The lurking shadows, as a precursor of gloom, isn’t quite the landscape where you find many allies to walk with. As the BJP rides into the sunset in Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and into a similar dark space in Madhya Pradesh, the narrative has changed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been unable to ally with the people of India’s heartland in these Assembly elections.
Put your ear to the ground and listen to voices. There are two very strong BJP Chief Ministers who have been ousted and the third Shivraj Singh Chauhan fought the race of his life but fell just short. In the defeat of Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the weight of defeat doesn’t weigh heavy on them as individuals, though all of them graciously took responsibility. They will go down an incumbent Chief Ministers who fell to anti-incumbency and not due to lack of development.
While no one in the BJP will say it, there is a pattern to the way the hindi heartland voted and this vote was not against the functioning of the three state governments, but a vote against the divisiveness, the communal and hate rhetoric and the feeling of special unease, with cow vigilantes running amuck and the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, officially replacing “vikas” as the leitmotif of the government. Who will trust you when you change the foundation of the very basics which brought you to power? The irony of working on the vikas narrative and then having VHP and RSS cadre shouting “hame mandir chaiye , vikas nahin” is not just contrarian but deeply disturbing. The political disruption that the BJP has faced in the three states of the Hindi heartland is a counter to the deep disturbance the people of these states felt and the underlying tension that the social fabric of the country was strained.
When the UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath goes to Telengana and says that Asauddin Owaisi would have to, like the Nizam, run away from the country, it is bound to have repercussion throughout the country. And it is very likely that many silent Indians in poll bound states, made their displeasure known through the ballot. He even got his history wrong. The Nizam did not run away.
Then it was hardly a surprise, given the depths to which the Prime Minister’s political discourse has fallen, when he took on the congress for its numerous scams and said “Ye Congress ki kaun si vidhwa thi jiske khate mein paisa jaata tha? (Which Congress widow got the money in her account?)”. This hurtful reference was to Sonia Gandhi who became a widow when her husband, set for another term as Prime Minister in 1991, was bombed to death by LTTE terrorists.
To say that this remark of Narendra Modi wasn’t Prime Ministerial is stating the obvious. But this is a far bigger hit on the solar plexus of any decent democracy. This isn’t the BJP that even the staunchest BJP supporter has ever seen. There is a numbness, a disappointment and yes a grave sense of disturbance of the pattern of basic civility that the Modi , Yogi brand has deviated from. And if there was a tipping point, in elections which were closely fought in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, it was this sense of disruption which was the unforeseen cherry on the cake of political chaos, which the BJP was smeared with.
And democratic institutions of governance and leadership are beyond political parties. It’s about continuity of decency in political discourse and not disruption. It is perhaps beyond the likes of Mr Modi, Yogi Adityanath and Amit Shah to get these nuances.
In Chattisgarh, where the BJP lost by a much bigger margin, as well as in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, anti-incumbency is the most popular explanation. But can anti-incumbency be an excuse for a ruling party which is preparing to go into general elections with the sole purpose of beating anti-incumbency. If anything the wave of anti-incumbency was against the incumbent Prime Minister and his conduct rather than incumbent Chief Ministers in the three heartland states.
But the reasons are beyond the simple. And here too, certain decisions which were clearly and anti farmer and anti –tribal, taken by the Centre, which offset the ground work of BJP Chief Ministers.
In Chattisgarh, despite a hike of Rs 200 per quintal to Rs 1,750 in the minimum support price (MSP) of rice, Chhattisgarh’s paddy farmers were an unhappy lot. The state, eastern India’s ‘rice bowl’, is home to 43 lakh farmers and paddy is the state’s main crop. They were hoping the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government would keep its promise of paying an MSP of Rs 2,100. The government paid just Rs 1750. This has to be seen in the backdrop of a failed promise, since in its manifesto before the last elections, it was promised that that the MSP per quintal would be over Rs 2000. But that isn’t enough. There is no guarantee that the entire crop will be bought by the government at MSP.
This and similar betrayals lead to farmers from large parts of the country converging in Delhi and instead of assurances and support, they faced lathis. These are life and death issues and the agrarian crisis looked even more bleak when weighed against the insensitivity of the charge of the hindutva brigade towards Ayodhya. To a farmer who has collapsed under the weight of unpaid loans and dying crops, the ugliness of it all turned to absolute anger. The dam had to burst and it did in the heartland and even Telengana in these elections.
These decisions have repercussions on the ruling political party but economic decisions such as these are taken by the centre. General rural distress in the country, and not specific to states, has also clearly stood out and affected the ruling BJP.
This distress has also been felt in tribal areas. In MP the drop in percentage of tribal votes is 24%, in Chattisgarh 35% and in Rajasthan it is 41%.
But this distress was not limited to rural areas. In MP the BJP has lost 54% of votes in Urban areas and in Rajasthan, the drop in urban areas has been 41%. This can clearly and unequivocally been attributed to the damage done to small traders due to the twin blows of demonetization and GST.
However the writing was on the wall, or in some walls at least, in the lead up to these polls, which the pundits and the media may have missed. In the municipal elections in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP lost 3% of its votes from the previous elections, while the Congress gained 5% in the same elections. In Rajasthan and in the bye elections preceding the Assembly elections, the Congress had a 7% swing in its favour and in the panchayat elections in 2017/18 the Congress defeated the BJP.
In Rajasthan major communities moved away from the BJP and this is not just because of local reasons alone. 58% of the jat votes and 61% of the gujjar votes have moved away from the BJP. The unease doesn’t stem only from state factors but have to with agriculture, trade, jobs and education. Earlier states had control over what we always called roti kapda makaan issues. Now policies of the Modi government have impacted the proverbial and very evocative “roti”. Mr Modi has hopefully learnt now which side of the bread had to be buttered.
Which brings us to the card that has been played ever so often in the last four years- nationalism. The results in the three heartland states show nationalism is also, or perhaps only about respecting the real needs and aspirations of those who live in this nation and bettering their lives and not worsening them. The machismo of beating chests, surgical strikes, arm for an arm, limb for a limb., branding communities anti national and asking them to leave India may strike a chord with those who have settled lives, secure homes and futures for their coming generations. For 90% of other Indians, it is simply about leading decent lives without disruption.
The results of the three elections should teach the BJP, this avatar of nationalism that they so completely missed. After all those who voted for the Congress in the three states are all nationalists.
When the dust settles and new Chief Ministers are sworn in, where does Narendra Modi go? For now, he goes nowhere and will put his machinery back in action to go on an overdrive for 2019. But he needs to look within. While he has been a good actor, he needs to be a genuine one now in the sense of an actor in a Greek tragedy where an actor, called “hypocrites”, responds to the chorus. He gives a long speech about his own situation as an answer to the chorus (in the play) or when he enters the stage as a messenger to speak about disastrous events. As hypocrites in a Greek drama, Narendra Modi needs to be an ‘answerer’ to the people’s chorus to explain his politics and his situation and either change his discourse or convince people, that this is good for the country. He has failed to do the latter in not three but five states in these elections.
The people in these states, and particularly in the three heartland ones have actually shown another element of a Greek tragedy used by Aristotle in Poetics– Catharsis, an emotional cleansing of the spectators. The people of the heartland have experienced catharsis by cleansing out what was bringing them down, by changing their governments. But the cause of their pain, many would argue, still rules the country. And HE needs to look within more than anyone else, because this need for catharsis could become an epidemic and spread countrywide.
(Sujay Gupta, senior journalist and political analyst, is the Founding Editor of The Goa Spotlight and an Editorial Advisor to Kaydence Media. The views expressed in this column are his own)