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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

What the March 2022 assembly election results reveal

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: The BJP has transformed the nature of politics in ways to which the Opposition has no answer.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Updated: March 17, 2022 11:39:43 am
Artists prepare Rangoli of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at BJP headquarters in Gandhinagar on the day of election results of states on Thursday. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

The results of the five assembly elections are a further consolidation of the momentous changes in Indian politics over the last decade. The results in UP are a spectacular win for the BJP, consolidating its power and ideological hegemony over Indian politics. It sends a plain and simple message: Politics, in the end, is a game of competitive credibility and the BJP simply has no competition.

The BJP has transformed the nature of politics in ways to which the Opposition has no answer. The first is a commitment to a generative conception of politics. The sense that the BJP has a deep social base, especially amongst women and lower castes, and a spectacular geographic reach as Manipur has demonstrated, completely belies the identity determinism that has for so long characterised Indian politics. The project of now opposing any national party on the basis of a coalition of fragmented identities is dead. No political party can be averse to social calculations. But every party at play in this election other than AAP and BJP were, in the final analysis, relying on a kind of social arithmetic.

To reduce politics to simply the social — as the SP, BSP, Congress had for so long done — was to already give the game away. To continue to think that people simply voted their caste or that the BJP represented upper caste hegemony was to take a starting point that was at best a product of selection bias, at worst a refusal to acknowledge voters driven by the spell of an idea. Social engineering or mere descriptive representation makes politics sound trivial, it seems to rob voters of their agency and they respond with revulsion.

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Second, is the weariness with old, corrupt, doddering, ancient regimes trying to reinvent themselves. That there is social discontent is palpable. Akhilesh Yadav ran an energetic campaign. But at the end of the day, it was hard for him to overcome the taint of his own past. Many people saw the prospect of the SP’s return as, in the end, a return to an old corrupt mafia ridden order. Most of these parties, especially the Congress, come across as the Bourbon monarchy trying to reinvent itself after the French Revolution has taken place. Even a whiff of the old regime or baggage from the past, whether it comes as Priyanka Gandhi (who did a large number of rallies in UP) or even a reformed Akhilesh will be enough to kill its chances. In Punjab, the Congress tried a new social engineering by selecting Charanjit Singh Channi, but so overwhelming is the shadow of the party’s culture that no amount of that worked. The sense that the Modi-Yogi combine is still in the process of upending the old order whether in culture or in style of governance is still palpable.

It is not an accident that since 2014, it was the BJP and AAP that were seen as possible alternatives — both taking India into a place that was not the tired entitlement of an old regime that had already imploded. Both spoke a new ideological; both were not tainted with that “old regime” tag; both presented a politics that went beyond the social arithmetic. The AAP’s victory in Punjab has given it new wings as a leader in the Opposition space. These are the plain truths of politics. The question for India now is no longer the reconstruction of the Congress or the future of Rahul Gandhi. It is finding a new Opposition almost from scratch.

The third is just the ability to think politically. The BJP’s handling of the farmers movement was going to make retrieving Punjab difficult. By defusing a potential time bomb, even if that meant doing a U-turn on a much trumpeted policy reform, the BJP perhaps came across as responsive. Eating humble pies from a position of strength can be, if used well, endearing, especially when the alternative is trumpeting entitlement from a position of non-achievement and weakness.

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The fourth is the importance of leadership. Whether we like it or not, this vote reiterates trust, in most states, in the leadership of Narendra Modi. Again, it is an academic debate whether the vote is for Modi or Yogi. The point of a successful leader is that they create the conditions where there is no division in the party, and in the final analysis, an ability to work together. It has been an obvious fact about the BJP that its constituent parts are marching to the same tune. But this is not just a command and control performance; mere command from the top can at best produce a sullen compliance. It is creating an organisational culture that always has its eyes on the bigger prize. The Opposition, in contrast, can scream all it wants that there is an existential crisis of democracy. But if its conduct, its internal battles convey no minimal ability to work together in a crisis, there is no ground to stand on. If in the face of this evil, you could not get your act together, why should I even trust your diagnosis, seems to be the refrain.

Finally, there is the question of ideology. There will be another time to discuss how much of Yogi’s triumph in UP has to do with governance and delivery. This is empirically a complicated matter. This is in no small part because what a regime gets credit for is as much a matter of prior trust as it is of facts. Certainly Yogi’s new welfarism, or crackdown on certain kinds of corrupt intermediaries may contribute to the BJP’s popularity. But the idea that all of that was enough to wipe out the effects of the Covid-19 devastation, unprecedented inflation, a dip in consumer spending and a real jobs crisis requires more explanation. Perhaps the angriest and the most devastated no longer feel politics is the conduit for solving their problems. Your protest will be expressed more as social pathology, not as political revolt.

But here is one simple thing Indian democracy will have to think about after these elections. The fact that a politics that has venom, hate, prejudice, violence, repression and deceit is not a deal breaker for voters is something to think about. This road always ends in catastrophe. The somewhat less disquieting answer is that this a reflection of the depth of incompetence to which the Opposition has sunk. The more disquieting answer is that the loss of our moral compass on fundamental values is irretrievable. Only time will tell. But for now the sovereign people have spoken, and all other tongues will have to fall silent. In any case there is no power to oppose the BJP; one can only hope glimmers of a moral conscience can survive this undoubted feat of political mastery.

The writer is consulting editor, The Indian Express

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First published on: 10-03-2022 at 02:51:14 pm
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