I was permitted by the editors to hold back this column for a day to take into account the results of the five state elections. That was necessary. It was also a wise decision. There is no doubt whatsoever that the victories in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Uttarakhand have re-confirmed that Mr Narendra Modi is the most dominant political leader in the country today. The scale of the BJP’s victory in these two states is unprecedented and mind-boggling. No one had been prepared for this—until the exit polls put out these numbers. I have to admit that, this time, the pollsters got it right and the election experts (including Mr Prashant Kishor’s team) got it wrong, reversing the Bihar experience!
Punjab also has delivered a clear verdict in favour of the Amarinder Singh-led Congress. Mr Rahul Gandhi’s decision to name Mr Amarinder Singh as the candidate for chief minister dispelled all doubts and gave the voters a recognisable name in which they could repose their faith after 10 years of misgovernance.
As I sign off this column at 4 pm on Saturday, Manipur and Goa seem to have delivered mixed verdicts. Small states with small-sized legislatures electing ‘hung’ houses does not augur well for good governance in those states.
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Carefully crafted strategy
The man of the moment is Mr Narendra Modi. He has convincingly demonstrated that his appeal is pan-Indian. It extends from Gujarat and Goa to Assam and Manipur. After slipping badly in Bihar, he has regained his prime position as a master of communication. The text of his message in 2014 was development; in 2017, he has cleverly altered the text to development +, and the debate has to now focus on that elusive and indefinable element that he has added to the text of his message. The sab in ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ has been subtly altered to include certain sections of the people and exclude others.
Uttar Pradesh was the laboratory to try the new, altered message. It was the perfect setting. Long divided and exploited on caste lines, with religious animosity just under the surface, the BJP tried to ‘Hinduise’ the castes and set them apart from the non-Hindu sections of the people (which in the case of UP meant the Muslims). The messaging was subtle: land for kabristan, but equal land for shamshan too. Electricity for Eid, but electricity for Diwali too. A fact-check revealed that there was no instance of discrimination as insinuated, but facts are not important when latent prejudices and animosities are brought to the surface. The BJP’s messaging found its target, the master communicator was at his best, and the results have proved that the BJP’s strategists were right.
Uttar Pradesh has a population as large as Brazil’s. The size of the Muslim population in UP is larger than the population of many overwhelmingly Islamic countries. Yet, the BJP claimed that it could not find a single eligible person among Muslims that it could field as a candidate in any of the 403 seats! The message was clear: Muslims will not vote for us or support us, so we are not required to field Muslims or support Muslims. The message was not so much directed toward the Muslims as it was to the castes that were to be brought under the project of ‘Hinduisation’.
I must also acknowledge that Mr Narendra Modi, after nearly three years as Prime Minister, remains an indefatigable campaigner. He is, at his core, a pracharak and he loves prachar. He set aside convention and conventional wisdom to campaign for three full days in his constituency, Varanasi. Since he has delivered an unparalleled result, I suppose no one is complaining!
Brace for the consequences
The results of the five state elections will have consequences.
On the eve of the Bihar election I had said that “win or lose, the BJP could move in either direction”. I had hoped that the BJP would pause, take stock, pull back and steer the country on the path of development. The BJP government did not. It pressed on with its agenda of hyper-nationalism. Self-appointed commissars asserted themselves in public spaces, universities and colleges (and recently even on the streets of Kochi). Dalits, religious minorities, young girls, women, gays, NGOs, social activists, journalists, academics and writers live in fear, in different degrees of course, but nonetheless fear. As a result of these distractions, the government has taken its eyes off the ball (of economy).
The so-called surgical strike across the LoC, the hard, militarist policy in the Kashmir Valley and demonetisation were major disruptions. I admit that large sections of the people are willing to believe the Prime Minister that these disruptive policies will be good in the long run, and I am perhaps in a minority. Nevertheless, the fact is that the growth rate of the economy measured by GVA (‘Gross Value Added’, favoured by the government) has slowed down perceptibly since Q4 of 2015-16. The growth rates of GVA in the last four quarters (that is calendar 2016) were: 7.83, 6.89, 6.69 and 6.61%. GVA growth rates excluding government, agriculture and utilities were 8.76, 7.35, 6.47 and 5.73%.
I cling to the hope that the BJP government will pause, take stock, pull back and steer the country on the path of good governance and development for all the people. We hope that jobs will be created, that investments will be made, that farmers will have better returns, that incomes will rise, that welfare measures for the poor will continue to be implemented, and that we will remain an open, free, liberal and democratic country.