The Congress Party is back in the game. For the Opposition, the energising takeaway from the results of the latest Assembly elections in India — the invincible image of the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been dented. The poll results from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan — the Hindi heartland — have delivered shock and awe to the BJP, which won all the major states barring Delhi, Bihar, Punjab and Karnataka in elections held after the dramatic 2014 Lok Sabha poll victory.
This is the story of the moment. But not the entire story.
This isn’t how the BJP’s spin masters and pundits will frame the narrative in the coming days. Expect everyone and everything else to be scapegoated, as has started happening already, to keep the sheen on Brand Modi. But while no one should grudge the Opposition its well-deserved moment of glory, it’s important not to get carried away by the story of the moment.
As an ordinary Indian citizen, the two questions that concern me the most today are: first, how are the poll results likely to impact the economy and the Modi government’s grand vision of “vikas”; and second, will the BJP tone down its Hindutva agenda which has led to toxic polarisation of society? Both affect our everyday lives.
If Tuesday night’s statements by BJP spokespersons hopping from television studio to television studio were any indicator, it’s not very clear what the final strategy will be in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
But a few things are clear — despite the Opposition’s euphoria, the personal brand of Mr Modi remains high, and it won’t be easy to puncture that. While the Congress and the Opposition are on a good wicket, it’s foolish to get complacent and bask in the glory of the recent poll verdict and to underestimate what BJP strategists would and could do in the coming days.
There are serious concerns about the state of the economy, an ongoing severe agrarian distress, evident in the gut-wrenching stories one heard from farmers from across the country who gathered at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan recently, the lack of hope among millions of young people looking for jobs and a better future. And the widely-held perception that key institutions in the country are being undermined.
While India is on the brink of a quantum leap in wealth generation with the number of very rich Indians and their wealth expected to shoot up by a dramatic 87 per cent in the next five years, dalits, adivasis, farmers and many others are clearly unhappy with the BJP’s grand vision of “achche din”, or good times.
Last week, during a trip to Mumbai, I spent some time talking to ordinary people who ran small businesses inside Dharavi, which tourist guidebooks typically label as Asia’s biggest slum. During one such sortie, I found myself in Kumbharwada, the potters’ colony. Most of the potters there are Gujaratis who settled in Mumbai. Their businesses, they said, weren’t doing well. The input costs were too high, they needed infusion of new technology to keep up with potters from elsewhere, including Gujarat, where the state government has apparently been more supportive. Few among the young generation wanted to be traditional potters.
But here’s the nub. The faith in Brand Modi was still there, though perhaps a little less. A potter I chatted with told me he felt proud of the “Statue of Unity” built as a tribute to “Iron Man” Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and inaugurated by the Prime Minister on October 31 on Sadhu Bet island on the Narmada river near Ahmedabad. “Now, everyone respects India. We have the tallest statue”. His everyday life had not improved but he had bought into the rhetoric of grandeur. He believed it.
Will the politics of temples and statues deliver electoral dividends? It’s hard to tell. Clearly, it doesn’t deliver jobs, fill stomachs, allay hunger, but symbols have been and will be spun. Make no mistake.
Which brings me to what many of us feel is the biggest worry today — the toxic polarisation, the “otherising” of entire communities, labelling of them as “aggressors”, the concerted efforts to erase their imprint in narratives of the country’s culture, and the high-decibel campaign around the building of the Ram Mandir.
Will the BJP junk this, and promote the “vikas” narrative alone? I would love to be proved wrong but one sees scant signs of that happening. Already, shrill voices in the social media are chorusing that what the BJP needs isn’t less but more unapologetic Hindutva and the Ram Mandir construction is a promise the party can’t go back on unless it wishes to lose its core constituency, and the Modi government must make it happen via an ordinance.
We are likely to hear more of the Ram Mandir, framed as a “cultural issue”, a collective people’s demand, not an election issue. Which means pressure tactics will go on.
Politics is about the art of the possible. That includes the defeat of those considered invincible. But politics thrives on unpredictability and from now till Elections 2019 is a short and long journey. Anything can happen. No side should expect a clean sweep.
As an ordinary Indian, one hopes and wishes for more focused discussions on the real issues — health, education, jobs, agrarian distress, social cohesion.
The drip-drip of toxic polarising rhetoric by the Hindutva brigade hasn’t led to India’s cultural regeneration. It has destroyed social cohesion and trust. One election won’t fix the problem but as ordinary citizens we must demand that those in power and those aspiring to be in power repair the fabric.
A divided India, resonating with divisive rhetoric, will deliver zilch to the ordinary citizen. Ordinary citizens must therefore be more alert and demand more transparency about what is actually happening on the ground. In the coming months, expect spinmasters on all sides to manufacture narratives that support their respective agendas.
But ultimately, voters call the shots, as the latest results show. And voters must not settle for statements of intent. They must ask searching questions about operations, about the tangible changes on the ground and about the winners and losers in this great game of change....