Finally, Mulayam Singh Yadav has hit upon a reason for the Samajwadi Party’s poor showing in the Lok Sabha elections. Speaking at the SP women’s wing convention in Lucknow on Monday, Netaji said free laptops distributed by the party had delivered Narendra Modi’s campaign speeches straight to voters’ homes. Voters were impressed and the SP lost, he concluded. An SP freebie had translated into the BJP’s gain.
It is no coincidence, perhaps, that before the Bihar bypolls this August, the JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar was heard complaining that electricity provided by his government had beamed Modi into every house and collected votes for the BJP. In both UP and Bihar, regional parties seem to be in retreat, daunted by the Modi juggernaut. When Akhilesh Yadav swept the UP assembly elections in 2012, the SP had shown signs of a makeover, apparently shedding its suspicions about technology and English. The mandate that the SP cobbled together then, cutting across caste and communal divides, was based on the promise of jobs, education, and freedom from the old “goonda raj”. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar had wrought a new political language, holding up the promise of “sushasan (good governance)” in a state long used to Lalu Prasad’s “jungle raj”. Challenging Lalu’s oppositions between social justice and development, Nitish’s politics had hyphenated “nyaya” and “vikas”. But as Modi loomed over the political landscape, the old inhibitions and oppositions returned. By late 2013, Mulayam was accusing MPs who spoke in English of having a “double character”. And in Bihar, a battered Nitish entered into a partnership with Lalu before the 2014 bypolls.
Out of ideas, the SP and JD(U) have resorted to a dated, querulous politics that does not compare well with Modi’s vigorous, can-do message. Neither speaks to the voter’s aspirational impulse today. Neither seems to recognise that social justice and secularism must now be edged with something more. The past is a different country. Laptops and television sets create expectations that politics must keep up with.