The Vote is For Course Correction but Will Modi Pay Heed?

If India is indeed Modi land, then surely West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala remain in a defiantly secessionist mood, happy to receive whatever tattered blessings their regional leaders have to bestow

BJP workers shower flower petals on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and senior leaders Rajnath Singh and M Venkaiah Naidu as they arrive at the party office in New Delhi on Thursday for a meeting after the assembly poll results. Credit: PTI/ Vijay Verma (PTI5_19_2016_000388B)

BJP workers shower flower petals on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and senior leaders Rajnath Singh and M Venkaiah Naidu as they arrive at the party office in New Delhi on Thursday for a meeting after the assembly poll results. Credit: PTI/ Vijay Verma (PTI5_19_2016_000388B)

Can the Centre hold? If so, how long and how effectively? These perennial questions assert themselves from time to time, and, indeed, the efficacy of any ruling arrangement at the Centre critically depends upon its political spread and electoral presence across the land. When the current national ruling party, the BJP, had suffered a decisive defeat in Bihar a few months ago, its impact made itself felt on how effectively New Delhi was able to conduct its affairs and push its policies and preferences at home and abroad. The Modi regime perceptively slowed down. So, now that Assam, Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry have voted, the question that needs to be posed and answered is: does the Modi-led NDA government now stand on firmer ground? Does the electoral outcome cumulatively constitute an endorsement of the Modi government’s partisan agenda and confrontational style?

Admittedly, the outcome in these five state assembly elections does not add or subtract from the Lok Sabha numbers, on either side. The BJP seems to have learnt a lesson or two from its defeat in the Bihar assembly elections and it wisely did not pitchfork the prime minister as the primary face of the party; Narendra Modi had to share the honours with local leaders and in Assam, the party had the good sense to announce a chief ministerial candidate.

Assam was the BJP’s to win: it had the advantage of 15 years of fatigue and tiredness with the Congress party’s very faded Tarun Gogoi; it had formidable regional allies, the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland Peoples Front; and it had the momentum of its own impressive performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, when the Modi juggernaut had yielded seven seats and 36% of the popular vote. In addition, the state was sufficiently primed for polarising tactics. It would have required an extraordinary bout of political ineptness for the BJP to have lost in Assam.

Besides Assam, the balance between national sentiments and forces and regional voices and aspirations remains uncomfortably precarious. Even in Assam, one national party has been replaced by another national party; in Kerala one national party-led front has been replaced by another national-party front, but the BJP remains a rather insignificant presence; in Tamil Nadu, one regional party has failed to dislodge another regional party, despite an alliance with another national party; and in West Bengal, a regional party has withstood a vigorous challenge from the Left-Congress, both notionally ‘national’ parties.

On balance, it is difficult to conclude that pan-Indian parties and their pan-Indian leaders have enhanced the area of their acceptability in the country. In fact, it is obvious that Modi, the only self-assertively ‘national’ leader, failed to cut any ice in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal with his message of ‘development.’ If India is indeed Modi land, then surely these three major states remain in a defiantly secessionist mood; happy and contented in receiving whatever tattered blessings the regional leaders have to bestow.

The Congress’s elbow room nationally stands considerably shrunk. There are two less chief ministers who would come to pay obeisance to the high command in New Delhi. While the Congress decimation may cause considerable joy to the Ashoka Road partisans, it can be no consolation to a “centrist.” The Congress loss has brought no exponential gains for the BJP. On the other hand, the harsh reality remains that the Indian state and its best and enduring interests are best protected by a reasonably robust — but, also, politically sustainable — governing arrangement in New Delhi.

What the results mean for the BJP

Is, then, the Modi sarkar better placed to succeed nationally than it was till its victory in Assam? The answer is not all that obvious. Granted, the Assam victory would certainly uplift the post-Bihar defeat mood; but that is about it. The BJP’s political spread remains limited; it is miles away from acquiring that all-India presence that once was the defining feature of the Congress. How effectively can New Delhi govern without a commensurate political presence throughout the country? All said and done, the Union government will still have to deal with three additional less-than cooperative governments in Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram,and Kolkata.

From the national point of view, there is some additional collateral damage. The national taste-makers —the English television channels — with their righteous cant about ‘corruption’ stand rebuffed. Manipulated by the BJP’s media handlers, these self-styled “mainstream” opinion-manufacturers went hammer and tongs at the ‘corruption’ of the Trinamool Congress bosses. The voters in West Bengal simply had no time for them and their bogus indignation. Nor did the “national” media and its nightly inquisitions affect voters in any of these five states. Those who claim to shape the national discourse are the prime losers after the Thursday count.

The “Centre” and its votaries remain precariously perched, while the Indian state finds itself having to cope with a relentlessly unfriendly environment all around. This is a matter of national concern. Or, at least this ought to be. Confusion and disarray at home never helped a nation acquire respect in the world’s chancelleries.

So, do these results constitute an endorsement of the Modi sarkar’s performance and the prime minister’s own overlordism? Or is there a message for course-correction?

Only in Assam could Modi effectively sell new political possibilities, with a subtle kneading in of a parochial sales-pitch; otherwise, the message of modernity, the mantra of vikas, the mask of inclusiveness, and the pretence of global acceptability found no takers in the other three major states. An overwhelming number of voters remained unimpressed and indifferent to all the tall claims of this or that “achievement”.

This too should be no surprise. The 2014 assets of moral trust and political integrity have been conspicuously squandered — in the underhand attempts to dislodge duly elected governments in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand; in the crude campaign to browbeat institutional stakeholders; in the unbecoming attacks on the judiciary. It cannot go unnoticed that just a day before the five assembly election results were to come out, the BJP quietly admitted into its ranks nine rebel Congress MLAs from Uttarakhand, none of whom is a paragon of political virtue or personal honesty. The BJP that approached the voters in these five states was devoid of its 2014 sheen.

The 2016 vote can give a kind of second wind to the Modi government provided it is understood as a vote for moderation and sobriety. The voters in their wisdom have reminded us all that reasonableness, restraint and reciprocity are essential virtues for rulers who wish to ensure the good health of the Indian state and work for the collective well-being of Indian society.

Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune

Courtesy: The Tribune

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