Narendra Modi has scripted another spectacular political triumph. Before the election, there was a lot of hollow speculation; after the election, there will be many post-mortems. But there is no denying one straightforward fact: Modi is an unprecedented phenomenon in the annals of popular politics. He has reduced his competition to minions fighting over scraps. He has weathered every criticism. He has taken every risk and put himself on the line. He has defied every prediction, and written his own script of popular acclamation. No conventional wisdom of politics applies to him. Modi still manages to make other parties look like tired, corrupt, negative emblems of the past; people still repose faith in him as the energetic, clean, dynamic, hopeful repository of the future. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, it will be churlish not to acknowledge this political fact.
The election consolidates the BJP’s dominance. The BJP’s triumph in UP, coming on the heels of a strong showing in local polls in Maharashtra and Orissa, consolidates its electoral dominance. This is made more robust by its social dominance — its social base now has an unprecedented depth and breadth. It has negated ossified logics of caste arithmetic to win over substantial numbers of OBCs and Dalits in addition to upper castes. The unacknowledged social story in the BJP’s rise is its transformation of the rules of caste politics and aligning them to a larger narrative. Almost no other party is able to tap into this transformative urge.
As far as electoral politics goes, the obsession with the mathematics of every sub-caste tells us more about an elite trying to do cheap sociology, entirely ignoring the fact that people are willing to vote big mandates, if they seem convinced of your sincerity and capability. And now, the BJP is also poised to increase its institutional dominance; the victory has profound implications for its ability to shape so many institutions, from the Rajya Sabha to the presidency. And electoral, social and institutional dominance will inevitably lead to unchallenged ideological ascendancy as well. Now, Modi is a position to contemplate even far-reaching constitutional reforms like simultaneous elections.
We are entering a new era of extraordinary dominance by the BJP. All institutions will be tested. We can discuss criticisms of Modi to death. But one thing is clear — whatever validity they might have, they do not have any legitimacy. We can speculate on what enabled the BJP to achieve this. If Modi has built popular acclaim, Amit Shah and his team built extraordinary organisational capacity that can work with a strength and single-minded purpose that is unmatched. But the ideological narrative is harder to pin down. Is it nationalism, the civic aura that demonetisation created, the undercurrent of majoritarian consolidation, or just the sense many still have that Modi is at least trying to do something? These interpretations will reveal more about the political preferences of the interpreters than they will describe reality. There has been, since 2014, a new political language and aspiration in the making whose full contours we do not quite grasp. It has elements of populism, but not of a conventional kind that merely panders to popular comfort zones — after all, this prime minister asked the people to bear with him while he inflicted hardship on them. And they responded. It has elements of nationalism and majoritarianism. But it also fuses these with elements of progressive hope that makes it more than reactionary.
But what should worry the opposition is that Modi has managed to outmanoeuvre them on every faultline of politics. He always had the nationalism space. Now, he has occupied the anti-corruption space more credibly by demonetisation and the projection of his image. More remarkably, he has also managed to occupy the pro-poor narrative that parties like the Congress and BSP thought were their natural territory — the opposition is simply not finding an issue on which to outflank him.
The Congress will take consolation in the fact that the AAP has not displaced it as opposition. It will cling to solace from its victory in Punjab and strong showings in Goa and Manipur. But when all is said, there is no getting around the fact that Rahul Gandhi is now an unmitigated liability for the party; Punjab happened despite him and is a credit to Amarinder Singh. But Congress has almost no state leaders of this kind left. What diminishes the party even more is that there are no challengers to Rahul — the very lack of open revolt diminishes the party’s character to the point where it is now the object of outright contempt. The young guard in the party does not have the courage and risk-taking appetite to revolt against a leader whose consistent losing streak, misjudgement, lack of imagination and symbolic value as an exemplar of the corrupt old order has brought the party to an unprecedented low in UP: If they do not have the courage to stand up to Rahul Gandhi, what leadership would you expect from them on any other score?
The elementary lessons of politics that have propelled Modi into a popular figure are lost on the Congress — power is not an entitlement, it has to be created and wrested away from others.
The result is a big shock for the BSP and SP. Unless there is a spectacular turn of events, it is difficult to see the BSP rebounding from this jolt. Narrow caste-based parties are now a thing of the past. Social fragmentation is not an obstacle to large-scale political consolidation. The AAP will be disappointed that an opening did not translate into victory. They will now also face a tactical dilemma — except in rare circumstances, any gains they make are, in the initial phases, likely to come at the expense of the Congress more than BJP. This is a real possibility in Gujarat — one that could help the BJP.
The opportunities and risks Modi’s dominance poses should be left for another occasion. Today, we should humbly acknowledge that Modi’s star is soaring, while the opposition is crashing to the ground. Rather than begrudging Modi his victory, his critics need to ask, why is their political credibility so low? Some worry that the BJP’s dominance will turn into hubris. But the more immediate worry is that the despair of the opposition may turn into even more timidity and stupidity.