Why the Uniform Civil Code is a red herring

We have seen this strategy before, says Aakar Patel, first with Ayodhya and then with Kashmir. Now those two are blown out of the water, the BJP needs fresh fish to fry

An illustration of the letters 'UCC' on the end of a fishing rod, strung like bait (illustration: P. Suresh/National Herald)
An illustration of the letters 'UCC' on the end of a fishing rod, strung like bait (illustration: P. Suresh/National Herald)

Aakar Patel

In 2019, energised by his terrific Lok Sabha win, the prime minister set off a series of ideological reforms. The gutting of Article 370, the legislation of the citizenship law and the criminalisation of Muslim divorce.

All these came from the Union. The BJP-ruled states, similarly enthused, wrote laws criminalising interfaith marriage and ruled on beef and hijab and other such things.

The Ayodhya judgement also came around the same time.

December 2019 was the high watermark of this period, when there seemed to be no opposition to implement the nationwide NRC and CAA.

Unfortunately for the prime minister, a series of reversals followed the flow of victories.

Protests across India ended the NRC–CAA policy. Though it was in the BJP’s election manifesto, it remains unimplementable three-and-a-half years later.

The census was likely also sacrificed because of this.

In Ladakh, the 'strong leader' narrative began to unravel quickly, as discretion was chosen over valour (unlike by Nehru).

Kashmir remains a mess, and the only part of undivided India today not under democratic rule.

Events in Manipur have shown fully the absence of application and put paid to any claims of good (or even any) governance.

Covid affected the world but few nations saw the extreme trauma of the second wave we had and India’s overflowing crematoria became a global story.

Opposing ordinances passed without debate during the pandemic, the farmers’ protest forced the government to reverse its laws and issue an apology.

Since that period of reversals, no new masterstroke has come.

And with good reason: when action without thinking produces failures and stalemates, then one most pause to consider what went wrong.

And yet now there is talk of the Uniform Civil Code being floated as one of the key issues of the 2024 election.

Like Kashmir and the NRC, it is on the party manifesto, which says that "BJP believes that there cannot be gender equality till such time India adopts a Uniform Civil Code, which protects the rights of all women, and the BJP reiterates its stand to draft a Uniform Civil Code, drawing upon the best traditions and harmonising them with the modern times".

There is a level of complexity required in this harmonisation and that is one of the reasons it has not happened till now.

The BJP inserted the promise most recently into its manifesto in Karnataka, but it had little traction, and that was for good reason.

It is not only one community that will see its personal laws on inheritance, adoption, marriage and divorce change, but all communities, if there is a UCC.

The NDA has 350 Lok Sabha and 100 Rajya Sabha seats. If it has a draft bill on the UCC, it should table and pass it. Talking about it is a waste of time when one is already in power and able to effect the change one wants.

However, there is a larger issue.

The second term of Modi has so far delivered an average GDP growth rate of under 4 per cent per year. Covid is only party to blame. The economy had slowed before the pandemic for the same reasons that are slowing it now — mainly, insufficient private investment, flat private consumption and flat merchandise exports. The first is because of a lack of confidence in corporate India about the medium-term economic future; the second because slow growth has cut what people have earned and can therefore spend; and the last because our exports rise and fall with global trade, which is currently in decline. Unemployment is over 7 per cent and labour participation levels at 40 per cent remain way below where they were 30 years ago.

These things will not be solved by a Uniform Civil Code. Just as these things were not solved by a new temple, another statue, change in the status of Kashmir or persecuting minorities through law. The large problems will remain.

What floating the UCC balloon will do instead is to keep the focus of politics and media away from the economy, from Ladakh, from Manipur and Kashmir.

Or at least attempt to do that — and we must accept that previous attempts have been successful.

A generation grew up thinking the main issue for the Indian democracy should be what was ultimately a dispute over property in one city. A significant part of national energy was expended on Ayodhya and the nation emerged from it exhausted. The same period also saw what is called liberalisation and the expansion of caste reservations, but these were normalised and accepted. The communal issue was kept going.

There will be many ways of responding to the BJP on this, from political and civil society opposition to litigation in courts (which will be inevitable) — and all of these are valid.

But there are two that also merit consideration, particularly for those people who have no strong feelings about the Uniform Civil Code. One would be to say to the BJP: Fine, go ahead with it if you have the votes for it. Show us the draft legislation and get on with it. Let Parliament decide if it is to happen. Another would be to say: Fine, this is on your manifesto, but so are economic growth and jobs, so are integrity in Ladakh and safety in Manipur. How does doing this now address the failures and problems in the rest?

The likelihood is that the BJP will try neither. It will instead merely talk about it, will stoke it using its stranglehold on the media and will communalise and polarise politics and society around it, as it has successfully done often in the past.

It is for the nation to determine whether this, like the other BJP issues before it, are the ones that politics and voting should be about.

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