In one of his most profound reflections, Albert Einstein observed, “Time is an illusion”. And politics is probably the most eloquent and live installation of the distilled insight. It is, after all, what lies between what was and what will be. Those who do not learn to leverage what is tend to be left lamenting about what was and struggle to confront what will be.
It is barely nine months since the BJP declared, rather re-declared its invincibility from Dwarka to Dimapur after winning in Tripura. In March 2018, the political map of India was awash with saffron flags. Prakash Javadekar coined “from 5 to 21 states”, a line to articulate the march of the juggernaut to power in states accounting for 70 per cent of the population. The Congress, sans a stance or subscription, was stranded in a shrinking bubble. Post the historic victory in Tripura, BJP President Amit Shah quipped, “Left is not right”, and asserted, “we will win in Karnataka”.
In politics, nothing happens by accident. Even though electoral outcomes frequently seem accidental, political destinies are inexorably the consequence of neglected causes. A week, it is said, is a long time in politics. Two months after Tripura, the BJP juggernaut stalled in Bengaluru.
The intense battle was not about ideology or ideas but give-aways. Notwithstanding a parade of sops—including loan waivers, pilgrimage subsidies, zero to one per cent loans, grants, gold, free phones—it was the futures and options player, JD(S), which wrested power in the state. The party which came third won the trophy. Failure in Karnataka made it imperative for the BJP to retain power in the Hindi hinterland. That was not to be. The debacle in the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh altered the political hues and the colours on the political map of India.
The causes of the defeat of December 2018 were visible in the victory of December 2017 in Gujarat, where the apparition of doom made a brief appearance in the last days of the polls. What was the Gujarat mandate telling India? Rural Gujarat illustrated that the farmer wanted to be heard, the distress in the deteriorating viability of agriculture to be addressed. The small and medium entrepreneur in small-town Gujarat was speaking for businessmen everywhere expressing the hit from the twin shocks of demonetisation and the badly designed GST—worsened by poor access to credit. The youth who rallied with the three musketeers of the Gujarat polls defined unmet expectations of jobs.
Hubris in contemporary usage denotes overweening presumption, inexplicable optimism and arrogant confidence. Its etymology is rooted in Greek language. Hybris, the early avatar of hubris, characterised intentional use of deeds and words to humiliate or degrade. Aristotle is said to have observed, “Hubris consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim… simply for the pleasure of it.” The point is less about reality and more about the growing perception of arrogance within and outside.
The question is as much about words as it is about deeds. The issues flagged in Gujarat and later in Karnataka were not unknown. The solutions were discussed as were the problems. The ideas for redressal are mentioned in the budgets, in the reports of ministries, in the drafts authored at the behest of the PMO by Niti Aayog. To the voter at large the indolent system seemed to be simultaneously staring at problems and solutions.
Yes, the solutions may have been in the domain of state governments, but the Central ministers could not persuade their colleagues in 20-odd states where the BJP was in power—these include the draft for a labour code, the draft for a leasing land law, the draft for contract farming, the need for establishing PPP for skills training, the need to decentralise clearances to enable investment and job creation.
The BJP has struggled to find champions to shepherd change—the success stories of Jan Dhan, Ujjwala or Saubhagya have been commanded by executive action from the prime minister’s office. The gap between intent and execution can only be explained by ministerial incapacity to confront systemic sloth.
In 2014, the BJP won over 171 million votes and the Congress around 107 million. The historic mandate was fuelled by haplessness, frustration with the Congress-led UPA. The middle had shifted to the right persuaded by promise, pursuing expectations of solution-oriented politics. The ground, it would appear from the details of the electoral verdicts, is shifting from hope to cynicism.
The fog of winter, it would seem, has set on popular perception. The accepted wisdom of March, “there is no stopping the BJP in 2019”, has morphed into the quintessential doubt. That question, ‘Can the BJP make it in 2019?’, represents ominous portents. The callisthenics of Baba Ramdev and the reflective ruminations of Nitin Gadkari have introduced fuzzy logic into the discourse.
The hope of getting the sarkar out of business, the expectation that agriculture will get a new deal, the idea of development through team India, the anticipation of much-needed administrative reforms and the promise of 100 smart cities await deliverance. In politics, data recitation is not enough. It is the experiential narrative which drives affiliation.