Lakshadweep and the trouble in paradise

A little known member of the Bharatiya Janata Party has set off a political storm in Lakshadweep, the tranquil archipelago of coral islands and reefs that makes up India’s smallest Union Territory (UT). He is the newly appointed administrator, Praful Khodabhai Patel, who in a telling picture on an official website can be seen bowing in what appears servile gratitude to his political master, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Patel was the administrator of the UT of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, where his profile notes that he is a diploma holder in civil engineering and began his career in the construction sector. Patel took over on December 8, 2020 as the administrator of the UT of Lakshadweep, where he is talking shades of a language that the BJP tried, tested and perfected first in Gujarat – the so-called story of development, contracts, power to detain, beef ban, control on the number of children you can have and some tough administrative action against local fisherfolk.

Patel himself is an import, with big questions on his qualifications to lead the islands. Lakshadweep is one more example of how bad things can get under the BJP.

Understandably, he has set off protests and demands that he be recalled, the strongest voices coming from Kerala, which is the closest in affinity and language and culture to the archipelago. There is enough already written on how the ecological balance of these frontier islands will be destroyed, of how the equivalent of a ‘Goonda Act’ is being enforced to stave off protests against the outpouring of “development” with the push for tourism and how this is a prescription-BJP agenda being forced on a population that is 96.58% Muslim (2011 census). For example, the draft ‘Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021’, published on 25 Feb. 2021, sets out “prohibition against selling or buying beef or beef products” (Section 8), “power to enter and inspect premises” (Section 9), “prohibition against slaughter without certificate from Competent Authority” (Section 5). Here’s a police State coming for the people of Lakshadweep, from not one but many angles as the administration prepares to welcome luxury tourism to the calm waters and the unspoilt beauty of the islands

In fact, just one day after he took over, Patel visited “various construction sites” and evaluated the developmental activities of Lakshadweep and ongoing projects. A little over a month later (Jan. 16-18, 2021), on a visit to Moola beach, he said this was an “apt location for adventure and beach tourism”. In Feb. 2021, official records show him again as visiting various construction sites. It is not that Lakshadweep does not need support and development; the kind of development being envisaged will wreck the islands, deliver an ecological disaster and render the local residents poorer, pushed to the margins of a model that will import advisers, strategists, hoteliers and the like.

In the changes that the BJP seeks, short termism, narrow mindedness and a twisted Hindutva agenda overpowers. This cannot offer lasting approaches or bring fresh thinking to the idea of people-led growth and development.

Patel himself is an import, with big questions on his qualifications to lead the islands. He was a Gujarat Assembly member who took over the State home portfolio when Amit Shah quit as Home Minister in Gujarat following his arrest in the Sohrabuddin case. Patel lost a subsequent election there, even when the BJP won the State. He is quite obviously close to the leadership to be handpicked to run first Daman & Diu and now Lakshadweep, even though he is a political lightweight. Something has pulled him to the top of a place he knows nothing about and he thinks not twice about pulling it apart. There will be a battle to get him out and there is no means of saying if this will succeed,

This is the harm the BJP delivers to the nation and its unity and strength – naked, in your face, care-a-damn and often openly and defiantly on an ugly agenda. Lakshadweep is one more example of how bad things can get under the BJP. We stand to lose freedom, integrity of political process, the safety of our land and people and an ethos that has helped the nation stand proudly democratic while others around us failed.

The kind of development being envisaged will wreck the islands, deliver an ecological disaster and render the local residents poorer, pushed to the margins of a model that will import advisers, strategists, hoteliers and the like.

But there is another loss that the BJP delivers that is not so well discussed in the face of the nakedness of the obvious, in-your-face, harm. And this is that it pretends to bring change, like the argument that political leaders can head UTs, and why should it be that only a retired bureaucrat be given this portfolio, as has been the case in the past. This is a fair argument and the BJP could have set a new precedent by giving the UTs a clean, efficient, people-oriented leader who understands local sensitivities and protects and guards and empowers. That would be the best way to show that political functionaries can lead as administrators in a way that bureaucrats, often retired after long years of comfortable berths, cannot. But even in this change, the BJP has delivered a no-ball.

Patel is the administrator you can pick and say this is the kind you do not need, and that the practice of having bureaucrats here must therefore continue. In short, there is nothing on the agenda of change from past practices that can stand out as fundamental and constructive in the approach, outlook and direction of the BJP.

Lakshadweep is only the latest hot spot in a national heat map that is burning India across many places and institutions.

In the changes that the BJP seeks, short termism, narrow mindedness and a twisted Hindutva agenda overpowers. This cannot offer lasting approaches or bring fresh thinking to the idea of people-led growth and development. This is so in every sphere. The BJP tends to speak of the rich history of India but it has done nothing to support, build or nurture the depth of study that the Indian scriptures or wisdom traditions offer.

In fact, its leaders standout as unscholarly and understand none of the values that make India what it is. The BJP speaks of the depth of Indian thinking, but it has done everything to smother dialogue, debate and openness – the very stuff that is inherently Indian and has deep traditions in Indian society. The BJP speaks of ‘Lutyens Delhi’ that it wants to break but it is only creating its own version of Lutyens Delhi, with its pick of players. In short, look around and what we can see is a party in a hurry to capture, command and control, all in the name of the rich traditions that make India great but in actuality it is an attack on those traditions to make India smaller and smaller, day by day. Lakshadweep is only the latest hot spot in a national heat map that is burning India across many places and institutions.

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)