Shikha Mukerjee | How the three-shell trick works in India’s politics

Update: 2023-01-02 18:30 GMT
Congress supporters at Bharat Jodo Yatra, in New Delhi, Saturday, Dec 24, 2022.(Photo: PTI)

India’s political theatre is tricky enough to negotiate. With all the hidden and visible bumps that can trip the best-laid plans of the most organised and efficient vote-catching machines in regular times, failing and falling is almost inevitable in more testing times.

The year 2023, which has been pitched by all political parties as the run-up to the 2024, when the Lok Sabha elections will be held, will be one of those years. Every leader worth his or her ambition will try to pull off the three-shell magic trick to make anti-incumbency and everything depressing or disappointing disappear and conjure up a zoom-boom in popularity. The reality be darned!

The simple trick is to reveal a pea hidden under a shell and then make the onlookers guess under which shell it is hidden, as the con artist slyly pushes the shells around to misdirect the eye. Every politician knows, some far better than others, how to hide the dirty pea under a shell and confuse the voter about where it went.

Every party has their favourite shell: the ruling BJP is on a loop, stuck on the Congress; the Trinamul Congress and Mamata Banerjee are stuck on the BJP and the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), while the Congress may have finally got its act together.

The new edition of the Congress includes a president who is a lifelong party worker but is not from the Nehru-Gandhi family, and a leader who is not the president. Through 2023, the most fiercely monitored leaders will be Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, in his new avatar, after walking and talking his way across India.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra began as a declaration of intent, to uncover the united, diverse and tolerant spirit that permeates the essential Indian and focus people’s attention on their power to raise their voices against the growing misery of their lives trapped in a cost-of-living crisis. No one expected Rahul Gandhi to actually walk, undistracted and uninterrupted, for over 100 days covering 3,500-odd kilometers before reaching New Delhi.

As he walked closer to the national capital, his status changed. He has become a popular and principled politician, intent on confronting the carefully constructed catalogue of Hindu and religious majoritarian grievances against the “Other,” categorised as the Muslim minority.

Instead of telling people to barricade themselves behind saffron barriers strung with the lotus and plastered with images of a militant monarch, that is, Lord Ram with his arrow ready to be let loose, Rahul Gandhi proved that neither fear nor hate is the pervasive spirit, that people are grimly coping with the problems of survival, including hunger, unemployment, joblessness, cutbacks in income and economic blight.

In 2023, these two narratives — Bharat Jodo versus Bharat Todo — will confront each other in nine separate state elections across India, from the Northeast, where Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura will vote, to the heartland, where Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will vote, down into the peninsula where Karnataka and Telangana will vote.

In nine different political arenas, the popularity of Narendra Modi will be tested, as will his performance in defending India against a potentially hostile neighbour, who has been encroaching on the Indian space with regularity through 2021 and 2022. This and the BJP’s spiel about unifying India for development through establishing a hegemony of a One Nation-One Party by setting up “double engine sarkars” will be judged across nine different geographies, because India’s diversity is as much a fact of nature as it is of culture and civilisation.

Till Rahul Gandhi walked himself into the popular imagination, overshadowing him was easy and using the Congress as a punching bag of every imagined or real past act of omission and commission was politically convenient. It has suddenly become less easy for Narendra Modi to paint himself as the superstar, because Rahul Gandhi is not as light a political weight as before.

Nor is Rahul Gandhi, as a leader, burdened by his record of achievements and failures as the head of an elected government. Narendra Modi, on the contrary, has a record. He was chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014; he has been Prime Minister since 2014, for almost nine years now. He has had to lead and handle the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, a global health crisis of unprecedented proportions.

The tanking global economy has shored up India’s image and allowed it to claim to be the fastest growing economy in 2022, but it is a hollow triumph. The reality, and every citizen is facing it, is very different.

Therefore, Narendra Modi and the BJP will have to work on generating a new version of the old Congress tale, of a family enterprise the only purpose of which is to guarantee the uncontested ascent of the Gandhi scion. The BJP and Mr Modi will need to calibrate the tale of a Congress in its death throes and the BJP as the only national alternative, because the Bharat Jodo Yatra has proved conclusively that the Congress, though currently dormant, is far from extinguished.

Whether Rahul Gandhi will have the stamina to engage Prime Minister Modi over the next 18 months in the inevitable grind of state Assembly electoral contests up until the 2024 Lok Sabha is anybody’s guess, given his past record as an adept at the vanishing trick. Even if he does disappear, albeit temporarily, he will nevertheless be the persona that Mr Modi will have to fight, as a very large, if shadowy figure, in the reconstructed stage following the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the undeniable exuberance that has bubbled up as he trekked through rural India. In the run up to 2024, the two ideological constructs of India —  secular, heterogeneous, democratic and free-willed on the one hand versus shuttered, aggressively Hindutvavadi though Muslim fearing and so armed with hate and spite, determinedly homogenising even of Hindu practice, on the other, will confront each other.

Both Mr Modi and the BJP have mastered the art of the three-shell game. It remains to be seen how skilled the Congress and the other regional Opposition parties are in the sleight of hand and misdirection of attention in countering Mr Modi and his promise of a lotus revolution.

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