The best thing about politics is that it never goes into a freeze. Or commentators like us would be forced into sanyaas, or learn to play golf to pass the time. Which might be the same thing.
First, let’s examine what looks frozen and what is on the boil. Almost exactly halfway into his second term, Narendra Modi’s domination is frozen. Unchallenged. The one on the boil is his pre-eminent and permanent adversary, the Congress party, and it isn’t just about Punjab. Both these propositions are correct, but the real story is a lot more complex. That’s what makes Indian politics so addictive.
First of all, is Modi’s impregnability frozen and unassailable, cast in titanium, to use a description we’ve employed before? It would seem so if you freeze at this point. Even the latest India Today Mood of the Nation Poll, which was seen as a setback to Modi, had placed him just a little short of the halfway mark in the Lok Sabha. His main challenger, the Congress-led UPA, was languishing at just over a hundred.
To an ordinary player, it may look like the political equivalent of 200 for 2 in the 40th over of an ODI with another 30 to get in the remaining 60 deliveries. Play out your full quota of 50, and you are home.
That Modi isn’t that kind of a player is evident in a flurry of actions we’ve seen from him lately. The ‘har ghar nal se jal’ (tap water in each home) programme has been moved to the next gear with a burst of fresh publicity and slick, short, social media-friendly videos.
The ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign has also been moved into a kind of 2.0 version, now with the call to eradicate ‘mountains of garbage’. Every city of India has its own embarrassing ‘Himalayas’ or ‘Aravalli’ or ‘Ghat’ ranges of garbage. Since we know Delhi better, we can imagine the popular impact if the smoky mountains of Bhalaswa and Ghazipur disappear out of sight.
Polarisation and Pulwama helped, but Modi and Amit Shah know that the biggest single factor behind their 2019 sweep of the heartland, where voter expectations are minimalistic, was the efficient delivery of cooking gas, rural housing support, toilets and Mudra loans. Water and cleanliness are their vehicles for 2024. They know that the new Chinese reality might make the last-stage nationalist surge resulting from any action on the borders, essentially with Pakistan, unlikely this time.
Nobody from the opposition is questioning Modi on the performance of his schemes on the ground. No opposition leaders or workers are scouring the countryside looking for glitches or scandals, compiling lists of those with grievances, amplifying them. None. Oppositionism has been outsourced to the poor, beleaguered news media. And even when one bravely investigates and publishes something adverse, like The Indian Express investigation on the drinking water scheme in Bihar, the story dies with the paper’s own editorials. If Nitish Kumar was a UPA-JD(U) chief minister and the BJP was the opposition, it would’ve tried making it Nitish’s ‘chara ghotala’ (fodder scam).
If all this is true, you might ask with good reason, then doesn’t it prove that our politics is indeed frozen? Let’s lift this layer and see why I am not contradicting myself.
Another couple of months, and full-fledged campaigning for five state elections would’ve begun for the spring of 2022. If the BJP doesn’t win Uttar Pradesh, or wins it narrowly, it is like four wickets falling in a heap in overs 40 to 42 while you were strolling along. It can change the mood for 2024.
Similarly, while we remember the states, including tiny ones like Uttarakhand and Mizoram, we overlook a municipality. But the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation is no mere municipality. If the BJP wrests it, defeating Shiv Sena and friends, the Maha Vikas Aghadi state government could become a lame duck.
The BJP will then believe it has India’s second biggest political state (48 Lok Sabha seats) secured. But if the Sena swings BMC, it will indicate the anti-BJP forces consolidating in Maharashtra, led by its former stalwart ally. It will be like another wicket falling in the 45th.
None of the others would bother the BJP so much. But if the Congress leadership wins Punjab again, the drastic changes and purges that the Gandhi siblings are bringing about will find legitimacy and adulation. Politics is a winner-takes-all game. In any case, irrespective of who walks out of the Congress, the Gandhi family will have a better chance of protecting its core national vote of about 20 per cent.
That will be bad news for the BJP. It doesn’t care about Punjab, but it still believes that the only party still capable of leading a credible challenge against it is the Congress. Please note how BJP campaigners in states where the Congress may count for a cipher or thereabouts, mostly attack the Congress. Even in Uttar Pradesh, where on current form the Congress will struggle to reach double figures, it is the main target of Yogi Adityanath. As it is in Jammu & Kashmir.
However unlikely it may look now, but a win in Punjab will bring Rahul the one thing he has lacked in his two-decade politics: An electoral victory. The success in Uttar Pradesh, 21 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha, is the only one with his clear imprimatur. He desperately needs Punjab now, if anything, to earn validation for what is today widely seen as his angry, irrational disruption within.
But if the Congress does succeed in its relentless and valiant attempt to lose Punjab, and continues to fragment, it could finish the party. Because in Madhya Pradesh, it is greatly weakened already, while Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are also bouncing in self-inflicted turbulence. For the BJP, in the final stretch of the 2024 chase, it will be like two catches dropped by the opposition in the 46th.
If you think I am overdoing the mixing of cricket and politics, you can blame it on the fact that as I write this, I am also watching the IPL game on the side. So I might as well push the envelope. What if a political party was a sporting franchise?
The franchise with the most money does get the best players, coaches, trainers, that we know. I could just say Mumbai Indians. But what if a franchise keeps losing, is faction-ridden, and leaves its fans disillusioned and sponsors frustrated?
Then all three, the players, the fans and sponsors begin to defect elsewhere. The franchise either gets bought out, or is cannibalised. One particular team looks in that situation right now, but I’d rather not mention their name as the league is still on. I just so like the pink of their livery.
This, opposition politics, is exactly what is on the boil right now. Political ambition never freezes. Forget the BJP, even its bitterest adversaries are now looking at the Congress as a doddering franchise for easy pickings. Aam Aadmi Party vacuum-cleaned its vote in Delhi and now looks at Punjab. Mamata Banerjee, Modi’s most successful and determined adversary, is collecting her old party’s significant remnants, one small state after another. Tripura yesterday, Goa today, Meghalaya tomorrow. And let’s watch this space for Amarinder and the group of 23 as its ranks swell.
It’s incredible how much of the opposition is targeting its own, rather than the BJP. In remarkable fratricide, the Left (in Kerala) and the Congress (Kanhaiya Kumar), are also stealing leaders from each other. Since I still insist on closing this argument with cricket, it brings back that brilliant line spoken by (was it John Arlott, Ram Guha?) as Ajit Wadekar’s India were finishing their second innings at 42 all out at Lord’s in 1974. At seven down in the thirties, ‘Eknath Solkar’s hooked six off Chris Old,’ he said, ‘was the final act of absurdity’ in that disaster.