There were no surprises in the recently concluded state elections. Time and again, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has proved that no election campaigner can match him north of Vindhyas.
With his energetic campaign, he changed a closely contested election in Madhya Pradesh to a one-side match, turned around a losing contest in Jharkhand and increased the margin of an expected victory in Rajasthan. As usual, the Congress leadership faltered when it mattered.
The charisma and popularity of Modi could not be stopped. Rahul Gandhi had made some impact with his Bharat Jodo Yatra, but he frittered away the budding popularity instead of building on the momentum. The voters punished the infights in Congress’s state leadership and the reluctance of the high command to take a firm stand on any issue. If this was the semi-final of the following year’s general election, then it is anybody’s guess who would win in 2024. By sticking out his neck boldly, and making the state elections a referendum on his performance, Modi changed the narrative to fight the incumbency and fatigue factors.
Nothing has been going right for India’s main opposition party outside the South Indian states for quite some years. There, however, seems to be no introspection about the fall of India’s grand old party, which ruled the country for almost six decades. Like the Mughal empire in its twilight, it seems to be caught in a time warp.
For any campaign to work, the intended audience should get a message that is unambiguous. It is very easy to understand BJP’s message. It stands for assertive Hindutva and nationalism, but it also stands for the future. It may seem to be obsessed with the past, reliving historical wrongs, which happened centuries ago or reviling in the real and imagined glory of an ancient civilisation, but that is because you are most probably the English-speaking chattering class, which has been clinically targeted for such a message by its poll strategists and you see only that.
For the teeming masses, it is offering hope for the future. It is selling a dream of a rich and powerful India. The strategy to concentrate on eye-catching infrastructure projects is a brilliant one. Nothing showcases the future to the aspiring middle class and wannabe-middle classes more than the mega highways, expressways, metro trains and bullet trains. Even if many states in India, especially the Hindi-speaking states, still struggle with grinding poverty that could shame many sub-Saharan countries, the aspirational value such mega infrastructure projects give to the people is phenomenal.
The middle class will put up with price rise and a stress-filled life in cities with little or no infrastructure outside the newly built airport terminal, and perhaps a freshly painted railway station, as long as it feels the future of its children may be better than what they have experienced so far. BJP sells this dream so beautifully that the Indian middle class will forgive most of its other flaws. The party also plays the welfare politics well by targeting the biggest vote bank in the country, which has been ignored so far by most political parties—the women.
All its schemes, from free cooking gas, homes for the poor and health insurance, are targeted at this vote bank, cutting across caste and religion. And for the chattering upper middle class, which has always harboured an inferiority complex of hailing from a country with filthy streets and visible poverty, a new sense of national pride and global assertiveness offered is the amrut from heaven. Add the overflowing electoral war chest, constantly filled by the big business and charisma of the PM, and it has turned into a formidable electoral force, a political juggernaut hard to stop.
And what do the main opposition parties have to offer? What is the dream they are trying to sell? A return to the 1990s, where one caste pitched against the other for the crumbs of reservation in stagnant government departments? The opposition often accuses the BJP of winning in states with low literacy rates and not in the southern states with higher social indices. What they are conveniently forgetting is that when the literacy rates were far lower than what it is now in the north Indian states, it was the so-called progressive, socialist and secular parties that used to dominate, and not the BJP. So it can also be argued that when the literacy rates increased from a poor 30 percent to a respectable 77 percent in most of these states, they became BJP strongholds. Disrespecting the voters because their voting preferences have been inconvenient shows the desperation of the defeated.
The domination of one party may be good for that party and its partisans, but is terrible for democracy. As democracy matures, it usually converges into a two- or three-major party contest. It seems that the grand old party, despite retaining its vote percentage, is slowly withering away due to its unimaginative leadership. Now, only a few regional parties in various states half-heartedly play the role of Opposition. The lack of a national party in the opposition is dangerous for the future of democracy. Regional parties may be better for respective state governments, but most of them lack a national vision.
Some of them are dangerously fissiparous in their ideology and pose a threat to the unity of the nation. We need a robust national party with an alternate vision to what the BJP offers, which is not based on any sectarian interests. The people need to have a choice about methods of achieving the same goal, which is the good of the nation. A national opposition party is the need of the day, and if Congress doesn’t get its act right soon and get rid of its jaded family fiefdom, we can only hope some other party like AAP will fill that gap in the Hindi Heartland.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy