After winning a significant victory in the May general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party made its first big policy move on Monday. The Union government hollowed out Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave Jammu and Kashmir special status within the Indian Union. Any liberties the state enjoyed as part of its accession to the Indian Union – such as disallowing outsiders from buying land – stood abrogated.
Led by Home Minister Amit Shah, the Union government also moved to partition the state of Jammu and Kashmir, cleaving away the eastern flank of Ladakh. Moreover, both Ladakh and the rump version of Jammu and Kashmir were demoted to the status of Union territories that enjoy diminished democratic rights as compared to states.
This was, by any standard, a momentous move and one that was flagrantly undemocratic – completely ignoring public opinion in Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, the entire state is under a state of siege, with restrictions on movements imposed and all communication snapped.
In the face of this BJP juggernaut, the Opposition got flattened – or ended up joining the government.
Frozen in the headlights
The BJP introduced two bills in the Rajya Sabha on Monday that sought to implement the new status for Kashmir. The National Democratic Alliance, the ruling coalition, does not have a majority in this upper chamber of Parliament. On paper, then, the Opposition could have stalled the bills. But that did not happen.
The BJP gained a few allies while voting was underway which helped it make up for its lack of majority. Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal, Uttar Pradesh’s Bahujan Samaj Party, Andhra’s Telugu Desam Party and the Aam Aadmi Party of Delhi voted with the government.
Bengal’s Trinamool Congress, the third-largest party in the Rajya Sabha opposed the bills in its speeches – but thought discretion the better part of valour and did not actually vote against it. A bit before the House voted, the Trinamool walked out. The vote also led to the two Samajwadi MPs and the Congress whip himself resigning from the House.
While the Opposition was in disarray in Parliament, the situation was no better outside. Major leaders such as Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee kept their counsel rather than oppose this significant change in status of Jammu and Kashmir.
National security centrestage
Much of this strategy comes from the result of the polls which the BJP swept after running on a platform of the February Balakot airstrikes on Pakistan. The 2019 general election has frequently been called a “national security election” and pre-poll surveys pointed to the salience of national security in the run up to voting. In fact, national security was so important that, wrote political scientists Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta in April, it “become the lens through which voters are viewing the performance of the NDA government”: since the BJP owned the issue of national security, admiring voters even rated it favourably on economic issues.
The BJP has, since its birth, consistently campaigned for the abrogation of Article 370 – a position that stems from its Hindu nationalist ideology that resents any special status for the Indian Union’s only Muslim-majority state. To this ideological fidelity was added the feedback loop of the elections. Clearly, if the BJP scrapped Article 370 citing terror threats, there was a high chance the Indian voter would view it positively. These conditions make it difficult for Opposition parties to be seen to be opposing the move, even as they well know the quick passage of the bills would be a political boost for Modi and Shah.
To make matters worse for them, very few Opposition parties in India have a coherent ideology to oppose the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. While the BJP can use Hindutva as a foundation to construct bold (or reckless) policy moves such as Balakot or the scrapping of Article 370, much of the Opposition is simply reacting to an agenda set by the ruling party.
Unsurprisingly, the parties that were successful its marshalling its members to oppose the bill were formations such as the Communist Part of India (Marxist) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam that have strong ideological foundations.
Of course, it is not just ideology at play here. The BJP has also used its brute power that it now commands to force the Opposition to bend to its will. The past fornight has seen the successful passage of bills in the Rajya Sabha that criminalise instant triple talaq amongst Muslims and changes to the Right to Information Act that, critics say, will dilute its effectiveness. In both cases, the BJP effectively overrode its lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha and managed to get enough members of the Opposition on its side to pass legislation through both houses of Parliament.
This lack of opposition has allowed the BJP to overturn one of the most significant features of the Indian Constitution that helped Kashmir make its controversial accession to the union. What else will this government manage to do in the rest of its term?