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22 March 2016 Editorial


22 MARCH 2016 

Back to the Hindutva basics

On the opening day of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s two-day national executive meeting on March 19, president Amit Shah set the tone not just for the deliberations but also for the approaching Assembly elections. The battle lines between the nationalist and anti-national forces, according to him, had already been drawn. The theme was picked up by other senior leaders — Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad — stressing that while political opposition and dissent were acceptable, neither anti-national activity nor slogans would be permitted in the name of freedom of speech. Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched on the subject only briefly on the second day: while saying that the BJP had always given primacy to nationalism and patriotism, he instead chose to expand on issues of governance, stressing that the party’s mool mantar should be “development, development and development”. The BJP also used the occasion to target the Congress, portraying it as “anti-national”. Mr. Shah took Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to task for standing in solidarity with those who had shouted allegedly “anti-national slogans” on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus. He said it was hypocritical of a party that had imposed the Emergency, crushing the freedom of the press and ordinary citizens, to lecture others on freedom of expression. Finally, the political resolution concluded by stressing that “the BJP remains the only political party where a person without any ‘illustrious’ pedigree or connections can rise to the very top of the party” — yet another swipe at the Congress. 

The BJP may have aggressively trained its guns on the Congress over the weekend at its first national executive meeting after its defeat in Bihar last year, but it is clear that its electoral setbacks and its failure to fix the economy are forcing it back to its basics of divisive communalism. There was a clear tension visible as the BJP sought to balance its development slogan with a return to its time-tested Hindutva line, though now clothed in the national tricolour. The political resolution adopted on the last day of the session described nationalism as an “article of faith”, and claimed that upholding the primacy of the slogan of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” was a “reiteration of our constitutional obligation as citizens”. The gap between pronouncements by Mr. Modi and those around him, as well in the wider Sangh Parivar, would suggest that either he is not in control or he believes that this Janus-faced, seemingly contradictory, approach will help him polarise political discourse to the BJP’s advantage even as he retains plausible deniability by remaining above the fray, ready to battle another day. Indeed, the resolution described Mr. Modi as a “beacon of hope and trust”, while Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu called him a “gift from god” and a “messiah”. So, while Mr. Modi speaks of development, the cry by others of “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, with its dog-whistle invocation of a majoritarian agenda, will be a call to the saffron storm troopers.

Forging unity by force of crisis

There is hardly any element that is not contentious or controversial in the agreement that the European Union (EU) has struck with Turkey to stem the flow of thousands of mostly Syrian migrants and refugees on to its shores. It could not have been otherwise, given the intra-EU divisions on a collective approach to the current refugee crisis and staunch domestic opposition to Ankara’s entry into the EU. Despite Turkey’s long-standing bid for membership in the bloc, bolstered by its strong secular, liberal and democratic credentials and geographic contiguity, ties between Ankara and Brussels have not been the most cordial in recent years. Turkey’s record on human rights under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, exemplified by the systematic suppression of freedom of expression and ill-treatment of the country’s Kurdish minorities, has drawn strong condemnation from EU leaders. Now the bloc has promised once again to revive negotiations on a specific aspect of Ankara’s protracted accession process, in return for the admission of Syrian refugees from Greece. But the motivation to open talks on a relatively minor element of the package, frozen at one point, is itself meant to paper over a more fundamental objection, from Cyprus, to Turkey’s EU membership. Nicosia has vetoed EU-entry talks unless and until Ankara accords formal recognition to the Greek-Cypriot administration. That is seen to be critical for the reunification prospects of the island state, divided during the 1974 war with Turkey. Another curious component of the deal is the EU decision to advance the date for the liberalisation of visas to Turkish nationals. The concession comes at a time when the EU’s Schengen passport-free travel zone, the most visible symbol of the founding principles of the Union, is already under considerable strain as a consequence of the refugee crisis. Notable in this regard are recent unilateral moves by Austria and Hungary to seal borders along the Balkans, not without causing some embarrassment to Berlin, but intended to contain the fallout of Germany’s more accommodative stance on migration.

Then there is the decision whereby every new migrant reaching Greece via the Aegean Sea would be turned over to Turkey, in exchange for Ankara transferring one to the EU but with the total subject to a limit. Human rights groups have criticised the move as being both immoral and illegal. Athens has to contend with the fresh logistics and administrative challenges of turning back migrants on top of an already explosive situation. For Ankara, the difficulties centre on its readiness to extend protection for migrants from other nationalities, in addition to Syrians, on the lines of the Geneva Conventions. This is an area where the EU would tread cautiously in view of its strained relations with Turkey in recent years. If the agreement is to be received more favourably than it was when sealed, the parties would have to display sagacity in their diplomatic dealings, and sensitivity on the humanitarian front during its implementation.

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