June 8, 2018 @ 2:00 am

8 JUNE 2018

In search of friends

Against a united opposition in 2019, the BJP will need to keep all its allies together

A friend in need is the friend who comes a-calling. After four years of being in a situation where it was a much sought-after ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party is now reduced to the role of a supplicant before potential electoral partners, the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal. The Sena has always been a difficult ally for the BJP, despite a close ideological affinity. Even so, an editorial in the Sena mouthpiece Saamna, insisting that the Sena would fight the coming elections alone, ahead of the meeting between BJP president Amit Shah and Sena supremo Uddhav Thackeray, revealed a new level of assertion in a stormy relationship. Unable to adjust to its role as a junior partner of the BJP, the Sena is eager to return to its pre-2014 status as the unquestioned leader of the alliance. Indeed, Mr. Thackeray is under some pressure to demonstrate that he is as domineering as his father Bal Thackeray was in dealings with the BJP. And if he doesn’t retrieve the ground ceded to the BJP in the last four years, the Sena might forever be pushed around in Maharashtra. The Sena, which began as a Marathi chauvinist party, took to Hindutva and allied with the BJP in an attempt to widen its support base; but despite its efforts to be more strident in its Hindutva, the party could only watch helplessly as sections of its newly created support base moved toward the BJP. True, the two parties need each other to retain power in Maharashtra, but the relationship equations are unstable. The Sena believes the BJP should allow it to lead the alliance in the Assembly election in return for support it would give the BJP in a Lok Sabha election, and the BJP wants the Sena to recognise the changed political equilibrium in Maharashtra.

What exactly Mr. Shah achieved through the outreach meeting, other than to signal to the allies that the BJP is willing to be accommodative in sharing seats and power, is not clear. Accommodation, the party must have recognised, was necessary in the context of its defeats in the recent by-elections and the desertion by the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh. The outreach effort took Mr. Shah to Punjab as well, where its senior ally, the SAD, is seen to be in decline. In the BJP’s assessment, the anti-incumbency sentiment against the SAD hit the party as well, with the alliance finishing third in seat share terms behind the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party in the last Assembly election. But dumping its traditional ally is no option at all for the BJP in what could be a tight Lok Sabha election. The BJP will also need allies in the southern States if it is to make significant gains in terms of seats. But potential allies are few, except perhaps the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. With opposition parties uniting against it in several States, the BJP will need all the allies it can get in the coming year.

Violence in the hills

The Meghalaya government must remain firm against nativist demands in Shillong

The spark for the week-long incidents of violence in downtown Shillong was a lie spread through WhatsApp, the ubiquitous messaging platform that has increasingly become an unfiltered medium for hate and rumour-mongering.A scuffle between members of the Mazhabi Sikh community, long-time settlers in the Punjabi Lane area of the city, and a Khasi youth and his associates over a local matter was amicably settled between representatives of the communities. But a fabricated story that the youth had succumbed to injuries sustained in the scuffle led to large numbers of Khasi protesters laying siege to Punjabi Lane, demanding that the Sikh residents move from the area.That the “settlers” have been in Shillong for more than a century and a half, having been originally brought there by the British colonials to work as manual scavengers, and have since integrated themselves within Shillong, has not insulated them from being described as outsiders. The administration did well to protect the dwellers of Punjabi Lane from physical harm, but mob violence persisted until curfew was imposed and the Army put on stand-by. Spokespersons of the Khasi Students’ Union, whose members were part of the agitation, continue to insist that the Punjabi Lane residents be moved from Shillong’s commercial heart to its outskirts. Picturesque Shillong is no longer just an idyllic hill station; it is a bustling city that has grown in an unplanned manner and requires reforms such as zoning regulation. But the agitators’ demand to shift the Sikh residents is unreasonable and must be resisted. In fact, the Meghalaya High Court had stayed an order by the District Commissioner to evict the residents from Punjabi Lane (also known as Sweepers’ Colony) in 1986.

Tribal angst over economic issues leading to the scapegoating of non-tribal long-time residents reflects the continued failure to forge a more inclusive politics in Meghalaya. Today, there are enough provisions of affirmative action for the tribal people — 80% reservation for the Khasi, Jaintia, Garo and other tribes in jobs and professional studies. Yet, discontent persists over the lack of adequate jobs in the State, especially in urban areas. A Labour Bureau report on employment in 2015-16 found Meghalaya to have among the highest urban unemployment rates (13.4%). Discontent over lack of opportunities in the past had led to incidents such as the violent targeting of the Bengali community in 1979 and Nepalis in 1987, many of whom then fled the State. To prevent a repeat of those incidents, the government must stand by and protect the Sikh residents, and not give in to the nativist arguments of the protestors. And as calm is restored, Meghalaya’s politicians and civil society leaders must forge a more inclusive vision of the State’s demographics.

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