By Swapan Dasgupta
An intriguing feature of last Thursday’s dawn-to-midnight TV coverage of the outcome of three state assembly elections, was the disproportionate time spent on dissecting the losers.
A possible reason for this partiality for the second-best was the lacklustre nature of the Congress victory. The ruling party regained all the three states, thanks to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, but there was nothing exciting, resounding and inspirational about its victory. In Haryana, it was distinctly pyrrhic. The poetry and romance of politics was markedly absent from the Congress universe. Even its victory celebrations were reminiscent of the relief felt by old-style public sector managers at the fulfilment of five-year plan targets. The Gandhi-owned party, it almost seemed, won out of habit. The largest chunk of people voted for it because they preferred predictability, even boredom, to uncertain change.
Such an assessment, far from being unkind to either Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi, is actually a back-handed compliment. If a large and important state such as Maharashtra is willing to indulge a party after five years of non-performance, and even ineptitude, it suggests that the Congress creed is fast turning into common sense. The Congress has become something akin to a default preference for peoples and communities who are not driven by either overriding zeal or a fierce sense of distinctiveness.
Yet, there is a flip side to this characteristically Hindu complacency. The Congress’ partial success in identifying itself as the party of the inoffensive middle ground has been accompanied by the corresponding decline of the BJP as the alternative pole of politics. A decade ago, after the clear national mandate for the BJP-led NDA, there was satisfaction in many quarters that democracy had finally come of age in India. Although bi-polarity was never total — the Left and regional parties were still relevant in the states — it was assumed that the country was moving towards a broad two-front system led by the Congress and BJP respectively. The horrifying post-election convulsions in the BJP have rung alarm bells in the Indian Establishment. India’s stakeholders want political stability to co-exist with a robust Opposition that is also in a position to offer an alternative to voters. After Thursday’s results, the BJP, it would seem, has abdicated that role.
There is a belief that the BJP was never suited for that role in the first place. This argument rests on the belief that the saffron outfit is too narrowly ideological and blessed with too many social angularities and prejudices of ‘Middle India’ to emerge as an alternative common sense. It is often seen to be insufficiently ‘inclusive’ and its appeal is felt to be unduly dependant on a rise in the emotional temperature. In a land of multiple gods and goddesses, the BJP has often conveyed a picture of rigid monotheism. Ashis Nandy has even suggested it is too European for accommodative Hindu tastes.
This critique of the BJP isn’t punctured by Raj Thackeray’s seeming success. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) leader may have secured instant fame by securing 5% of the popular vote and hobbling his cousin Uddhav Thackeray. But in achieving stardom through notoriety, Raj has also ensured he will remain a fringe player. His politics appeals exclusively to Marathi rage — the protest against cosmopolitanism; its innate radicalism violates the reassurance and step-by-step progress most
voters look for.
The BJP will be shooting itself in the foot if it imagines that cloning the MNS with a dose of militant Hindutva is the answer to stagnation and decline. There was nothing inherently flawed in the BJP’s approach to the Lok Sabha polls. It lost, not because its centrist moderation was unviable, but on account of tactical errors: its prime ministerial candidate lacked universal appeal, particularly compared to Manmohan Singh; its track record in Opposition was wildly erratic; and its campaign was derailed by an ugly extremism all Indians found abhorrent.
Today, the BJP has compounded its problems. First, it is caught between the competitive pulls of moderation and backward-looking certitudes. Secondly, it has disengaged from the youth and middle classes who rallied behind the party in the 1990s. Finally, it has entrusted the party organisation to a man with bizarre priorities and a monumental chip on his shoulder. He spent Thursday organising a party boycott of a news channel where someone had mocked him as a feudal. He followed it up by wilfully creating a diversion from the defeats in the three states: securing Vasundhara Raje’s resignation as leader of Opposition in Rajasthan!
No wonder, TV channels feel the losers are infinitely more interesting than the winner. To remain relevant, the BJP has to junk its comedians for a leadership that understands the virtues of calculated dreariness.