Sunday, March 12, 2017

State Polls 2017: The New Indian Sustains The Modi Magic

When the BSP supremo Mayawati expressed suspicions regarding Modi’s stupendous victory in Uttar Pradesh, wondering how the BJP could have won in Muslim majority areas without having a single Muslim candidate in its fold, she was unwittingly confirming the rise of the New Indian – young, aspirational and impatient with traditional faultlines. The fact that Modi’s BJP did not back/nominate a single Muslim candidate and yet won in Muslim majority areas goes to the credit of the rise of the New Indian that comprises the Muslim youth too. While other parties were still pigeon-holing voters into traditional vote-bank slots, Modi recognised the change in the voters’ mood and came up with his ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ vision, which is standing him in good stead.

In fact, with landslide victories in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, BJP can legitimately claim to have finally won the so-called referendum on PM Modi’s policies, programs and performance, although the party leadership had unequivocally refused to look at the five state assembly polls as referendum.

Ever since Narendra Modi’s 2014 General Elections victory, several explanations were put forward by intrigued news analysts, political pundits and seasoned journalists. Some ascribed the victory to his rock-star image that dazzled the youth. Others described him as the darling of the middle classes who had promised them freedom from corruption, inflation and unemployment. Of course, there was no dearth of those who cited his unprecedented media blitzkrieg that overshadowed everything that the opposition parties could muster in terms of resources and rhetoric. Then there was the original image of Modi being the Great Hindu Hope, which he is keen to downplay if not shed altogether. All these factors have propelled him onto a journey of unprecedented and undreamt of political victories.

Modi’s every subsequent success was ascribed to the momentum gained in 2014, to divisive politics, to the purported appropriation of Congress icons like Netaji Bose, Sardar Patel, Shivaji etc., and ‘saffronising’ of the UPA-designed policies and programs. But, most mentioned and believed argument was that the Modi Magic was a creation of our media. Everybody believed that it would be impossible to defeat Modi in elections, until Bihar happened and the mood changed. Opposition parties heaved a sigh of relief. At last, the Modi juggernaut had been halted, the saffron balloon burst. Demonetisation was presented as the beginning of the end of Modi Magic. But that hasn’t happened, as proved by the poll results of 11 March, 2017.

Admittedly, along with its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, BJP has been routed in Punjab. It has also slipped from the seat of power in Goa and has ended up as runner-up in Manipur (it might yet form governments in the two states with the help of ‘others’). Yet the question remains: How has the Modi Magic endured for so long and is apparently becoming stronger? Demonetisation was supposed to boomerang on BJP’s poll prospects in these elections, especially in UP. But, the contrary has happened. In UP it has achieved an unprecedented landslide victory. In Uttarakhand, Harish Rawat seemed to be going strong, but has been unceremoniously unseated by the voters. Obviously something has gone terribly wrong for the rival parties. Currently, both the INC and the Samajwadi Party are under the scanner.

Uttarakhand presents a classic case of various ills that have come to be associated with the Indian National Congress: corruption, myopic vision and bad governance. The BJP had been trying every trick – legitimate or otherwise – to unseat Harish Rawat. It managed to take advantage of dissensions within the INC. Consequently, on 18 March, 2016, 9 Congress MLAs and 27 BJP MLAs met the state’s governor and claimed that the CM had lost majority in the Assembly. Irrespective of the result, it showed how assiduously the BJP was working on breaking into the INC’s turf. Coupled with rampant corruption and bad governance was the dispirited and divided Congress cadre that proved to be no match to the aggressive and cohesive BJP’s onslaught.

Although polarisation had been going on in UP for several years, it would not have given the BJP much advantage as the state is riven with mind-boggling divisions based on castes and sub-castes. BJP worked on those castes that were not empowered enough and had no political party to back them, the Rajbhars for example. BJP leaders claim that the Triple Talaq issue has brought young Muslim men and women into their fold. It is clear that Muslims did not vote as a block and got divided among BSP, SP, and Congress, with Shias probably voting largely for the BJP. But the deciding factor was the people’s ire and angst against large scale corruption and goondaism in the state. And the BJP leadership exploited this factor to their advantage. The infighting in the Yadav clan did not help matters at all. Akhilesh Yadav’s belated efforts at expediting various developmental projects did not beguile the voters. As for the Congress, it has clearly lost touch with the current political and economic aspirations of the common man. They are still caught in the 1980s mind-set. They talked of MGNREGA and subsidies, they tried to appeal to various caste groups and took the moral high ground vis-à-vis BJP’s ‘divisive politics’, but in vain. But for its landslide victory in Punjab, the INC was clearly heading for the oblivion.

However, the Indian National Congress would be mistaken if it looked upon the Punjab victory as a decisive turnaround in its fortunes. There are simply too many chinks in its armour. The Punjab victory is a combination of Amarinder Singh’s clean image and the people’s despair at the rampant corruption and crime perceived to be encouraged, if not actively patronised, by powerful elements within the SAD-BJP alliance. There was hardly any investment in the industrial sector. Services and agriculture sectors too were stagnating. Consequently, unemployment had reached scary levels. Then the government’s refusal to even acknowledge the widespread drug addiction among the state’s youth only reinforced the public perception that drug mafias had protection of powerful politicians.

If the Congress wants to capitalise on the unexpectedly huge electoral gain in Punjab, it will have to make earnest efforts at complete revamp right from top to bottom. Internal democracy will have to be introduced. Leaders will have to earn their place in the party’s hierarchy. Hard work, leadership qualities, positive image and track record must begin to matter in a Congress leader’s political profile. This will entail genuine interactions with common people, understanding their problems and making honest efforts at resolving them. This will not get them immediate results because it takes time for the distrust to turn into trust. And Congress politicians’ credibility has reached rock-bottom.

Coming back to the Modi Magic, there could be several reasons for its working. But, to my mind, the rise of the New Indian is proving decisive. He is not interested in traditional politics. He is not really interested in socialist shibboleths and has developed contempt for ‘secularism’ – which has come to be identified with cynical vote bank politics that has done immense harm to our social fabric and economic development. Ideologies leave him cold. He is aspirational and interested in tactile benefits. So, even as the left and liberal parties, especially the Congress, cry themselves hoarse over the Hindu Right’s identity politics, the ratcheting up of xenophobic and communal rhetoric, the New Indian has refused to be swayed away from what he wants. He refuses to be steadfast in his commitment to specific ideologies and is willing to vote across ideological and socio-economic fault lines. This should force political parties to recalibrate their public stances, something Modi has been quick to do. He has not hesitated from reinventing his political /ideological priorities if not the entire narrative. So, we have the face of the hard-core Hindutva BJP party refusing to abolish the populist welfare measures he had so disdainfully dismissed as wasteful and hotbeds of corruption. Modi also feels compelled to tone down, if not disown his party’s Hindutva agenda and reach out to minority communities. And this is what one finds so striking. A right wing politician has recalibrated his government’s policies by adopting left-liberal socio-economic policies and programs. He is now positioning himself as a genuinely secular, mainstream political personage and succeeding too.

There is a lesson in all this for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. 

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