If there is one overarching takeaway from the reshuffle of the Union Cabinet effected by Prime Minister Narendra Modi it is his reliance on social engineering.
First put into motion substantially by the Prime Minister’s political mentor and former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani in the 1980s when the BJP was pejoratively referred to as a “North Indian Brahmin-Bania party”, social engineering and its many synonyms in Indian politics have since been mainlined by the saffron camp.
Emblematic of this approach of the BJP has been the creation of a new Ministry of Cooperation as part of the governance rejig both in terms of individuals and structures. The importance placed by the Prime Minister on the ministry ~ which seeks to aid and guide the politically powerful and cash-rich cooperative sector in the country which is a significant employment generator in states such as Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu ~ can be gauged from the appointment of his most trusted colleague, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, to head it.
Cooperatives in the states mentioned above have traditionally been led by women and men belonging to a cross-section of communities, ideologies, and political loyalties but Hindutva politics, whether of the inclusive or exclusionary variety, has till now failed to make significant inroads in this sector though individual BJP leaders may have had a measure of success.
The sugar cooperatives in Maharashtra, for example, have in recent decades provided the electoral base for Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar; similarly, the Congress and the CPI-M have been dominant in the cooperative sector in states such as Karnataka and Kerala respectively. This social-political base (bolstered by the many educational and financial institutions established by visionaries in the cooperative belt) which has proven very handy electorally for a gamut of political parties in agrarian areas, is now under threat by what appears to be a concerted effort by the BJP to raise the stakes.
The political fallout of this initiative, however, will be contentious because the cooperative sector is enumerated as a subject under the State List and opposition parties, especially of the regional variety, will resist any central guidance. That, however, is unlikely to prevent Mr Shah from implementing the Prime Minister’s plans for the sector; indeed, it could be argued, he will relish the challenge given avoiding confrontation has not been his leitmotif in the past.
A detailed blueprint of the priorities of the Ministry of Cooperation is still awaited but the cat has definitely been set among the pigeons. Senior Congress Party leader from Kerala Mr Ramesh Chennithala has written to his party leadership flagging what he termed this “RSS-BJP plot to take over a sector which has emerged out of inclusive, secular, social movements” and urged it to coordinate a response with other Opposition parties.
The Centre’s ordinance last year taking control of supervision of cooperative banks has already sparked a legal and political battle and its latest move is likely to ensure that stakeholder cooperation is unlikely going forward.