On the President's Address

The president’s address to the joint session of parliament, the first after the Lok Sabha election, was expected to spell out the vision and priorities of the second Modi government.  But President Ram Nath Kovind’s speech was sparse in detail and more went unsaid than said.

It is clear from the speech that the ruling party sees the “New India” as radically different from the India before 2014.  The RSS notion of a Hindu nationalist Bharat underpins their vision of a ‘New India’.

The president refers to the mantra of ‘sab ka saath sab ka vikas’ relating to the previous term of the government. This has now been extended to ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas, sab ka vishwas’.  Why this was found necessary is not explained.  Was it that the quest for a ‘New India’ resulted in a section of the people – the minorities – to be targeted and attacked in a manner which made a mockery of the original slogan?  Anyway, the ushering in of the second term of the government has been marked by mob attacks on Muslims with the killing of 22 year-old Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand being the most horrific incident.

The president’s speech is conspicuously silent about the overall economic policies that the government aims to pursue. There is no fresh thrust on how to overcome the economic slowdown.  As far as the agrarian crisis is concerned, the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, providing income support to farmers, is being extended to all farmers.  Earlier, Rs 6,000 per year was to be given to farmers who hold less than two hectares of land. Extending this income support to all farmers, irrespective of their size of holdings, is a regressive step especially when tenant farmers and agricultural workers cannot avail of this support.

The growing water crisis and the widespread drought in the country is being met by the bureaucratic step of creating a new ministry called jal shakthi.

On the employment front, the emphasis continues to be on self-employment.  There is the promise to extend the coverage of the mudra loans  to 30 crore people.  The plight of the educated unemployed is going to become all the more acute as there is also the commitment to provide two crore additional seats in higher education by 2024. How are they going to be employed?

While various promises are made to empower women and raise their status, the single most important measure – one-third reservation for women in parliament and state legislatures – is absent.  There is no reason whatsoever for avoiding this commitment at a time when it will receive overwhelming support in the Lok Sabha.

The foreign policy section is remarkably scanty and parochial. The `Neighbourhood First’ policy is the priority which concerns South Asia and adjoining countries which are in BIMSTEC. But what is the worldview at a time when globally major changes and upheavals are taking place?  Protectionism and trade wars, US threats of aggression in West Asia and Latin America, the perilous impact of climate change – all these are passed over silently. Even the conventional remarks about India’s relations with the major powers – the USA, Russia, EU, China – have been skipped.  Is this because of the Modi government having tied itself to the US bandwagon and now faced with the vagaries of the Trump administration, that it is unable to state anything concrete based on our national interest?

In keeping with its Hindutva outlook, the government, as per the speech, accords topmost priority to national security. Apart from fighting “terrorism and naxalism”, the government wants to utilise the twin instruments of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and amendment of the Citizenship Act to curb infiltration and to target those who are considered to be ‘aliens’ on the basis of religion.  The NRC will be applicable on a priority basis in areas affected by infiltration from Bangladesh – West Bengal, Tripura and other north-eastern states.  As the NRC experience in Assam shows, this will target mainly Muslims, irrespective of whether they have come from across the border or not.  The amendment of the Citizenship Act to make illegal migrants of non-Muslim origin eligible to be citizens is another ploy to win over the Hindu refugees and migrants who have come from across the border.

That these moves will have serious repercussions in the north-east and West Bengal, including communal polarisation, is something which does not concern the BJP.  Instead it hopes to cash in and benefit from these divisions.

The hypocritical stance of the Modi government, which regard to Jammu & Kashmir is exemplified by the promise to provide a “safe and peaceful environment for residents of Jammu & Kashmir”.  The muscular policies of the government in the past five years have led to a steady deterioration in the Valley with rising incidents of militancy and counter-militancy operations. There is no word about initiating a political dialogue in the state with concerned parties.  With Amit Shah as the home minister, there will be further pressure to adopt a heavy-handed security approach. As against this, the willingness of the moderate Hurriyat leadership to hold talks must be reciprocated if there is to be any way out of the impasse.

Though the address pays lip service to “strengthening the system and spirit of cooperative federalism”, there is nothing spelt out which can sustain any optimism in this regard. Rather one of the measures proposed in the name of fighting terrorism will further ride roughshod over states’ rights.  The union cabinet has cleared various amendments to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act. One of the amendments empowers the NIA to institute searches in states without the consent of the top police official of the state.  Already the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the NIA Act provides for the central agency to override the state police in various areas. The proposed amendment will further undermine the powers of the states.

The BJP’s agenda of Hindutva nationalism buttressed by a national security state comes across as the one dimensional vision of a ‘New India’.

Prakash Karat is member, Polit Bureau of CPI(M)