World opinion and economic necessity do matter. And that is why the Modi government finds itself constrained to explore a rolling back of the ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets. The notification was a natural progression of the Modi government’s strategy to use the cow as a tool for consolidating the Hindu vote bank. It appeared to look the other way when Hindutva vigilantes resorted to extortion and lynching; the state governments too failed to prosecute them; the lumpens demanded a comprehensive anti-cattle slaughter law. Largely from urban areas, these Hindutva cheerleaders were uninformed about the role of cattle slaughter (not cows alone) in our daily lives and its integrality of rural livelihoods.
But it is unpardonable for the Modi government now to pretend to be surprised at the consequences. That is what policy making is all about. Didn’t it know the ban will hit more than the meat industry? Or that the cattle let loose were extracting environmental costs and destroying the livelihoods of Hindus, Jains and Muslims alike? The fact is only 30 per cent of the carcass is used for meat. The rest goes into the making of at least 50 items of daily use. As far as cows go, the Modi government needn’t have burnt the midnight oil to frame laws or its leaders to go around stumping for the cause and leave unbridgeable social tensions in their wake. All that the government had to do, if the cow cause was actually close to its heart, was to implement in spirit a Supreme Court order upholding anti-cow slaughter laws in about 20 states.
However, utopian visions come crashing down in the actual world. And that is what happened with the ban. New Delhi’s obsession had begun to disrupt rural lives. Prices of many downstream products from shoes to buttons were bound to shoot up. A study showed it would cost over Rs 5,000 crore annually to feed all the bulls in Maharashtra alone. For outsiders, India began to look like Pakistan Lite without the bomb blasts. The political reward from the ban began diminishing when benchmarked against the costs of rural distress and foreign opprobrium. Irresponsible politics invariably produces bad politics.