One of the beauties of Indian democracy is the way it challenges the predictability of systems. Even more interestingly, it is neutral between science and astrology spoiling the reputation of both. One has to conclude that either the Gods are wicked or that the voter is a trickster. For months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and especially BJP President Amit Shah, were announcing the invincibility and inevitability of the BJP. They sounded so convincing that the experts sensed it as inevitable. Adding to the signs, Congress President Rahul Gandhi even at his best sounded tentative. Yet as the results of the election came floating in, one sensed democracy’s delight and surprise as the voter once again ambushed the politician.
One senses a difference in attitude. The politician is instrumental about democracy. He awaits results. The voter has a more philosophical idea of the system. He sees democracy as more than a machine. He reads it as a system of values. Democracy to work and work continuously has to go beyond majoritarian predictability. The voter feels everyone needs a chance. In fact, the word chance is no longer English. It has been indigenised into local languages as when the voter says “Ek chance to chahiye” (he needs one chance at least).
The voter felt Congress and Rahul needed a chance to keep the party and democracy supple. The voter in his wisdom realises the playfulness of democracy, and playful it was even in the nail-biting finish it created. This election, dismissed as boring and predictable, became a celebration of democracy, where the voter proved iconoclastic or ironic about electoral monuments like Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje. It was clear that the vote was not for the Congress. It was a vote for the openness of democracy, for the frameworks of distributive justice the word chance encodes.
There were lessons to learn and these are lessons not merely for the BJP, but also the Congress. The first is a lesson about time. Nothing is inevitable about elections, especially the last result. This election itself is seen as a mid-term process, where the result is not a product of forces but a signal, a semiotic message saying the voter is tired and wants entertainment as openness. He wants the Congress to know it has a temporary reprieve it has to build on. He wants the BJP to feel that its sense of invincibility is an act of hubris.
The election has created the space for strategy and reflection. Firstly, it has shown that politics needs to combine values and interests. This raises the question of levels and scale. It reminds one of the great rules of scale. At each level follows its own panarchic logic, that the BJP at the national level is not the BJP at the state or local level. Parties have to realise that aggregations don’t work.
The fact the voter implies that the TINA effect works at the national level does not mean the BJP can expect victory at the state level. Each state is an articulation of the vernacular and party bosses who standardise the vernacular are doomed. India survives because Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh still speak different languages of politics. Power nor politics work on standardised currencies convertible across states.
Thirdly the logic of democracy has to show that expertise has limits, that parties which hire psephologists as ardently as astrologers have to understand uncertainty. What makes democracy and science such charmingly unexpected systems is uncertainty. When the BJP bosses decided to play God, the Gods decided to smile on the Congress. Rahul must be wondering at the nature of the bonanza. The danger lies here. He too can misread politics thinking the Congress has got it right. The message is more that the Congress has been given time to get it right.
Political gratitude to the voter demands a greater sense of intelligence and critical insight, a willingness to rework politics. The Congress leadership was as ambushed by the effervescence of state level-politics as the BJP. Delhi was just mute before what they thought was inevitable. Once again it was the vivacity and vitality of the local which triumphed. It is almost a statement that the national, maybe even the nationalist, is boring.
The BJP so far has been picking issues centering around development or communalism. Its heady mix of Hindutva and development took it far, especially in the Hindi belt. It is precisely here that it met an ambush. The voter is clear that both the Congress and the BJP need a hearing aid, that the silence of issues around agriculture drought, disasters, employment can no longer be ignored.
In fact, if democracy is a fable, the message of this little election is clear. Elections are not only about ideologies and interests. These are rituals of communication, a demand for representation, for listening. It is a demand that political parties need a hearing aid. 2019 will be a test whether the parties listened and adapted their strategies to the message of the voter.