Elections In The Time Of War

We used to hear of the Modi-Shah pair as the hyphenated top of the BJP leadership.
Lately, the hyphen has disappeared and it is only Modi at the top.
Yogi Adityanath gets honourable mentions, but he is still a good distance away from being anointed a worthy successor, observes Shreekant Sambrani.

The title is with all due respect to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

This column about the state elections in India was almost not written.

That should be a surprise coming from one who has observed and commented on most elections for well over a decade-and-a-half.

I felt (and deep within me, still do) that such an exercise is of little value in the larger setting today, especially of the last three weeks.

I was born in the fading years of a megalomaniac who wreaked death and destruction on most of the civilised world.

And my autumn years are now destined to be in a world facing a similar threat by another megalomaniac.

How can one even think about state elections when one’s life and its activities are between bookended between such larger events of universal significance?

That does not mean we give up what we do to survive: We eat, we shop, read papers and watch television and do a thousand other things that constitute our routine.

But surely none of these — which includes analyses of elections — are worthy of sharing with others?

But the editor of said elections can and will be held. Their significance can and must be understood. He was persuasive enough. And so here I go again!

By now, we know that the Bharatiya Janata Party has won a striking victory, retaining power in the four states which were under its rule (Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur).

And it has done so without having to resort to last minute purchase (there is no better word, is there?) of fence-sitters’ loyalties.

The one state where it had no chance, has been swept clean by the broom (forgive the cliche) of the Aam Aadmi Party.

In the coming days and weeks, these results will be parsed from every conceivable angle — sub-region, caste, age, gender and so on.

But that is not really going to make us any the wiser.

“The people have spoken!” and “We humbly accept the people’s verdict” are two lines heard after every election, the first by the army of Monday-morning quarterbacks analysing the results and the second mostly by the defeated candidates and their parties.

This time the verdict was so stunning that these lines came out even before the leads had turned into results.

The people always speak, that is what the elections are all about, but they don’t always do so consistently or logically.

The people spoke when they elected Donald Trump and long before that, Adolf Hitler.

It is the analysts’ job to make sense of it, if indeed there is any, and not just throw up the motherhood statement.

And as for accepting the verdict, is there any choice? Ask Trump for advice about not accepting it!

And the pundits often discover prophets who do not last beyond their first term.

When Mayawati won Uttar Pradesh with absolute majority in 2007, many hosannas were sung praising her as the new age leader India needed.

Her star faded soon and now, 15 years later, she is an embarrassment to her one-time champions.

Again, five years later, we found in Akhilesh Yadav just what a youthful India wanted.

He has now put up a respectable show, but is not likely to cause sleepless nights to the rulers of Lucknow.

Of all the losers in these elections, one feels somewhat sorry for Akhilesh Yadav.

He used his time in the Opposition to try and understand what was happening around him. He discovered, rightly, that there was a vein of discontent — farmer unrest, unemployment, inflation, breakdown of infrastructure all contributing to it.

He tapped into it and with some success. His problem was that his understanding of the changes in the Uttar Pradesh ecosystem since his defeat was not deep enough.

He did not quite understand that the BJP under Narendra Modi had a deeper vein running in their favour (more about this later).

That made his choice of allies not appropriate enough to appeal to the electorate.

And he was operating in an echo chamber, with no one around to educate him.

He believed that he had got a set of issues to win him the election.

He put up a brave but single-handed fight in this belief, but that got him twice the number of seats he had earlier, not anywhere near enough to unseat his bete noire, Yogi Adityanath.

And he may soon have to face the dismal prospect of some of his flock leaving for greener pastures elsewhere, read BJP.

One question that has bothered me, and not for the first time either: Who pays for the lavish campaigning of the out-of-office candidates? Akhilesh Yadav always moved around in a motorcade, ensconced in a late model Mercedes Benz.

I count three major takeaways from these elections, discussed in increasing order of importance below.

First, the limitations of regional parties. I say this despite the spectacular success of AAP in Punjab.

The Trinamool Congress tried, possibly not hard enough, to put down its roots in Goa, with no discernible success. The same goes for AAP.

That is more unexpected, since the AAP experience of Delhi, really running a municipality, would have been more relevant and transferrable to a small state such as Goa, really only a couple of small districts. That did not happen.

So how did it succeed in Punjab? Here is my two cents’ worth.

Regional and ethnic consanguinity is most important for the regional parties to spread and succeed.

The Delhi culture was more akin to Punjab than to Goa.

And that is also the reason for the Trinamool lack of success anywhere outside Bengal.

While we all cheer the success of Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP in Punjab, we should also remember the dangers inherent in premature celebration of prophets who might turn out to be false ones, as referred to above.

Should the regional parties worry? As Mamata Banerjee’s and M K Stalin’s experiences show, the almighty BJP might huff and puff, but that does not really threaten them.

The BJP might instead find its current strategy of working with regional outfits as it has in the northeast and gradually engulfing them, as is happening in Manipur.

Second, the once Grand Old Party of India, the Indian National Congress, seems headed to the point of no return under the leadership of the foot-in-the-mouth siblings.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra all but announced herself as the Congress’s Chief Minister Face in Uttar Pradesh, but she realised that one doesn’t become the chief minister with just two supporters and quickly conceded defeat. As though she had a choice.

Such was the Congress conceit that it fancied itself as a claimant to power in Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.

It ferried its legislator candidates to resorts and brought in senior leaders (those few pliant ones still left in the party) to ensure no poaching.

But it had an egg on its face on the result day as no one – read the BJP – much cared for the few Congress victors.

The party is now reduced to ruling just two states on its own and a rather tenuous hold on another two with sharing arrangements.

Its old time leaders are left out in the cold, having nothing to do except issue statements from time to time.

Its once and future president is missing in action often and when not, talking nineteen to the dozen.

Together the Gandhi siblings allowed motor-mouth Navjot Singh Sidhu to wreak havoc on whatever was left of its electoral prospects in Punjab.

That seems suspiciously like the sign of a party long past its best before date.

But I am afraid it will keep popping up here and there, trying everyone’s patience with its antics and causing embarrassment all around.

That brings us to the third and most important takeaway.

Under Narendra Modi, the BJP has transformed from a right wing party subscribing to Hindu beliefs to a hegemon of Indian politics in less than a decade and this victory is the crucial final confirmation of this

The core of the belief system under the BJP is the fear of the other, and the other can be defined in various ways according to the needs of the operational ecosystem, ranging from love jihadists to local mafiosi to inimical foreign powers.

There is a common denominator to all these, which need not even be mentioned.

Since the belief system runs deep into the being of the self, it is able to absorb and deflect blows such as those caused by inflation and joblessness (I have used this word deliberately in preference to unemployment.

Joblessness is felt at an individual level and is more powerful than unemployment, which is a general affliction of the society), as it did earlier with demonetisation and exodus of migrant labour.

The party emerges scarcely scarred by such happenings, which its opponents fail to reckon with.

There is a remarkable convergence of opinion within the party, as guided by its tallest leader.

We used to hear of the Modi-Shah pair as the hyphenated top of the leadership.

Lately, the hyphen has disappeared and it is only Modi at the top.

Interpret Modi’s victory speech on March 10, which also can be taken as the first of the many victory heralds for 2024 to follow.

Yogi Adityanath gets honourable mentions, but he is still a good distance away from being anointed a worthy successor.

Now see my hesitation to write about elections in the time of war.

Think about it.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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