Modi Govt’s Contempt For Parliament

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi entered Parliament for the first time after he led his party to a resounding electoral victory in 2014, he bent down and kissed the green-carpeted steps as a mark of respect to the “temple of democracy”.

But, for all purposes, the gesture proved to be a mere photo-op. For over the past six years the Modi government has been in power, it has systematically undermined this very temple of democracy.

Besides the fact that Modi puts in a rare appearance in the two Houses, his government has shown disdain for Parliamentary procedures and processes. The opposition’s demands for discussion on key issues are either not met or conceded with great reluctance. In the last session, the government refused the opposition demand for a discussion on China on the plea that it would jeopardize national security.

In a rush to push through its legislative agenda, the government avoids referring Bills to Parliamentary committees for scrutiny and has further curtailed the role of Parliament by taking the route of promulgating ordinances. Then again committees which usually witness bipartisan discussion are now openly divided along political lines.

In the recently concluded monsoon session, the government’s contempt for Parliament was on display when it did away with question hour which allows members to hold ministers accountable for their policies. Members were consequently deprived of their right to seek answers from the treasury, which often yields valuable information and insight.

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The final blow was dealt when the government rammed through the three contentious farm Bills and Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson Harivansh Narayan Singh came to the aid of the treasury benches by ignoring the opposition demand for a vote on the legislation.

As a result, relations between the government and the opposition have touched a new low. Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu suspended eight members for unruly behaviour and the opposition responded by boycotting the session. The monsoon session was hurriedly adjourned because of the coronavirus pandemic but the opposition has now taken to the streets to register its protest against the “anti-farmer” Bills.

The bitter face-off currently being witnessed between the two sides has now become a regular feature. Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power with a thumping majority in 2014, its ministers and Parliamentary managers have made little effort to reach out to the opposition. The tension between the treasury and the opposition has been palpable since then. Among a host of issues, a major point of friction has been the government’s determined effort to avoid scrutiny of its legislative agenda by Parliamentary committees.

The purpose of referring Bills to these panels was to strengthen and improve the Bills by allowing members to study them in detail and also get inputs from experts. Since the committee meetings are not televised, the discussions have, so far, been conducted in a bipartisan fashion. A genuine effort is made to forge a consensus among the members drawn from different parties.

In addition, the present ruling alliance has also resorted to promulgating ordinances to circumvent in depth deliberation of a legislation. Between April and September this year, the government promulgated as many as 11 ordinances and not all were related to the coronavirus pandemic. Since ordinances have to be replaced by Bills within six months, there is virtually no discussion on these legislation when Parliament meets as most of them are rushed through. This also means the government can avoid referring these Bills to committees.

The Modi government constantly flaunts its success rate in the passage of Bills. Though it is a fact that a far higher number of Bills were passed in its first term as compared to the earlier Lok Sabha, fewer bills were referred to committees. According to PRS Legislative Research only 25 per cent of the Bills introduced were sent to committees in the Modi government’s earlier term as compared to 71 percent when the United Progressive Alliance government was in power. In the present Lok Sabha only 10 percent of the Bills introduced have been referred to committees.

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The functioning of standing committees has also been impacted by the open display of partisanship in the meetings. These panels usually function on a non-party basis but lately, members are being increasingly guided by their political affiliation. This was on display when the committee on home affairs took up a discussion on Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370. More recently, the standing committee on Information Technology was embroiled in a controversy when its chairperson Shashi Tharoor and a BJP member filed privilege motions against each other over their public remarks. The ruling alliance also used its majority in the Public Accounts Committee to stall a discussion on the PM Cares Fund.

When the Modi government came to power in 2014, it was hemmed in because it did not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha. But now that it is comfortably placed in the Upper House, it feels it is under no compulsion to defer to Parliamentary procedures and conventions. It also does not feel the need to consult the opposition. The ruling alliance has successfully restricted the role of Parliament to the passage of the government’s legislative agenda. The opposition’s right to question the government and act as its watchdog is gradually being whittled away.

Can BJP Take On Punjab Farmers?

First, it was the Shiv Sena which severed its links with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Now it is the Shiromani Akali Dal which is contemplating breaking away from its senior alliance partner. And in Haryana, another ally, the Jannayak Janata Party is under pressure to snap its ties with the saffron party.

Clearly not all is well in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

The latest round of rumblings in the ruling alliance has been triggered by the growing protests of farmers in Punjab and Haryana against the Modi government’s decision to push ahead with three contentious farm bills aimed at deregulating the agriculture sector.

Unable to ignore the anger among the farmers in her home state, Akali Dal MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal gave up her ministerial post in the Narendra Modi government to register her party’s opposition to the farm bills. Since the farming community is the core support base of the Akalis in Punjab, Harsimrat Kaur had no choice but to leave the Modi government as she could not afford to ignore the voices from the ground. By walking out of the Modi government in protest against the controversial farm bills, the Shiromani Akali Dal has got an opportunity to regain lost ground. The party has been in doldrums since its drubbing in the 2017 assembly polls. It has been struggling to recover from the public anger it faced for the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib when it was in power.

Harsimrat Kaur‘s resignation will have a far reaching impact on the bond between the Shiromani Akali Dal and the BJP. Having quit the NDA government, the Akalis are now weighing the option of going solo in the next Punjab assembly elections. In fact, the farm bills proved to be the proverbial last straw as tensions between the Akalis and the BJP had been brewing for some time now. Akali leaders had been complaining privately for over a year now about how the BJP was riding roughshod over its allies and not taking them into confidence on key issues.

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If the Akalis do decide to divorce the BJP, it will mark the end of a long and happy marriage. Together since 1997, the two parties worked harmoniously through all these years. The relationship was a win-win for both sides. While the BJP brought in the Hindu urban vote, the support of the Akalis comprising the Sikh peasantry fetched the alliance the rural vote. This proved to be a winning combination and worked well as it was an accepted fact that the Shiromani Akali Dal was the senior partner in Punjab and the BJP was happy to defer to it.

Besides the electoral benefits of this alliance, Akali veteran Parkash Singh Badal was also convinced that the partnership also helped keep the peace between the Hindus and the Sikhs. Actually it was Badal senior’s political wisdom and sagacity which held the alliance together over the decades.

But the terms of this relationship have undergone a change in recent years for several reasons. For one, it is Sukhbir Singh Badal who is now running the show as his father has handed over the reins of the party to him. Badal junior is impetuous and lacks his father’s accommodating nature. Not only has his party’s relations with its oldest ally come under strain on his watch, he has also alienated a large section in his own party.

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On the other side, the BJP is not the same party when the benign Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. The saffron party has now emerged as the central pole in the country’s polity. With a brute majority in Parliament and an all-powerful leader in Narendra Modi, the BJP has ambitious plans to expand its footprint beyond its traditional strongholds even if it involves poaching on its partner’s turf.

Punjab is among the states on its radar where it would like to shed its dependence on its alliance partner. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor, has intensified its activities in the state over the past several years to prepare the ground for the BJP to contest the 2022 assembly polls on its own. This has obviously sent alarm bells ringing in the Shiromani Akali Dal which has always been a senior partner in this alliance. The Akalis are also upset with the BJP as it is convinced that it is the saffron party which is encouraging disgruntled elements in its ranks to launch a parallel Akali Dal.

But in the process of settling scores with each other, there is a strong possibility that both the parties could lose out. The Akalis will find it difficult to come to power by depending only on the Sikh vote while the BJP too could face an uphill task as it will not be possible for it to win a majority in the 117-member Punjab assembly on the basis of the Hindu vote alone.

BJP Is Now Dominant NDA Partner In Bihar

Ever since the two parties joined hands over 20 years ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party has played second fiddle to the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (U) in Bihar. The saffron party depended on Nitish Kumar’s clean image and charisma to ride to power in the eastern state where it had negligible presence.

As Bihar prepares for its next round of assembly elections now, there’s a perceptible change in the equation between the two parties. With Nitish Kumar facing massive anti-incumbency after 15 years in power and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity at an all-time high, the tables have turned in favour of the BJP. Today, it is the Janata Dal (U) chief who needs the BJP to retain power.

Well aware that it is on a strong footing this time, the BJP is all set to drive a hard bargain with the Janata Dal (U) during its seat-sharing negotiations to be able to emerge as the single largest party post-polls which would open up the possibility of the saffron party laying claim to the chief minister’s post. On the face of it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president J.P.Nadda have publicly declared that the coming assembly polls will be fought under Nitish Kumar’s leadership. The reason for this is obvious. The BJP obviously does not wish to alienate the Janata Dal (U) chief and push him to the rival camp.

But the BJP is also in no mood to concede the upper hand to its alliance partner. The saffron party has, over the years, used the Janata Dal (U) to expand its footprint in Bihar and it believes it is now in a position to emerge as the dominant force in the state. The saffron party’s Bihar unit has, therefore, been urging its Central leaders for several months now that the BJP should make a strong pitch for the top executive post in the state, especially since Nitish Kumar is personally on shaky ground. The BJP hardliners have been at pains to point out that the ground situation in Bihar has undergone a sea change and with the BJP’s improved presence it can dictate terms to its alliance partner.

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For the first time in his ruling terms, Nitish Kumar is facing mounting public anger. His government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the migrant labour crisis, rising unemployment, rampant corruption and the damage wrought by the recent floods have all combined to push Nitish Kumar on the backfoot. It is to deflect attention from his government’s failures that the Bihar chief minister, with dollops of help from the BJP, has shifted the political discourse to the Sushant Singh Rajput case, currently being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The dates for the election are yet to be announced but the state is already dotted with posters of the actor with the caption “Na bhoole hain, no bhoolne denge”, a clear indication of how the poll campaign will pan out in the days ahead.

Even as Nitish Kumar is fighting with his back to the wall, he has to deal with another irritant. An ally – Lok Janshakti Party’s Chirag Paswan – has launched an offensive against the Bihar chief minister. Paswan junior has, in recent weeks, taken several potshots at Nitish Kumar and has even threatened to contest the Bihar assembly poll on his own.

As the anchor of the National Democratic Alliance, it would be expected that the BJP would step in to silence the LJP leader. But it has made no serious move in that direction. This has given rise to speculation that Paswan junior is acting on the behest of the saffron party. It is understood that his barbs are essentially aimed at garnering a larger share of seats for his party, which works to the BJP’s advantage. If the share of Janata Dal (U) seats is reduced and the BJP contests on more seats, it stands a greater chance of emerging as the single largest party.

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While Nitish Kumar finds himself in the doghouse, the Modi magic remains undiminished. Despite the Centre’s poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the slump in the economy and the standoff with China, people in Bihar, as elsewhere in the country, are not ready to blame the Modi government for the multiple crises facing the country. They are willing to overlook the Centre’s failures and even justify them on the ground that these problems are not confined to India but are a worldwide phenomenon. Modi’s image of a Hindu Hirday Samrat and the BJP’s majoritarian agenda is more than sufficient reason for them to support him and the saffron party.

If the BJP-Janata Dal (U) combine comes back to power (as it is expected to), the victory will be driven by Modi’s popularity and not Nitish Kumar’s governance record. The ruling coalition will additionally be helped by the disarray in the opposition camp and its inability to throw up a viable alternative. While the Congress has negligible presence in the state. Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav is out of action and his son Tejaswi Yadav is yet to evolve into a mature politician.

Even as the opposition is still debating the terms of building a coalition of like-minded parties, the BJP has already kickstarted its campaign with virtual rallies and is in the process of strengthening its digital infrastructure to connect with the voters. Since there are restrictions on physical campaigning in this election because of the coronavirus pandemic, the BJP has decided to maximise the use of social media and other digital platforms to inform the people about their government’s achievements.

The opposition just does not have the resources, the leadership and the organisation to match the BJP.

Raje’s Role In Gehlot Govt Survival

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah took control of the government and the party, most Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have been reduced to pygmies. But recent developments in Rajasthan have shown that senior party leader Vasundhara Raje is no push-over and that she is unafraid to take on the Central leadership.

The two-time Rajasthan chief minister steadfastly refused to endorse the party’s decision to dislodge the Ashok Gehlot government, forcing the saffron camp to abandon this plan. As a result, the Gehlot sailed through a trust vote last week after the BJP-supported rebellion by disgruntled Congress leader Sachin Pilot failed to take-off because of Raje’s non-cooperation.

Raje proved that despite her electoral defeat two years ago and the party’s best efforts to marginalise her, the Central leadership can ill-afford to ignore her as she commands the loyalty of 50 of the 72 BJP legislators.

Moreover, Raje’s charisma and appeal put her on top of the list of vote catchers in Rajasthan where she remains a dominant force. Raje has the capacity to lead the BJP to a victory in the next election. But conversely, she can also play spoiler and give the party a tough time.

Irked by Raje’s obduracy and desperate to put her in place, the BJP’s Central leadership (read Amit Shah) proceeded to go ahead with its plan to overthrow the Congress government in Rajasthan without taking the former chief minister into confidence. The task of implementing these plans was entrusted to Union Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat (a Shah favourite), Satish Poonia, president of the party’s Rajasthan unit, and BJP’s legislature party leader Gulab Chand Kataria.

The pride of place given to Shekhawat was a clear message to the party rank and file that he was the leadership’s chief ministerial candidate once the party succeeded in dethroning the Gehlot government.

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But the BJP soon realised that it needed Raje on board but she refused to fall in line. On her part, the former chief minister had her reasons for thwarting the party’s plans. Not willing to settle for anything less than the top post, Raje was clearly angry with her bete noire Shekhawat’s projection as the future Rajasthan chief minister. Raje was obviously was not going to make it easy for anyone else to snatch this post from her. It was the same reason that she was unhappy over Pilot’s possible induction into the BJP as he has also set his eyes on the chief minister’s chair.

Though the BJP consistently denied that the revolt led by Sachin Pilot was an internal affair of the Congress, the saffron camp had been in touch with him for several months before he finally walked out with 19 loyal legislators to demand Gehlot’s removal. The rebels were spirited away to a resort in BJP-ruled Haryana. In fact, the “operation kamal”, designed on the same lines as similar successful exercises it executed in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.

For the record, Pilot maintained that he had been humiliated by Gehlot for the past two years and that he was driven to take the extreme step of going public with his grievances after he was sent a notice by the police in connection with the BJP’s plan to “bribe” Congress legislators.

Responding in equal measure, Gehlot collected his loyalist MLAs and sequestered them in a hotel in Jaipur, making sure there was no contact between them and the Pilot camp or the BJP. Gehlot guarded his flock zealously, making sure that the numbers in the rebel camp did not touch the magic figure of 30, the required figure to bring down his government. The chief minister maintained he had the support of 100-plus legislators in the 200-member assembly and accused the BJP of using “money power” to destabilise his government.

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Even as this drama continued for nearly a month, Raje maintained a studied silence. Her colleagues, Shekhawat, Poonia and Kataria, on the other hand, were never at a loss to offer their comments on the Congress crisis. It was only when her silence and absence became a talking point that Raje posted one wishy-washy tweet, saying the people of Rajasthan were suffering because of the continuing rift within the ruling Congress.

In a tweet posted on July 18, Raje said, “There is no point in trying to drag the BJP and the BJP leaders’ names through the mud. It is the interest of our people that must remain paramount.” This was meant essentially to dispel the public perception that she was helping Gehlot.

Raje was only spotted in Jaipur on August 14 when she attended the assembly session where Gehlot won the trust vote. She later told the media that she was unaware of the past month’s developments as she was observing shravan mass, the holy month of monsoon, and was busy with pujas at her Dholpur home. She had earlier skipped a party meeting, which had to be called off because of her absence.

She did surface briefly in Delhi on August 7 for a meeting with BJP president JP Nadda where she refused to get involved in the party’s efforts to bring down the Gehlot government. Instead she complained that she was being ignored and deliberately sidelined in Rajasthan. The recently reconstituted executive committee of the state unit has not accommodated her supporters while the state unit chief Poonia and opposition leader Kataria are known to be Raje baiters.

Unable to persuade her to fall in line with its plans and unwilling to risk alienating Raje, the BJP had no option but to call off “operation kamal” in Rajasthan. This was a major victory for Raje though it is early days to say what the future holds for her as the current BJP leadership is unlikely to forget her intransigence in a hurry.

Till then Raje can enjoy this victory as she has clearly won this round and is worthy of being declared the “man of the match”.

Political Milking Of Sushant’s Death

It is a month since Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide but there is no let-up in the controversial and often unsubstantiated revelations which are continuously being aired by television networks on his untimely demise, particularly since the case acquired political overtones.

From an initial discussion on mental health of actors to nepotism in the Hindi film industry and discrimination against outsiders, 34-year-old Rajput’s death has degenerated into an all-out war between the Maharashtra and Bihar governments which are currently led by opposing political coalitions.

It is no coincidence that the Bihar government, led by National Democratic Alliance partners, Janata Dal (U) and the Bharatiya Janata Party, has upped the ante on this case as the state assembly elections are due in a few months. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s popularity ratings have dipped in recent weeks as the state machinery is unable to cope with the rising cases of coronavirus.

Fighting with his back to the wall, the Rajput case has proved to be a handy diversion for Nitish Kumar who has successfully deflected public attention by decrying the Maharashtra government’s tardy investigation into the death of Bihar’s son Rajput. It helps that the Maharashtra government is headed by his coalition partner BJP’s bete noire Shiv Sena.

It suits the Janata Dal (U) and the BJP to build pressure on the Maharashtra government by keeping up the narrative on Rajput’s “mysterious death”. In Bihar, the two parties have an eye on the Rajput vote, a small but influential community which has been demanding justice for the actor.

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It is not just the JD(U) and the BJP which are eyeing the Rajput vote but opposition parties, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, have also joined the race. The two parties joined the chorus for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation when the issue figured in the state assembly when it met recently for a day to discuss the COVID-19 situation in the state.

BJP legislator Neeraj Kumar Singh, the actor’s cousin, raised the demand first, drawing instant support from across the political spectrum. Leader of opposition Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD went a step further and proposed that the upcoming film city at Rajgir be named after Rajput while Congress leader Sadanand Singh suggested that the assembly adopt a resolution demanding an inquiry by the Central agency.

If tempers are running high in Bihar, it is no different in Maharashtra. Always on the lookout for issues on which it can discredit the Uddhav Thackeray government, the BJP feels the Rajput case is a potent weapon to mount an effective attack against the chief minister and his son Aditya Thackeray. Former Maharashtra chief minister Narayan Rane and his son Nilesh have been particularly vocal and even suggested that Rajput was murdered. They have demanded that Aditya Thackeray should step down as minister to facilitate a fair probe since his name has figured during the course of a hearing in the Supreme Court.

Finding himself under constant attack, Aditya Thackeray broke his silence to deny his involvement in the case while his Shiv Sena colleagues are putting up a stout defence in his favour. Senior party leader Sanjay Raut, who has been at the forefront in hitting out at the BJP, described its allegations as a “political conspiracy”, aimed at maligning the government because the opposition did not succeed in toppling it.

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Though the controversy regarding Rajput’s death had been simmering since he was found hanging in his Bandra apartment on July 14, it picked up pace after the Bihar police registered a case against the actor’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty and others on July 25 following a complaint filed by the dead artist’s father KK Singh. The charges ranged from cheating, abetment to suicide and wrongful confinement.

On cue, the Bihar government dispatched a team of police officers to Mumbai to investigate the case. Furious at this interference, the Maharashtra government retaliated by placing Vinay Tiwari, the leader of the Bihar police squad, under quarantine by citing existing guidelines for containing coronavirus. 

At the same time, the Maharashtra police made it clear that the Bihar police has no jurisdiction to investigate the matter in their state as the incident took place in Mumbai. Moreover, it said, it was already in the process of investigating Rajput’s death. The Bihar police charged that the Maharashtra police was deliberately going slow in this matter as it was protecting an important person (read chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s son and minister Aditya Thackeray) whose name is said to have surfaced during the investigations.

This opened the floodgates further as charges and counter-charges have been flying thick and fast. Faced with an obdurate Maharashtra government and under all-round pressure from political parties in Bihar, an angry Nitish Kumar proposed that the case be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. It was not surprising that the request was accepted with alacrity by the BJP-led ruling alliance at the Centre. Normally a demand for a CBI probe is made by the state government where the crime has occurred. In this instance, rules were conveniently bypassed by the Centre which acceded to the Bihar government’s demand even though the incident took place in another state.

Meanwhile, the case gets murkier by the day. Besides the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate has been summoning the actor’s girlfriend and other associates for questioning. Rajput’s father has accused Chakravorty of siphoning off Rs. 15 crore from his son’s bank account, of overdosing him with drugs and creating a wedge between the actor and his family.

Needless to say, the media has had a field day reporting and “investigating” this case. It has essentially declared that Chakravorty is guilty. Breathless and excited reporters on television news channels have, with leaks from helpful sources, accessed details of Rajput’s holidays with his girlfriend and provided “breaking news” about the actor’s finances and mental health in back-to-back coverage. Chakravorty is predictably the villain of the piece.

With Bihar elections a few months away, it can be safely said that interested political parties will continue to work doubly hard to ensure that the Rajput case remains centrestage.

Galwan Gaffe Fails To Dent Brand Modi

An-all party meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week was essentially aimed at forging a national consensus on the government’s China policy but it instead resulted in a raging controversy which has emboldened the opposition and embarrassed the ruling dispensation.

Already on the warpath, the Congress got fresh ammunition to attack the Prime Minister personally when he told the all-party meeting that there had been no incursion into Indian territory by the Chinese and no Indian post had been captured. 

Modi’s categorical statement expectedly drew a sharp reaction from former Congress president Rahul Gandhi who has been in attack mode ever since 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives in a violent confrontation between the Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley. Accusing the Prime Minister of “surrendering Indian territory to Chinese aggression”, the Nehru-Gandhi scion asked the government to explain that if the land was Chinese, “Why were our soldiers killed and where were they killed?”  Former home minister P.Chidambaram also released a statement punching holes in the Prime Minister’s claim on the Ladakh developments. 

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Unlike other opposition leaders, whose response to the India-China clash has been muted, Rahul Gandhi has upped the ante to put the government, and more specifically the Prime Minister, on the mat, for “sleeping” on the wheel. He began by questioning Modi’s silence on the death of the jawans, went on to charge that the Modi government had been in denial about the Chinese incursions and then asked why the Indian soldiers were unarmed. 

Congress president Sonia Gandhi also did her bit in cornering the government when she unexpectedly asked tough questions about the chronology of the Chinese incursions and a possible intelligence failure at the all-party meeting convened by Modi. 

Sonia Gandhi’s searching queries on what she described as “many crucial aspects of the crisis” were in line with the Congress party’s considered strategy to buttonhole the Modi government for its lax response to the ongoing build-up of Chinese troops along the LAC which led to a violent clash between the two armies in the Galwan Valley. 

Rahul Gandhi’s tweets have elicited a sharp response from the Union ministers Amit Shah and S.Jaishankar and this war of words between the Bharatiya Janata Party and it will only intensify further in the coming days.

Though it is unusual for the Congress to take such a strident position on a matter of national security when all political parties generally put up a united front, the principal opposition party is feeling emboldened to slam the Modi government as it realises that BJP is constrained from waving its usual nationalist flag and resorting to fervid rhetoric in this instance. 

In fact, the Modi government has been extremely restrained in its reaction. Though the Prime Minister has assured the country that the Indian army has the necessary capability to protect its sovereignty and integrity, the overall tenor of his statements has been fairly restrained. But given the growing anger among the people, the government has to be seen to be hitting back at China. So it has decided to cancel major infrastructure contracts awarded to Chinese firms, stop import of Chinese goods and discourage trade ties with China.

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This is in sharp contrast to the Indian response to the Pulwama terror attack in which 40 CRPF jawans were killed. This had immediately led to a national outcry for revenge as Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad was said to be responsible for the attack. The Modi government had then ordered a pre-emptive strike conducted by the Indian Air Force in which several terrorists were killed. Modi himself had then raised the pitch and taken personal credit for teaching Pakistan a lesson while the BJP rank and file had touted the Balakot airstrike as the latest example of its nationalistic credentials and Modi’s strong leadership. This retaliatory attack and the BJP’s shrill campaign led to a Hindu consolidation in favour of the saffron party and its impact was there for all to see in the result of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

However, China cannot be bracketed with Pakistan. First, China is more powerful than Pakistan both economically and militarily. And second, it does not serve the BJP’s communal agenda to adopt a belligerent stand against China. Consequently, the BJP’s response to the Congress attack has been confined to remind the opposition party about the defeat suffered by India at the hands of China in 1962 when Nehru was Prime Minister. The party also underlines that India is far more self-assured with Modi at the helm and points to the infrastructure development which has taken place along the border in the last six years.

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Nevertheless, the Congress unrelenting attack has touched a raw nerve and both the Prime Minister’s Office and the ministry of external affairs have tied themselves in knots explaining Modi’s statement that there had been no intrusion by the Chinese. The government and the party are in constant damage control mode.

But for all the explanations his government has to proffer and the embarrassment it is suffering, Modi’s image as a strong, decisive leader remains intact and his popularity undiminished. The Modi brand has survived a floundering economy, a raging pandemic and the worst migrant crisis in recent months. And it is now all set to sail through the standoff with the Chinese.

The Congress is making a valiant attempt to tarnish Modi’s image but it lacks credibility and an articulate leader to convince the public that Modi has failed to live to their expectations. Eventually, Rahul Gandhi’s persistent attack against the Prime Minister could well be reminiscent of his campaign on the purchase of Rafale aircraft when his slogan “chowkidar chor hai” only ended up strengthening Modi.

Migrant Crisis Will Haunt Modi Govt 2.0

The first anniversary of second term of the Modi Government will be characterised forever with images of poor migrant workers left struggling as if refugees walking aimlessly in a war zone, even reminiscent of pictures from the Partition. There are comparisons with Trump as self-adulation now deflated by events gives way to venting false anger against the states trying to cope with the Centre’s poor handling of the Corona Pandemic.

The unending exodus of penniless migrant workers triggered by the corona lockdown has cast a long dark shadow over the Modi government as it completed one year of its second term in office on May 30. This should have been a grandstanding of glorious achievements attained against apparent great odds with self-congratulatory speeches. It has turned into a media exposure of its shortcomings.

Though Modi and his ministers marked the occasion by flooding major newspapers with lengthy columns detailing the government’s key decisions over the past year, they could not get away from recurring reports and images of lakhs of stranded migrant workers struggling and trekking thousands of kilometres with little or no food and money to reach the safety of their homes. Their little children in tow or being carried. It is an image of a country still in the underdeveloped stratus of economies. But India is the fifth largest economy in the world!

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The Modi government has reason to be perturbed by these reports as they reflect poorly on its handling of this humanitarian crisis.  It is obvious that the Centre failed to anticipate the rush of migrants when the Prime Minister declared the first nationwide lockdown on March 24 at four hours’ notice. It was a failure of foresight. Worse, the Government remained in denial about the plight of the migrants for nearly two months after the lockdown was first imposed. 

Why four-hour notice? Not even the world’s most advanced countries would have had the courage to attempt such an ambitious clear out of the streets. In India, where millions sleep in the streets and hundreds of millions live in dire poverty living from day to day on available labour, away from family and home, this was a decision of astounding daring and unexplainable rationality.

For days those who had grown to gain some confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic suddenly wondered where is the planning, when they saw pictures of poor straddling to nowhere land. Surely the Modi Sarkar must have commandeered the great network of national and public transport at no costs barred to take migrants to safer places with safe physical distancing. Nothing.

This transpired to be another notebandhi type decision without any planning, without any infrastructure in place and with little regard to the poorest. They suffered the most then and they suffered most in this apparent show of strongman Modi. But the strong are not meant to hurt the weakest.

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With the government’s image now taking a severe beating, a defensive BJP has played the Trump card and countered charges against it by turning the spotlight on the poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic in opposition-ruled states. The saffron party is at pains to point out that it was actually the state governments that had failed to pass on the money and other benefits announced by “Modiji” to the rightful beneficiaries. So many echoes of America where Trump has blamed the states for the hundred thousand deaths. Trump can also blame China, but Modi cannot blame Pakistan this time.

At the same time, it is running a campaign to publicise the Modi government’ efforts to shore up the economy and focus on the specific relief measures initiated by it to provide succour to migrants, farmers and daily wagers.     

As part of this plan, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressed a series of press conferences to unveil the details of the Rs.20 lakh crore economic package which had been announced earlier by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation. 

This was followed by a string of interviews by Sitharaman to media houses in which she explained the benefits of the stimulus package and responded to critics about its shortcomings. 

Though the government’s package could have been announced at a single press conference, Sitharaman instead chose to phase it out over five days, a PR exercise in itself.

It is obvious as anything. The Prime Minister’s first announcement about the package and the finance minister’s follow-up explanatory media briefings were essentially an exercise in “headline management”, an attempt by the government to divert attention from the heart-breaking media reports about the migrant workers.  

And yet the migrant story refused to go away. 

The Modi government’s initial assessment that the situation would soon settle down came to a naught as there has been no stopping of this exodus and no end to the misery of those forced to make their way home on their own.

Television news channels, newspapers and even international media have been replete with reports about the plight of stranded migrant workers. And how they are cycling, walking on highways, tramping through fields and hitching rides in trucks and tempos in their desperation to get home. Many dying as well from accidents, exhaustion and illness. More than hundred migrants have lost their lives in accidents while undertaking this perilous journey.  

Managing the fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the underbelly of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Over the six years it has been in power, the saffron party has finessed the art of messaging and acquired an expertise in setting the political agenda. Events have taken over now. Neither twitter nor an adulating press can hide the scars of a badly planned response to the pandemic. Ordering shutdown was much easier than planning for one.

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But the corona crisis proved to be a rare occasion when the BJP and the Modi government’s strenuous efforts failed to change the narrative in its favour. Realising that the government’s image was continuing to suffer, the Modi government decided to operate Shramik special trains to transport migrant workers to their villages. 

Coming nearly two months after the first lockdown was declared, the operation of special trains is a proverbial case of too little, too late. The inept handling of the travel arrangements only added to the government’s woes. Its decision to bill the migrant workers for their fare home provided fresh ammunition to the government’s critics to mount a fresh attack against it.

As if it did not have enough on its plate, the ensuing war of words between the BJP and opposition made matters worse for the Modi government. Cooperative federalism was forgotten and politics was soon at play in the middle of the greatest threat in modern times.

Unable to cope with the rush of travellers on the special trains, Railway minister Piyush Goyal attempted to turn the tables and blame the chief ministers of opposition-ruled states for not giving their consent to receive the Shramik special trains. 

West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee was the main target here as the BJP is expanding its footprint in this Eastern state and with assembly elections due next year, the saffron party did not want to pass over this opportunity to show her in poor light. It had earlier buttonholed the Mamata Banerjee government for not following the COVID-19 guidelines and has periodically fielded West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankar to needle the chief minister. 

And then there was the unedifying spectacle of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath engaging in a war of words with Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra over ferrying migrants from UP to their native villages. The Congress leader wrote to the chief minister, seeking his permission to transport them in the 1,000 buses which had been especially commandeered by the party. 

The Yogi government first said no, then yes and then demanded necessary documentation of the vehicles. This back-and-forth continued for some time and finally ended with the Congress sending back the buses parked for the stranded migrants at the state borders, accusing the Yogi government of indulging in petty politicking.

There is no denying that the migrant crisis has tarred the Modi government’s image. And yet there is little doubt that it will eventually emerge unscathed from this mess thanks to a lacklustre and divided opposition. Unless the opposition comes from a coalition of state parties.

But, for the moment, the government is merely in damage control mode.

Modi’s Gujarat Model Blown Apart By A Virus

How myths collapse when faced with reality! When Narendra Modi swept to power in 2014, his meteoric rise from chief minister to the national political stage was attributed essentially to the success of his Gujarat model of development which was touted to have transformed his home state into a living paradise. But six years later as India battles the Covid-19 pandemic, the Gujarat model of development is unravelling.

The fancy infrastructure in the state’s main urban centres, the uninterrupted power supply, the extensive road network and the flow of private investment have proved to be of little help in handling the rising number of novel coronavirus cases. 

For the record, Gujarat is among the top three states along with Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu which have the highest number of corona infections and deaths in the country. Till May 23, Gujarat had recorded a total of 13,300 coronavirus cases with a seven-day growth rate of 7.66 per cent and over 800 fatalities, second only to Maharashtra which tops the list. 

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Unable to handle the corona crisis, Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani has consistently blamed the spread on the large number of Gujarati Muslims who travelled to Delhi in early March to attend a religious meeting of the Tablighi Jamaat, “a missionary movement”.

While this finger-pointing helps push the Bharatiya Janata Party’s communal agenda, the truth is that Gujarat is currently paying the price for its poor public health system. It is an acknowledged fact that successive state governments did not invest adequately in public health facilities. With the state showing little interest in this vital sector, it has been open season for private players whose medical services are more expensive and, therefore, beyond the reach of the poor. 

If Rupani is struggling today to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, Modi has to share the blame as he did little to ramp up the rickety health care infrastructure in the state during the 13 years he was chief minister.   

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The budgetary allocation for the health sector in Gujarat can only be described as meagre. The state’s outlay for health and family welfare sector was Rs.923 crore for 2020-21, down from Rs.10,000 crore spent in 2018-19. These official figures tell their own story. Even states like Rajasthan and Bihar, which are not exactly known for their high-quality health infrastructure, have higher budgetary allocations for the public health care facilities.

In that case, what exactly is the famous Gujarat model of development all about?  This model is essentially focused on building infrastructure – from roads and highways to tall impressive buildings, and attracting foreign and domestic investments. During the years when Modi was chief minister, Vibrant Gujarat summits, were organised every alternate year to attract private investment to the state. This high-profile event was chalked up as Modi’s personal achievement as it brought in private investment to the state. This open invitation to industrialists to set up shop in Gujarat also won him the support of the corporate sector which literally went out on a limb to support Modi’s candidature as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial face in 2014.

But in the process of building infrastructure, encouraging industrial growth and promising ease of doing business, Modi failed to pay sufficient attention to human development which clearly did not figure as a priority area for him. The result was that while Gujarat made impressive gains on the economic front and registered high growth rates, its social indicators lagged far behind. 

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The economic strides made by Gujarat were flouted as a success story, worthy of replication across the country. However, this was only half the story. It failed to tell you that the economic gains had not percolated down to benefit the larger mass of people and had instead been cornered by a small affluent minority. The vast majority continued to live in poor conditions with little access to quality health care or hygiene standards. Whether it is the health of children or the mortality rates of adults, Gujarat does not boast of a good record.  

Then again the Gujarat model has not been kind to the large army of migrant workers who have travelled from as far as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar Odisha and Rajasthan to work in the state’s industrial units or in the unorganised sectors. Since most of the migrants are poor and semi-literate and, unable to speak up for their rights. 

If it was not for the corona crisis, the plight of these migrant workers would have gone unnoticed. They have been living and working in pathetic conditions with the host state failing to acknowledge their contribution to Gujarat’s economy. Denied their wages during the lockdown and no proper food and shelter, angry migrant workers in Surat and Vadodara have staged angry protests, which have even turned violent on occasion, to demand food and a passage back home to their native village.

And if it was not for the COVID-19 pandemic, the myth about the Gujarat model of development would not have been busted. It took a miniscule virus to expose the underbelly of Gujrat model.

Statism In Time Of Pandemic

Politics, it seems, is one part of national life that does not go into lockdown. Beneath the appearance of the whole country united in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the undercurrents of State-Centre relations continue.

These are testing times for Prime Minister Narendra Modi who hopes to come out of this with national as well as international compliments on his handling of the crises.

But it is the chief ministers who are actually doing all the heavy lifting in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic in their respective states. And they are not all getting the equal recognitions or complete support they deserve.

Faced with a serious public health emergency and a looming economic crisis, the chief ministers have a lot at stake and are, therefore, putting their best foot forward in managing the deadly coronavirus outbreak. They know they will be judged by their handling of the crises.

Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot have come in for praise for their quick and deft management of the pandemic. Kerala was a step ahead of other states as a proactive chief minister lost no time in announcing a slew of social welfare measures and initiated steps for setting up quarantine centres and testing facilities. Kerala has an advantage over other states as successive governments have invested heavily in health infrastructure. Gehlot also displayed similar alacrity in ordering an immediate shutdown, door-to-door surveys, testing and monitoring in Bhilwara when it was hit by a rush of infections. The Bhilwara model has since been replicated in other states.

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Among the other chief ministers – Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee – face a big challenge as Assembly elections are due in both the states. Bihar goes to polls later this year while elections in West Bengal are due next year.

Of the two, Nitish Kumar has to be on top of his game because the Bihar Assembly elections are to be held this November which gives him a small window of opportunity to contain the pandemic. The chief minister’s handling of the corona crisis will predictably be a major issue in these polls and have a huge bearing on Nitish Kumar’s electoral prospects. Though his government is making all-out efforts to procure testing kits and protective equipment for the medical staff, the chief minister has a tough task on hand as Bihar does not boast of a strong health infrastructure.

Then there is the troubling issue of migrant workers from Bihar who have been working in other states but now wish to return home as they have no jobs or money. Nitish Kumar was initially reluctant to facilitate their return as there was a fear that the infection could spread to the rural areas with the influx of such a large population. He first transferred a sum of Rs. 1,000 each to the one lakh-plus stranded migrant workers but later agreed to ferry them back after the Centre made necessary arrangements for their journey home by train. Nitish Kumar was forced to give in because migrant workers are an important vote bank as most of them invariably come home to cast their vote.

As BJP’s alliance partner, Nitish Kumar has been fortunate to get special treatment from the Centre which is more than willing to bail him out. The saffron party also has a big stake in the coming assembly election in Bihar. Nitish Kumar is further lucky as the opposition in Bihar is leaderless and hopelessly divided.

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Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, has a match on her hand as she has to contend with a strong and powerful rival in the BJP.  There is simmering tension between the Modi government and Mamata Banerjee with the Centre accusing her of withholding accurate figures of the corona cases and for not providing adequate quarantine centres and further lagging behind in testing. She has also received a lot of flak for indulging in minority appeasement by not enforcing the lockdown too strictly in the minority-dominated areas during Ramzan. To make matters worse, West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankar has shot off a series of letters to Banerjee charging that she had committed “monumental blunders” in handling the pandemic.   

Desperate and working hard to expand its footprint in West Bengal, the Centre has been particularly critical of the Trinamool Congress chief as the BJP believes this is an opportunity to show Mamata Banerjee in poor light.

Although West Bengal had ordered a lockdown before the Centre’s announcement and took necessary measures to manage Covid-19 cases, the Modi government chose to send an inter-ministerial team to the state for an on-the-ground assessment of the situation. This led to a war of words between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress with Mamata Banerjee accusing New Delhi of playing politics by singling out West Bengal for this treatment. Banerjee further alleged that the Centre had deprived West Bengal of its share of taxes and ignored her requests for additional funds required by the state to manage the pandemic.

While the Centre has not missed this opportunity to discredit Mamata Banerjee, it has been more generous towards BJP chief ministers. Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Gujarat’s Vijay Rupani and Uttar Pradesh’s Yogi Adityanath are struggling to contain the rising number of infections in their state but not too many questions are being asked of them by New Delhi. 

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Chouhan has a convenient explanation that he did not have sufficient time to make the necessary arrangements to deal with a crisis of this magnitude since he had taken over as chief minister when the pandemic had already gained a foothold in the state. However, Chouhan has no explanation for the fact that he had failed to appoint a health minister for nearly a month after he was appointed CM.

Unlike Chouhan, Vijay Rupani ought to have done far better as he inherited the famed Gujarat model of development, put in place by Narendra Modi when he was chief minister. This was expected to serve him well in the current situation. As it happens, the rate of infections in Gujarat is high and is continuing to climb.

Rupani’s lacklustre performance in managing the pandemic is matched by his poor handling of the large number of the restless migrant workers who were housed in makeshift camps in Surat and Vadodara. There have been several instances of violent clashes between the police and the migrants who wanted to go back home, giving the distinct impression that no one was in charge. 

Similarly, Yogi Adityanath’s efforts in dealing with the pandemic have also been found wanting. He is not helped by the fact that Uttar Pradesh’s health care infrastructure is shoddy to say the least. But, in his trademark style, Yogi Adityanath has conveniently added a communal tinge to Covid-19 pandemic and blamed the minorities for spreading the virus after a number of infections were traced to the Tablighi Jamaat assembly in Delhi. This has been exploited as a timely distraction from his government’s incompetence. 

Though Modi is being heaped with praise for his decisive leadership in this hour of crisis, the fact is that it is the chief ministers who have led from the front in this battle. There have been some signs of tension between the Centre and the states over the lack of funds and centralisation of powers by New Delhi but, for a change, the Modi government has chosen to listen to the chief ministers. It agreed to lift the ban on the sale of alcohol, as demanded by the chief ministers, as it had deprived the state governments of a  huge source of revenue which, it was pointed out, could have been used to ramp up their health infrastructure.

It is now to be seen if the Centre will put aside politics, be a uniting force, go a step further and release the pending share of taxes to the states and provide them with the monetary assistance they have demanded to help them deal with the corona crisis, whether they are pro or anti BJP.

State-Centre politics has not gone into lockdown, but it will be wise for Modi’s BJP to suspend it at least until the nation gets through the crises.

Who Is Next On BJP’s Radar?

Forget the Congress and Jyotiraditya Scindia drama. The Congress already seems to be in political ICU facing last rites having been crushed by BJP’s Congress-Mukt campaign. The next on the BJP’s predatory game are the regional parties. There is much nervous ness within the smaller regional parties as loyalties among their members are being tested.  

The members of the smaller parties are easier to “manage” and more susceptible to allurements and pressure tactics generally employed to “win” over vulnerable opponents. The saffron party made a beginning in this direction last year when four MPs from the Telugu Desam Party and three from the Samajwadi Party switched loyalties to the BJP. However, the regional parties can expect to feel the heat once the BJP leadership is satisfied that it has succeeded in its mission of decimating the Congress.

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The immediate provocation for engineering these defections is to push up the BJP’s tally in the Rajya Sabha where it does not have a majority. At the same time, the saffron party is also busy toppling state governments as it did in Karnataka last year and is currently in the process of bringing down the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh. 

The BJP felt cheated when it was prevented from coming to power in Karnataka in 2018 when the Congress and the Janata Dal (S) teamed up to form the government. The BJP had since then been waiting for an opportunity to get back at the Congress-JD(S) combine. It eventually met with success last year when sixteen MLAs from the Congress and the JD (S) resigned and crossed over to the BJP, enabling it to form the government in the Southern state.

In Madhya Pradesh, the drama unfolded when former Congress minister Jyotiraditya Scindia decided to switch sides when he found himself being sidelined by his party rivals – chief minister Kamal Nath and senior leader Digvijaya Singh. Denied political space in his home state and a Rajya Sabha seat by the Congress, Scindia chose to walk out along with his supporters. Sixteen Congress MLAs have sent in their resignations and were airlifted by the BJP to Bengaluru where they have been sequestered in a luxury resort.

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At the same time, the Congress is facing trouble in Gujarat where five MLAs have put in their papers, jeopardizing the party’s chances of winning two Rajya Sabha seats in the March 26 election. The Congress has since been struggling to keep its remaining legislators safe.

These developments are predictably being followed closely by the regional parties which realise that they are next on the BJP’s hit list. The Samajwadi Party and the Telugu Desam Party have already lost seven MPs to the saffron party and they don’t know what awaits them in the coming days. With West Bengal assembly polls due next year, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress has reason to worry. As it is, a number of Trinamool members had crossed over to the BJP in the run-up to last year’s Lok Sabha election and the party has every reason to believe the BJP will pull out all stops to weaken Mamata Banerjee before the assembly polls.

Moreover, regional parties feel that the weakening of the Congress and the emergence of a unipolar polity will hit them hard. Although these parties have been battling the Congress in their respective states, there is also a realization that if the grand old party faces extinction, the possibility of putting together an anti-BJP opposition front will become more difficult. Any such grouping necessarily needs the Congress to anchor it. However, if the Congress is rendered incapable of playing that role, it will become so much more difficult for the regional parties to mount a combined offensive against the all-powerful BJP because there will be no nucleus around which the parties can coalesce.

And this will make the regional parties more vulnerable to the BJP’s predatory moves. These parties will then have a choice of playing second fiddle to the BJP or facing erosion in its ranks. This situation suits the BJP as its leaders privately admit that they find it easier to deal with regional parties because they are “ideologically flexible” and purely focused on the interests of their respective states. Consequently, they can be co-opted with the lure of Central grants and special projects as regional leaders are made to realise the benefits of keeping the Centre on their right side. Odisha and Andhra Pradesh chief ministers Naveen Patnaik and Jagan Mohan Reddy have understood this well as their parties extend full support to the Modi government and are not inclined to rock the boat at the Centre.

Regional parties, especially the smaller ones, often stand to lose their identity and their political space if they throw their lot with the larger national party. The Uttar Pradesh-based Apna Dal is a case in point. The BJP wooed the party and even gave a ministerial berth to its leader Anupriya Patel in order to get the support of the Patels in the electorally-important Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh. But now that the Patels have shown a preference for the saffron party, Apna Dal and Patel now find themselves sidelined in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

From all accounts, it appears the regional parties face tough times ahead. BJP the predator is on the hunt and they appear to be easy game after Congress.