A stoppable juggernaut

Pulapre Balakrishnan

The results of the recently concluded elections in eastern UP have made it clear that the party led by Narendra Modi is not invincible. In a remote corner of India the people have shown his party the door, signalling that they are neither enamoured of what is has to offer by way of politics nor overawed of its grand success in the legislative assembly elections of barely a year ago. The electors of Gorakhpur and Phulpur have bearded the proverbial lion in his den. It is now no longer inconceivable that the BJP may face the same fate and elsewhere in the country in the parliamentary elections in 2019. However for this to happen the advisers of the main opposition party, the Congress, must read this verdict. They must realise that it would hardly do to merely “promote secularism without appearing anti-Hindu” as a writer put it in this newspaper soon after the elections to the Gujarat Assembly. Nor would it help for its Vice President to become a serial temple-goer as he did temporarily in Gujarat in poll season, a practice that has been hailed as “smart secularism” by pundits dismayed by the supposed innocence of “Nehruvian liberals”. Only a puffed-up intellect could imagine that India’s electorate are so naïve as to not sniff fake religiosity from a distance. That Akhilesh Yadav did not go on a temple crawl in the Hindu-majority constituencies of Gorakhpur and Phulpur did not prevent the electors from switching their allegiance to the SP. We know from the vote count that while opposition unity helped with the victories there has actually been a swing away from the BJP, even though slight. As for promoting ‘secularism without appearing to be anti-Hindu’ this is odd advice indeed. Firstly, how can a political party promote secularism when the state, the reins to which it aspires, is constitutionally bound by it? Secondly, why should any religious group feel threatened by a genuinely secular state for it remains the best bet for the religiously inclined whatever their faith. Finally, what the electors of UP have shown is that the people of India need no lessons in secularism. They have rejected Hindutva politics without any help from the Congress Party. How can we be certain that it is Hindutva that they have rejected? Well we can’t, for it could also be anti-incumbency as the elections were to the Lok Sabha which the BJP. But if it is anti-incumbency that led to the defeat of the BJP it is all the more reason for the opposition parties to focus on the things that voters really care about. Hospitals are very likely among these as last year Gorakhpur saw over 1000 child deaths due to a deadly district public hospital in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s pocket borough.       

            Why is it necessary to even consider the Congress when the possibilities for 2019 are being considered? Because even at a miserable 44 seats in the Lok Sabha it is still the largest single opposition party. And, its importance stems from more than numbers. In terms of mindset, it is the only party that straddles the country vertically. With the ending of Chandrababu Naidu’s dalliance with the BJP the entire south of the country is ruled by non-BJP parties. Assuming that this will continue till May 2019, the historical reach of the Congress party makes it better suited than any other to respond to the aspirations of the people of southern India. The architects of BJP’s recent defeat in UP cannot hope to fill this role. Both the SP and the BSP are by choice parochial entities. Neither Lalu Prasad Yadav nor Mulayam Singh Yadav has attempted outreach south of the Vindhya. In fact, they seem to revel in the role of regional politicians apart from the unapologetic pitch to their own caste, which practice does not go down as well here. On the other hand, whatever may be their limitations, the Nehru-Gandhis mix naturally with the populace of this diverse country as if to the manner born. This is a rare valuable gift that they have inherited, but in the upcoming political battle with the BJP the Congress leadership would need more than social skills and can learn some of this from the leaders of the SP, the RJD and the BSP. The latter bring a heft to the table which is also present in the style of Narendra Modi. And you can’t hold it against the electorate for rewarding it. After all they are not engaging in a contest for the best person in the room. Electors look for courage of conviction in their leaders; oomph and intelligence would be additional assets.

            If the Congress is to lead the country once again, it should offer more than just secularism. If the results in Gujarat and the bye-elections in UP are anything to go by, the electors need no tutoring on secularism. They are able to evaluate Hindutva politics for what it is. On the other hand, they aspire to better their living conditions and expect politicians to deliver this outcome. The Congress Party’s addiction to approbation from urban intellectuals leaves it incapable of seeing this. Deracinated in their gated communities this group is seriously out of touch with the aspirations of ordinary people in this country. Democracy is meant to deliver this better life but in India it fails to do so. On almost every social indicator India lags the global average. Exactly as in former Soviet Union in the eighties the people were able to see that the rest of Europe was far ahead of them in living standards so the people of India today see that we lag behind the rest of Asia. So if the opposition wants to come to power it must show solutions for a better life in India. And it must show an appetite for governance, something that Narendra Modi exudes even if his success in providing it is not so apparent four years into office. Legislating rights as under UPA II may win praise from the sarkari intelligentsia of Delhi but could prove to be insufficient, as the electorate sharply signalled when it voted for Narendra Modi too in 2014. Rights are hardly unimportant but in an environment of acute economic insecurity the electorate wants it addressed upfront. This requires maintaining a buoyant economy and providing the services that cannot be purchased from the private sector.  Political parties that aspire for power need to recognise this. 

            It would be laziness to see election outcomes as reflecting some deeper social forces and conveniently assume that they are unstoppable. Electoral history in UP over the past twenty five years reveals the folly in such thinking. The BJP was voted out immediately after the demolition under its patronage of the Babri Masjid and remained in the wilderness for much of the quarter century since. Mayawati came to power four times in this period and the Yadav clan, through father and son separately, has had more than one shot at governance. This parade is not reflective of some grand impersonal churning at work. It is the electorate thrashing complacent political parties which once they come to power fail to govern satisfactorily. Just as even two swallows do not a summer make, the elections in UP do not signal the departure of Narendra Modi yet, but it does suggest possibilities.