Padmaavat protests expose the political vulnerability of the BJP

To see a strong government, which is ideologically committed to the idea of a strong State, unable to control the worst impulses of society reveals the sheer hollowness of its beliefs and incompetence

The protests over Padmaavat and the open vandalism on the streets across north and west Indian states exposes a peculiarly Indian political paradox.

A hallmark of the ideological platform of conservative — or Right of centre — parties is their deep belief in the need to strengthen State authority and an uncompromising stance on its monopoly over force. There may be different views on the function and expanse of the State among conservatives, but the fact that a strong State providing order in society is essential is a key ingredient of their political thought. Such parties often accuse the liberals of being too ‘soft’ on social forces which disrupt order. They have disdain for negotiations with forces which in any way dilute the State’s capacity and authority. They pride themselves on strengthening its coercive machinery, and project the State apparatus as rising above society and its pressures. The strongman leader is supposed to exemplify precisely this trait.

And that is why it is a paradox that it is under India’s first truly Right-wing government, with a strong leader, with similar claims of providing a strong State, India is actually seeing a weakening of the State.

That is the larger, deeply worrying trend line thrown up by the Padmaavat protests. Society is diverse. It is also often in conflict. You will have groups unhappy with other groups. The dissatisfied have constitutional and political channels to express it. But once those institutional channels are exhausted, besides peaceful protests, these groups have to accept the rules of the game and allow other groups to have their way. And it is up to the State to enforce those rules of the game. This is the basic contract for which State has been invested authority and legitimacy.

In the Padmaavat case, the State has allowed Karni Sena to make a mockery of existing institutions; it got blackmailed — or saw it politically expedient — to force its postponement; it then allowed the Karni Sena to define the terms of the debate — does the film respect or insult Rajputs — rather than categorically assert that once it was certified and had gone through due process, the content was irrelevant; then various state governments — with the Centre turning a blind eye — allowed goons of the Sena to rampage across parts of India contravening the rights of all other citizens, including children; it has done little to act against this group despite criminality and it has done little to reassure other citizens that their right to either watch the movie or even to walk the streets of say a Gurugram or Jaipur will be protected in the face of the mob.

This is a remarkable story of abdication of political and administrative responsibility. The state governments of Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat — all ruled by the strong BJP — have given into self-appointed defenders of one social group at the rights of all other citizens. But the Centre cannot escape blame either by terming it a state specific law and order issue. It is a national issue today. A breakdown of law and order allows the Centre to act. There are both issues of life of citizens and liberty involved. The irony is that despite the BJP doing its best to ‘appease’ the Rajput group because it sees the community as a key social base, Rajputs feel the BJP has let it down — and may even vote against the party in the upcoming Rajasthan Lok Sabha bypolls.

To see a strong party with such wide support get so scared of one small rag tag mob army since it claims to speak for a dominant caste reveals the BJP’s political vulnerability. To see a strong government, which is ideologically committed to the idea of a strong State, unable to control the worst impulses of society reveals the sheer hollowness of its beliefs and incompetence. As a violent mob takes over areas next to the capital, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must use his political capital and assert power where it matters. It is time to restore the authority of the Indian State.