Harsh Vardhan (Photo: IANS)
The environment minister would be widely considered a “good guy”, but he is a political lightweight in a top-heavy government. Hence little importance is being accorded to his contention that the “cattle ban” imposed by his ministry (under instruction?) is not a prestige issue and the “government is open to suggestions”. Even while many wonder what further suggestions are awaited after the widespread condemnation of the underhand means to enforce a religion-angled ban on the consumption of bovine flesh (buffaloes have been conveniently clubbed with cows in the new regulations prohibiting the sale at cattle fairs of animals intended for slaughter), BJP-led state governments have been enhancing penalties for killing cows.
So at what is the environment minister promising to take a fresh look? The reaction from several states has been severe, economic experts ~ including the government’s own Chief Economic Adviser ~ have warned of a disruption of the livestock economy, and the leather trade is being flooded with queries from western markets if it will able to meet the “Christmas demand”. A string of resignations of BJP legislators in the beef-eating North-east points to the party’s bid to gain popularity there running into rough weather. Yet the finance minister dons his lawyer’s robes and insists the restrictions on cattle movement have nothing to do with cow-slaughter, while on this issue the Prime Minister seems to have lost his “twitter handle”.
Whatever Mr Harsh Vardhan may say, the issue is one of prestige ~ the political prestige of the Modi-Shah duo (some would prefer the names used in reverse order) for even more than demonetisation the cattle restrictions have created a “new” kind of opposition ~ one that could defy electoral reverse. For this government to modify its position now would appear to be buckling under pressure, and a climb-down for a man with the 56-inch chest whose “sensitivities” to non-saffron elements does not seem to stretch 56 mm. That Mr Harsh Vardhan was the first person in authority to talk in terms of “prestige” had an element of the confessional to it. That he has taken no formal action to review the order indicates that prestige is indeed at stake. Despite all the trumpet-blowing about “development”, the BJP operates from a solid religious-political plank. To now modify the order ~ exempt buffaloes for instance ~ would be seen as diluting the Hindutva agenda that has stood the party in good stead. The minority communities, Dalits, and folk in the North-east now pin their hopes on the judiciary to facilitate their protein requirements, as well as the economic survival of the leather trade so critical to the economically-deprived sections of society. Rahul Gandhi was half-wrong when he spoke of “suited-booted” ~ boots are generally made from leather.
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