Another Saffron Year Goes By

This is part 1 of our series, 2017 in Review, and focuses on the political landscape in India.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and there was enough in 2017 to give cause for both hope and despair to all the major parties. There were seven state elections in India this year, and the BJP formed the government after six of them. Narendra Modi even boasted that he now controlled 19 states, one more than Indira Gandhi at her peak. Given that he is Indira’s true successor in both his authoritarian streak as well as his statist economics, this was apt. Meanwhile, Indira’s own party applied a deft PR makeover to itself by getting a new party president and trying to revamp his image. They even won a state.

Here are some of our key takeways from this year.

One: The BJP gets stronger

The year began with the economy ravaged by Demonetisation, and there were concerns even within the BJP that they might have to pay a political price for it. Nope. We live in an age when facts don’t matter, and Modi and Amit Shah are masters of narrative. This was evident in their resounding win in Uttar Pradesh, which led to an apt chief ministerial choice.

The BJP’s UP strategy was examined in great depth in Prashant Jha’s book, How the BJP Wins. (Do read my exhaustive review of the book, and check out the conversation I had with Jha on my podcast.) They juggled multiple narratives around Modi. (He was all of ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ and ‘Vikas Purush’ and ‘Garibon ka Neta.’) They reconfigured traditional caste alliances, stoking resentment among non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits. They put together a ground game that perhaps surpasses any in the history of democracy. If you read Jha’s book, you will find yourself wondering, How can BJP not win? That said…

Two: The BJP is rattled

Despite winning almost everything, the BJP was running scared by the end of the year. You could see how much they were rattled in the Gujarat elections. This was Modi’s home state, the start of his journey, and the BJP had ruled here for over two decades — more than a lifetime for many young voters. And yet, it was no cakewalk, and the BJP went into panic mode here.

When individuals panic and their limbic system takes over, it is said, they revert to their mother tongue. And so it was with the BJP, who forgot all talk of development, and everything became Hindu-Muslim polarisation. They claimed that Manmohan Singh had gotten together with Pakistan to ensure Modi’s defeat, and that Jignesh Mevani, a formidable young Dalit leader, had funding ties to Jihadi groups. They repeatedly invoked the Other, fear of the Other, hatred of the Other, and so on.

The BJP won in Gujarat, but by a much smaller margin than last time. (Wags quipped that the voters charged 28% GST on the seats they won.) Sure, winning a bipolar contest was a relief, but their real opponents — not Congress but young leaders like Mevani and Hardik Patel — would clearly be significant threats in future. Gujarat showed that despite the near-clean sweep in 2017, a general election victory in 2019 was not a done deal.

Three: The Congress tries to reboot

To their credit, the Congress tried to pull itself together. Rahul Gandhi was ‘elected’ party president towards the end of the year, but before that there was a PR offensive to show that he was no ‘Pappu’. He did a speaking tour of the US, and his carefully written speeches were cited as evidence of a new-found maturity by those desperate to belief. He acted with great dignity during the Gujarat election. But if you look deeper, he was still ineffectual.

One, in terms of policies, his thinking has not changed from the Socialism Lite that kept India in poverty for so many decades and enabled the rise of Modi as a response. In speeches and Q&A sessions, he expressed his admiration for Indira Gandhi’s disastrous economic policies, such as bank nationalisation.  He also assured interviewers that his party would implement farm loan waivers, just as the BJP was promising. Instead of setting out a new vision for the future, he promised a return to the old one.

Two, he attempted what observers called ‘soft Hindutva’, by visiting temples and suchlike. This is pointless tokenism. One one hand, you argue that we should leave identity politics behind. On the other, you embrace it yourself. It doesn’t compute. Arun Shourie once referred to the BJP as ‘Congress + Cow.’ It is a bit much if the Congress now also tries to be ‘Congress + Cow.’ The BJP does both Congress and Cow better than the Congress can, and the Congress, thus, needs to reinvent itself.

Three, the Congress has revamped its social media game, and the tweets from the party accounts (and Gandhi’s own account) are often witty and acerbic. But their ground game, by all accounts, remains abysmal. The one difference between the BJP and the Congress is not Modi but Amit Shah. The Congress need someone who is both a genius at politics and a wizard at operations. Writing funny tweets is not enough.

If they looked better than before in Gujarat, the credit should go to their temporary allies, Mevani and Hardik Patel. There is still a long way for them to go to be a force in national politics. They might have to look beyond the Gandhis to manage that.

Four: There is space for new forces to emerge

Supporters of the BJP, almost as an admission of guilt to criticism, say that There Is No Alternative. I’ve never bought the TINA argument, because a vacuum always pulls someone in, and things change fast in politics. Consider the more stable landscape of American politics. In October 2001, could anyone have predicted that the next president would an African-American man whose name rhymed with ‘Osama’ and whose middle name was ‘Hussein’? When Barack Obama came to power, could you have predicted that the next president would be a gadfly, celebrity bigot who had trouble speaking in coherent sentences? With the benefit of hindsight, everything looks inevitable, but politics is full of unknown unknowns, and sweeping changes take place overnight.

Consider the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, for instance: from a shirt-pant-wearing activist in a Wagon R to chief minister of Delhi in just a few months. Or the recent rise of Mevani or Hardik. Now, one can disagree with all of these specific men, but their rise shows there is a hunger among the people for new options with new mindsets. There is a clear gap in the marketplace. It is now up to young political entrepreneurs to emerge to take advantage of these gaps.

Admittedly, this could go in various directions. Maybe there are voters who feel that Modi is not Hindutva enough, and Hey, where’s that temple? Maybe the gaps are all for populist, identity-based politics — note that many of the recent people’s agitations, like by the Jats, the Patidars and the Marathas, have centred around job reservations. Maybe my belief in individual liberties is too niche for any political formation to cater to, and that might well be true of whatever your concerns are as well. But things change fast in politics.

Five: It’s been a year full of negativity

The BJP spent the year whipping up hatred for the others — and it seems to have worked. The opposition focussed on the BJP’s failings — and that hasn’t worked so well. We at Pragati would like to end on a positive note, by hoping that politics in 2018 comes out of this negativity. We’d like to see the BJP giving governance as much importance as optics, and letting their deeds speak for themselves. We’d like to see opposition parties lay out a fresh new vision for the future, instead of harping on what the BJP is doing wrong. (The voters can already see that, and don’t give a damn.) We’d also like to see new faces in politics, not driven by a lust for power but animated by higher principles, just like those brave freedom fighters who kicked the British out. We face a greater crisis today.