Three-piece suite and a glass quarter full

The BJP masterfully managed an array of micro weapons to snatch victory. While the Grand Old Party fell on its sword of hubris
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustrations | Sourav Roy )
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustrations | Sourav Roy )

Neither arrogance nor complacency is a virtue when it comes to power, but there’s a difference between the two. The first can be sustained, at least for a duration, if one has enough boots on the ground. The second is outright folly under all circumstances. The four state election results today—with a stunning 3-1 ‘upset’ win for the Modi dispensation—give us a chance to see this not for its value as some moral abstraction but as an active ingredient that shapes concrete political reality. The phrase ‘upset’ win may be pardoned, if only because it would have left quite a few people upset! They would do better to spend time in introspection.

This is a good time to scrawl together a psychological pen-sketch of India’s two big national parties. The BJP may never be deemed entirely blame-free on the count of arrogance, but it rarely, if ever, errs on the side of complacency. Yes, it is infinitely resourceful now: it knows how to generate megawatts of power from both mainstream and alternative fuels. But more crucially, having had to work for decades to get where it has, it knows how crucial it is to guard the flame and never eases its eternal vigil.

The Congress, by contrast, still exhibits residues of entitlement as it snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Complacency may seem a harsh word for a party that’s indeed trying to turn a new leaf, but look beneath the top veneer of earnest diligence, and one sees that down the line it’s still the natural reflex to take power as a given, even a birth-right, sometimes so much it begins to emit flashes of arrogance before having anything to be arrogant about. That makes it less than nimble whenever it comes into a contest from a position of some strength.

And these elections were unusual in that, after a long time, the Congress went up against the BJP with odds that were equal if not on its side. These results could have theoretically gone 4-0 in its favour, certainly 3-1, and at least 2-2. The BJP has upended those expectations with an emphatic sweep in its core northern heartland. Almost as if to underline a regional contrast, the Grand Old Party’s consolation came in the South, with the Karnataka effect spreading to a full-blown renaissance in Telangana, a state it had helped create before vanishing without a trace for a decade.

The imminence of that last victory ironically became a factor for the GOP’s wipeout in the north. Enthused by the perceptible wave on the ground in Telangana, its leadership concentrated most of its energies in harvesting that bounty. That has conclusively ended the KCR era and all eyes will now be on the new strongman, Revanth Reddy. But in the process, it left the northern fields fallow. And there, an array of microelements were harnessed masterfully by the BJP even as the Congress, at various levels, behaved almost as if victory was a certainty. If seen through the lens of party psychology, there are no surprises. All other variables taken as equal, everything comes down to innate nature.

The results do present us with a hierarchy of surprises. Chhattisgarh is the biggest one. Bhupesh Baghel wasn’t disliked as chief minister, there was no anti-incumbency wave, and the BJP didn’t even project a strong alternative face. When the votes started coming in, everyone was in disbelief that the electorate had not gone for continuity. What turned things is the movement of the OBC vote, particularly that of the Sahu community, and that of the tribal belt, both Bastar in the south and Surguja in the north. The X-factor no one counted was the alliance between the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Gondwana Gantantra Party that sliced a crucial percentage of the Dalit-Adivasi vote away from the Congress.

In a largely bipartisan contest, one tends to overlook the minutiae. But they were a crucial determinant of outcomes in Rajasthan too, as shown by the robust numbers in the ‘Others’ column—BSP again among them. If the scale of the BJP’s victory looks like a surprise in an election that could have gone either way, it’s only because even two months ago Ashok Gehlot was in with a good chance to buck the three-decade trend of pendulum voting. Put it down to hubris. If professional internal surveys had successfully guided candidate selection in Karnataka, the Rajasthan CM chose to ignore that feedback, trust his own intuition and largely repeat his band of merry loyalist MLAs. Reason? Nothing more exalted than a satrap’s pride in his own factional clout. Specifically, his cussedness on Sachin Pilot, the face of the generational change that he thwarted a second-time last year when he could have gracefully gone on to bigger things. His vanity proved bigger than his welfarism.

But if one has to see generosity of spirit going AWOL as soon as the Congress whiffs power, look no further than Madhya Pradesh. Asked about the Samajwadi Party’s grouse about not being given enough seats, its CM face Kamal Nath had infamously said: “Arrey bhai chhodo, Akhilesh-Vakhilesh” (loosely translated in spirit, ‘Don’t mention trifling things like Akhilesh Yadav, have other things to do’). That has poisoned the 2024 waters for the entire INDIA bloc, with the bitterness spreading to Uttar Pradesh.

The man who held on, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the affable ‘Mamaji’ of millions, is not only a rare fifth-time winner. His presence is emblematic of the BJP’s rich armoury. The party’s formidable war machinery is composed of many parts. The gladiatorial persona of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a warhead if there was one, with Home Minister Amit Shah playing the radar that reads the battleground and makes subtle adjustments in the direction of deployment. The RSS, with its exhaustive ground connect, is indispensable in core Hindutva states like Madhya Pradesh, where it apparently pulled out all the stops. And strong regional leaders like Chouhan, whose ‘Laadli’ scheme endeared him to the women voters, and Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, the strike rate of whose loyalists is not insignificant. The party betrays a certain ambivalence towards its second rung, and we may see that playing out in the selection of chief ministers. The scale of victory papers over it for now, but a careful curation of leadership will be vital for its future.

Santwana Bhattacharya


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