Voters Now Know Modi-Shah Aren't the Masters of Statecraft They Claimed to Be

For the nth time, both the ruling party and the opposition are being reminded that Indian voters are not to be taken for granted.

A striking change in the country’s political discourse seems to have been evolving over the past few weeks; now, with the by-election results out, it is writ large on the wall for everyone to see. The change is from “Can the opposition parties survive the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah onslaught in 2019?” to “Can the Bharatiya Janata Party survive the challenge to it from a single or united opposition platform?” In some ways, this is a great compliment to the vibrancy of Indian democracy, which has forever let it out not to take the Indian voter for granted. The message is there once again, for the nth time, for both the BJP and the opposition.

The BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine had worked out an invincible formula: wild promises in the name of vikas (development) at the macro level; and keeping alive innumerable micro-level communal fires on the ground. The formula was seen to be working for about three of the four years of the Modi-Shah regime, reinforcing the duo’s self-belief in the mastery of statecraft. Their lampooning of the past 70 years, “Kuchh nahin hua (Nothing has happened)”, was meant to impress on everyone this new departure in statecraft. A new era had dawned for Indian politics, which was unlike any other since independence.

The ‘vikas’ jumla 

The flaws in this strategy are now coming home to roost. Wild promises always boomerang on the promise maker. All the absurd assurances handed out in strident voice accompanying second-rate theatrics by Modi during the election campaign in 2013-14 are now being played out on social media in video clips to the BJP leaders as reminders; the joke is now on them. What if these get played on impromptu screens by opposition parties in their election campaigns for 2019? No repetition of their words by their opponents has the same impact as the audio-visual original clip has. Shah has also greatly aided the opposition by announcing that the promise of Rs 15 lakhs to every Indian citizen’s account was a jumla; consequently, ‘jumla baaz sarkar‘ has become the sticker on every new promise that Modi is throwing at the crowd. The second sticker is on incessant lying: jhuth ki sarkar.

The formula had a modicum of chance of working had Modi been able to fulfil any of even his not-so-wild promises – price control, help to farmers, some visible growth in jobs, controlling corruption, widening the circle and quality of education and health – most of which are within the realm of the possible, at least in part. But his performance on all of these scores is pitiful. Comparisons with the much-reviled UPA regime are now surfacing – to the detriment of Modi.

Divide and rule

It is understandable that Modi-Shah should avoid reference to vikas since last year, especially after the disastrous demonetisation. In the recent elections around the country, they have fallen back exclusively on the second string of their new statecraft: divide and rule. The dividend it paid them in Uttar Pradesh was overwhelming. It also follows, then, that the dividend that is now being withdrawn is also most dramatic in the recent UP by-polls, though this is largely true elsewhere as well. The message embedded in BJP’s defeats in the Hindutva heartland like Gorakhpur and Kairana (and not to forget Phulpur) could not have been delivered more vociferously.

The opposition parties have also taken care on two counts: the realisation that electoral arithmetic is dead set against any single party including the BJP (remember 31% vote share in 2014) and therefore combining votes is the only open option; and to focus their campaign not on the agenda set by the BJP but on the everyday problems of the people, especially farmers and the youth. In other words, the agenda should be set not by the leaders but by the people. And in the end, people’s problems consist of earning their livelihood and moving on with their lives; looking into their neighbours’ kitchens does not fill their bellies.

Like this, the agenda the BJP-RSS had set is being set aside. Life is resurfacing to assert its supremacy over divisive strategies. Interestingly, massive help from the electronic and print media, the mainstay of the new statecraft, so decisive in 2014, too has fallen prey to the inevitable rule of diminishing returns. It is fair to say that the media too has had some honourable exceptions. Once again, life asserting itself over fakery.

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, BSP’s Mayawati, SP’s Akhilesh Yadav, CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, and others attend Karnataka CM H.D. Kumaraswamy’s swearing in. Credit: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak

Modi-Shah will now hold forth on how opportunistic and unprincipled the opposition is in seeking to form a joint front against the BJP and seeking to make the forthcoming battle entirely presidential with the powerful TINA slogan. That is, if in desperation it does not launch massive communal conflagration à la 2002 or pick a tiff with Pakistan to drown out all other agenda. While several leaders like Mayawati have been warning people on these counts for over a year now, it is interesting how the same fears were expressed by the most ordinary villagers of Kairana, to at least NDTV reporters on camera after the poll results on May 31.

However loudly the BJP debaters on TV channels might shout, the elections in India have mostly been non-presidential. That is, people go to the polling booth to elect an MP and not the prime minister. It took the presidential format once when Indira Gandhi swamped the opposition in 1971 and again when Modi did it in 2014. No other election was won in the name of one supreme leader. After that presidential form of election, Gandhi had to bite the dust in 1977; let us see what happens in 2019. But the TINA factor has never worked twice. Besides, 2004 is an outstanding example of TINA’s grossest failure.

After a very successful term, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had a media-hyped India Shining record, with a young and dynamic Pramod Mahajan organising an army of even younger computer wizards at his beck and call, with the caste, religious and economic break up of every single constituency available in the BJP election war room, with a ‘world statesman’ Vajpayee, assisted by ‘lauh purush’ Advani, visible on every TV screen day in and day out, with the opposition in a shambles, with Sonia Gandhi’s candidature compromised by her foreign origin because of which many stalwart Congressmen had parted company, India still did not vote for a prime minister but for MPs from whom to choose the prime minister. And one who emerged prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was the least like a “president”. He ruled for ten long years.

Therefore, much as the BJP will try to pitch its campaign on the TINA factor in the absence of any other, it would be a fraught campaign.

The second, communal option is becoming less and less dividend-paying, and this has been established several times over in the last four years. First Delhi and then Bihar were the early warning signs. Recent election results from across the country have reinforced those signs.

Of course, hearing BJP leaders condemning opposition alliances as unprincipled and opportunistic would be great fun. Some amusement is welcome in these times of great tension.

Harbans Mukhia was a teacher of history at JNU.