The measures are bad for Narendra Modi’s image abroad. JNU is not an easy university to repress. The culture wars will exhaust and scare the middle class and array a range of political forces against the BJP.
“Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?” asked the historian Barbara W. Tuchman in her classic, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.
That’s the question that comes to mind seeing the BJP’s decision-making in recent weeks. Judging from the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the student’s union president of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on sedition charges amid a crackdown on the university, Narendra Modi’s party and government seem incapable of clearheaded thinking about their own interests, let alone the nation’s.
Take the BJP’s situation in recent months for example. The party was roundly beaten in the Bihar elections in November. The CBI’s raid on Arvind Kejriwal’s office in December backfired. The Pathankot counterterrorist operation went badly. Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide got the BJP about three weeks of bad publicity last month, damaging its equation with university audiences and Dalit constituencies nationwide. On the other hand, the business class and the urban middle class that led a decisive vote for the BJP in May 2014’s national elections are fast losing hopes they had rested on PM Modi. The stock market has gone back where it was during the so-called policy paralysis phase of the previous UPA government. The rupee has been on a slide that appears unlikely to reverse soon and retail inflation has touched a 17-month high.
All this would ordinarily force governments to pipe down, to wait out the adverse news cycle and use the time to make political deals to conduct legislative business. The last thing a party under such circumstances needs is to open another front in the perception battle.
Not the BJP. In a desperate bid to recover political authority, it appears hell-bent on generating events disregarding the potential for blowback. The government goes after JNU students, characterising dissenting voices as anti-national, and wants to give police the right to enter the university campus at any time and install surveillance cameras – while simultaneously arresting Kumar, an eloquent student leader, whose stirring speech on February 11 is currently going viral via YouTube.
No one in the party seems to have given a thought to the optics of arresting Kumar, the son of an anganwadi worker who earns Rs. 3,000 a month. Have the ABVP leaders who are evidently able to force the hand of Cabinet ministers even done a background check on Kumar? Barely weeks after it was perceived as abetting a talented Dalit scholar’s suicide, the BJP and its government is now arresting the son of a paralysed farmer on dubious charges. The BJP seems to have no idea how many social forces it is lining up against itself in the course of the culture wars it is waging across the country.
There are other reasons why the crackdown on JNU will backfire on the BJP.
First, taking on university students is bad for Modi’s image abroad. Amnesty has already issued a strong statement. Expect The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist and others to follow. Having weathered the cloud over his past; he will not want the present to be the cause for more interrogation.
Two, and more crucially, it isn’t easy to bully JNU — it is not Kashmir, for example, where the State can aim to end student activism and impose surveillance without too many noticing or objecting. The right-wing pro-BJP army on Twitter, which has a little idea about how social science works and relentlessly lampoons JNU as a place for left-wing loonies, underestimates the university’s influence and reach. Over the decades, JNU has produced historians, economists, sociologists and political scientists who are highly rated the world over. Because India is a major object of research for academics globally, the university’s academics and students have strong international networks. The JNU campus is widely recognised as a space where a critical temperament is nurtured, where young people mingle freely, encounter India’s diversity, seek love, nerdily discuss ideas, and rail against organised power. It is a distinct subculture forged within four walls, a place that the academic elite has affection for and will want to protect, particularly when it is up against State brutality. Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of JNU alumni work or have previously worked in universities abroad and at home, not to mention those in the media, industry and government. The BJP should weigh the merits of rousing this collective. For brand visibility, cracking down on JNU is no different than repressing the Sorbonne or the London School of Economics — a potential world news event that can become a headache for governments.
Three, this crisis will further galvanise anti-BJP forces across the country, including within the bureaucracy. It will further polarise student opinion along Left and Right lines in major universities. Rahul Gandhi is already getting a better reception from students than, say, a year ago. The anti-JNU measures seems particularly thoughtless especially when it is difficult to anticipate where the BJP’s next electoral victory will come from. Excepting Assam, where it has some chance, the party is expected to lose in West Bengal, Punjab and Kerala. It is up against anti-incumbency pressures in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, while the BSP is consolidating in UP. Because of the university’s pan-India student body, developments in JNU will feed into discourses in UP, and should the BJP lose there in 2017, we can safely expect the country’s bureaucrats to hedge their bets, stall work and look to new political masters on 2019’s horizon. Corporate India will also sense the changing wind by then.
Four, the BJP cannot afford to be seen as using State power to serve the purposes of its student body, the ABVP. Stoking unrest in various universities on contestable grounds is to scare away the middle class and underestimate the value the latter places on education. Part of India’s middle class may be entertained by pro-BJP television news anchors, but the majority of parents sending children to higher education do not have the luxury of watching culture wars break out in universities, especially when they are being orchestrated by muscle and State power rather than emerging through elective choice and academic process.
To pursue this confrontational path with those who disagree with it is to create a yearning for civil peace and a less intense public sphere – which the Congress and regional parties will eagerly tap into even if constituents are fully aware of their past dysfunctionality and hypocrisies.
The BJP has not only been unable to deliver on the economic front but it is consistently finding ways to aggravate liberal sections of the middle class each time they put on the TV. It is one thing to criticise politicians for failing to deliver on promised services, quite another to encounter those who offend sensibilities, activate moral frameworks on a daily basis, and those who couldn’t be bothered to pay lip service to the ideals of plurality, harmony, togetherness, and diversity which Indians instinctively relate to.
The BJP seems to be getting its social and cultural policy dictated by the right-wing loonies that its Cabinet ministers follow on Twitter. It is a bubble that will ultimately be the party’s undoing.
Views expressed by the author are personal, he tweets @SushilAaron