten States with the most Hindi speakers account for 46.5% of India’s population. This piece explains this ongoing shift. What is also notable is that the BJP wins most of its seats from these States. Fertility rates across regions are decreasing, however. We also reported on the Pew findings on the religious composition of India — which shows that the gap in fertility rates between religious is narrowing over time, and the religious composition of India has only narrowly changed in decades.

Why is the bonhomie between Muslims and Christians in Kerala missing?

A Catholic bishop in Kerala stirred a hornet’s nest by warning his flock about what he described as ‘narcotics jihad.’ Tensions between the two communities have been rising for a while, and this newsletter has discussed the issue in earlier editions. This piece explains the political economy of the rivalry.

Communal tensions in Kerala — there are Hindu-Christian and Hindu-Muslim frictions — to a great extent are, ironically, an outcome of the State’s higher levels of social integration. Class, caste, and religious ghettoisation are not remarkable in Kerala, and its social spaces are very conducive to the mingling of all Inter-faith relationships and economic exchanges have been on the rise in the State. The patriarchs of all communities are unable to come to terms with all this, and they blame other communities, as it happens the world over. Also noticeable is a trend among Kerala Muslims to align with global Islamist causes — a handful of Malayalis went all the way to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. A parallel, though less intense, trend among Christians of Kerala is to side with Israel in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Christian pilgrimage to the holy sites in Israel, including Jerusalem, was on the rise until the pandemic struck, tickling a Biblical, transnational identity for them. The political economy reasons explained in the above article makes this rivalry potent now.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan harvested this rivalry between the communities, and ironically, the rival groups voted for his second consecutive term to settle scores with the other early this year. Christian elites in the Travancore region began to see the Congress as completely in the stranglehold of its ally, the Indian Union Muslim League, while Muslims began to view the Congress as an inadequate opponent of the BJP. This shift of the Christians and Muslims to the LDF may not have been massive in terms of absolute numbers, but was critical in several constituencies. This social engineering has unravelled the unspoken social contract in Kerala which meant the Congress and allies formed the platform for religious minorities and the Left hosted Hindu interest groups, speaking in broad terms. What comes next is anyone’s guess.

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2021 2:32:36 AM |

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