BY MANOJ CHAURASIA
The upcoming general elections are posing quite a challenge to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the situation is looking so tough that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is raising just every possible issue which it thinks could work in its favor as the vote is about 60 days away.
As a last resort, the BJP is now trying hard to make an election issue of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s reported meeting with some Chinese ministers and officials during his religious trip to Kailash Mansarovar. Addressing a rally in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, Gandhi had cited his recent meeting with some Chinese leaders saying India should learn from the experience of China in creating jobs for youths. He mentioned China as an example to emulate for fighting unemployment but the ruling BJP has added a new twist to his remark.
According to a government survey reported by an Indian business daily, India’s unemployment rate stood at 6.1 percent in 2017-18 which was the highest in the past 45 years. Gandhi quickly turned to Twitter to hit out at the BJP dispensation, describing it as “National Disaster” but the ruling party termed it “fake news.”
The BJP has projected Gandhi as a “Chinese propagandist.” “He keeps raving about China,” BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra was quoted as saying in The Times of India.
The BJP has also questioned the “request” of the Chinese ambassador to give a ceremonial send-off to Gandhi for his Mansarovar trip. “When Rahul Gandhi went for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, a letter was sent by the Chinese ambassador to the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) that he wanted to give Rahul Gandhi a ceremonial send-off. This protocol is limited to heads of state or government and leader of opposition. Now it is clear why China wanted to extend this protocol to Rahul Gandhi. Yatra was just an excuse, he had to meet Chinese ministers and discuss something. The cat is out of the bag today, and the Congress needs to clarify,” Patra told Hindustan Times. The BJP didn’t stop at that. It also dug into Gandhi’s earlier meeting with the Chinese envoy in India during the Doklam standoff.
If the developments are any indication, the BJP is desperate to raise any issue which could work in its favor in the elections with the mood of the general masses not looking positive towards the party. It wants to eliminate the anti-incumbency factor and divert the attention of the masses from more pressing issues. The main opposition has alleged the BJP failed to keep its promise of generating 20 million jobs in a year. The opposition is also repeatedly raising the Rafale fighter jet deal to counter Modi’s take on corruption. Now the BJP strategists feel playing the China card, to a certain extent, could help the ruling party in this matter.
But experts say such issues are not going to impact the elections. “China card will prove to be of little or just no help for the BJP,” says Ajay Jha, a prominent Delhi-based journalist who is an expert in Chinese affairs.
According to Jha, domestic issues, and not international ones, have dominated Indian elections. “As such, China is not a threat to internal peace and security though a lingering border dispute has made people skeptical of China,” Jha explains. Moreover, the way both nations dealt with the Doklam standoff indicates their maturity in handling such issues.
Pakistan, however, has been dominating every election since both nations have fought several wars and the way Pakistan has been in the eye of the storm over allegations of supporting cross-border terrorism.
Pakistan also dominated the last general elections in 2014. During the months-long campaign, a top BJP leader Giriraj Singh said those opposing Modi should go to Pakistan. The remarks, many say, led to a strong polarization of Hindu votes in the surrounding areas as the BJP made a clean sweep in Jharkhand and neighboring Bihar. Singh is currently a federal minister.
But why is the BJP desperate to play the China card this time? As per reports, the BJP has become apprehensive of not putting up a good show in the elections. Modi dropped enough hints about it when he urged people to elect a stable government so it could take “tough and strong decisions”. Various poll surveys too are making similar predictions.
What apparently has shattered the confidence of the ruling party was its poor performance in recent polls in three key Indian states.
One key factor that apparently sealed the fate of the BJP was prevailing anger among upper castes. So the first thing the prime minister did was to grant 10 percent job reservation to the less well-off among the upper castes.
The BJP projected the move as a “game changer” which it claimed would win it the support of a certain section of society but now finds itself on the back foot as the Congress came out with a proposal promising “minimum income guarantee” for every poor villager if the party was voted to power. The idea has left the BJP leadership unnerved.
(The author is a senior journalist based at Patna, India and has worked for leading international media houses such as The Guardian, The Times and Reuters. [email protected])