The description “tectonic shift” was first used for election results this morning by Union Cabinet minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. It has since gathered currency among pundits and partisans. Narendra Modi has swept Uttar Pradesh as no one had since the post-Emergency Janata wave. The Congress looks at single figures, maybe even less than five in a state where its vice-president campaigned as “UP ka ladka”. BJP has, similarly, swept Uttarakhand and become a real force in Manipur, where it was non-existent. Surely, this is a tectonic shift.
I would contest it, but simply on the basis that “tectonic” change is too mild for a power shift that resets not just the political geography of India, but also its sociology, psychology and ideological pathologies.
The big pointers first. Narendra Modi has now risen as India’s most popular mass leader since Indira Gandhi in her heyday and he has earned it all from his own effort rather than build on a legacy. Second, he has acquired control of the ruling party as no Indian leader did, not even Rajiv Gandhi, since Indira Gandhi. It follows that it redefines BJP for the first time as a party with a supremo, a prime vote-catcher and a personality cult of its own. With him, his brilliant, all-conquering electoral field marshal Amit Shah has also risen as the most powerful chief of a national party since K. Kamaraj in the 1960s.
Modi is the first leader from outside the heartland to acquire such national stature, the first, let’s qualify, after independence. At the risk of being misconstrued, let me add that the last non-heartland leader to acquire such pan-Indian stature was only the Mahatma. No comparisons here, except that he too came from Gujarat. Modi has now acquired an aura that dazzles beyond partisan politics. Even those who disagree with him, and vote against him, say they do not suspect his personal integrity and good intention — the reason they’ve been forgiving on demonetisation after suffering severely from it.
Modi’s most loyal supporters also acknowledge that on the economy, reform, social messaging, his record halfway past his first term as prime minister has been patchy. “Wait for his second term,” they say, “learn from his history in Gujarat.” His first term as chief minister was contentious, overly political and divisive. In the second, he focused on the economy and infrastructure and built the springboard for national power later. It was also in his second term that he totally defanged the RSS, filed sedition cases against the troublesome VHP leaders and demolished scores of illegally-built temples in his encroachment clearing drive.
It would be reasonable to believe that this sweeping victory has brought that second term forward as 2019 seems more a certainty now. The defeat of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab and destruction in Goa should also detox his mind of any insecurities in Gujarat later this year. His party and the RSS are totally beholden to him. He has that greatest weapon, a brahmastra if you so prefer, that a mass leader has: the ability to bring votes. Or, to put it more simply, the ability to get lamp-posts elected.
The question now is, how will he use this power. Will he get off the electoral juggernaut now and focus on economic change as he did in Gujarat 2007 onwards? Will he invest his phenomenal persuasive skills along with his credibility to sell more challenging ideas of change: economic and governance reform, reducing the size of the government, make durable peace with the neighbours and make future secure for our future generations. He now has that kind of opportunity.
Other lessons from this result are simpler. To Congress, it is that times when its first family could get it votes, ended a long time back although the fluke success in 2004 deluded it into believing these were back. Second, that Rahul isn’t a mass leader. He can keep the party together, but unless he learns to run it like a holding company with truly empowered CEOs, there is no future.
He must acknowledge then that Amarinder (who he doesn’t particularly like) swept Punjab while he got swept out of Uttar Pradesh. In Manipur, a strong local leadership has pretty much held its own. In Uttarakhand, Harish Rawat lost badly, but remember he is a truly popular local leader who was sidelined until 2016 while power was given to serial defectors, the Bahuguna offspring. Rahul Gandhi has to seriously reflect on his former Assam loyalist Himanta Biswa Sarma’s words, that he only relates to those with “blue blood”, or entitled political legatees. This election, like several before this, tells you that there is nothing the young Indian detests more than a sense of entitlement. This is, as I have said before, a non-ideological, I-don’t-owe-you-nothing young India. Don’t try impressing them with your ancestors’ track record. Talk about yours.
For the caste-based Uttar Pradesh parties, it’s time to reboot, or go into sanyas. For three decades in the heartland, BJP has worked on a strategy to re-stitch with faith (Hindutva) what caste divided. If only Hindus could vote together than be divided as upper/lower/middle castes, BJP would be unbeatable. L K Advani succeeded once with the Mandir movement. But that was short-lived. Modi and Amit Shah have now done this by deftly weaving it in a new, majoritarian Indian nationalism. This has more oomph and longer legs than a mere temple. Akhilesh Yadav’s future lies in reinventing himself as a pan-caste young leader (he’s younger than Kejriwal and Rahul). Mayawati is looking down the barrel.
In fact, it is the Muslim voter now who’d contemplate the future. The Modi-Shah strategy has isolated the Muslim vote and proved its irrelevance. The “secular” parties have to rewrite their politics entirely if we are not to see the rise of Muslim radical parties, many mini Leagues and further ghettoisation.
And finally: Arvind Kejriwal and Aam Aadmi Party have made a strong statement in Punjab. If it feels like failure, it is because it believed its own hype of sweeping Punjab and Goa. But to finish second in an unfamiliar state ahead of the strongest traditional coalition is an achievement. What’s been pricked, is its “me-all-conquering” hubris. It has to focus on the task at hand, not run ahead of the ball, consolidate its still formidable hold over Delhi. It’s a cruel but accurate way to put it, so I shall go ahead: AAP’s national ambitions deflated, it has to humbly return to municipal concerns, particularly with Delhi corporation elections coming up.