Now that the BJP has tasted defeat, and a pretty comprehensive one at that, sections of the media inimical to the BJP and what they are considered to represent, are now free to let it all out. Serves them right, we are being told by our media mavens on television, their politics of intolerance and majoritarianism has been roundly rejected by the Indian voter, come 2019 this will continue, and then candybars will reign from the sky, the boy Prince come-of-age shall come to power, the evil majoritarian identity voters shall be sent back to the dark lands from whence they came, and then, only then, will the soul of the “idea of India”, suppressed since 2014, find utterance.
All this is well and good, and wish-fulfillment literature makes for good fantasy writing, but alas for poor election analysis. One can excuse Indians writing for foreign outlets for oversimplification and gross generalization, in the way that Indian restaurants spice down Indian food for the saheb palate. For others pundits on TV though, there is little by means of an excuse. (Actual print is so much better)
So here are the things I heard on my telly, and this then drained out into social media and came back, wrapped as conversations on my Whatsapp groups. Yogi Adityanath lost BJP the elections. So did Modi’s personal attacks on the Nehru-Gandhi family, much loved as they are by the common man, so jarring and uncouth were his words that “uri baba uff”. Also blamed was Rafale, demonetization, GST, Hindu identity as a political mobilizer, and, of course, Modi and Shah as individuals, apparently even Modi’s refusal to give media interviews. Yes the voter in Chattisgarh voted for Congress because Modi will not sit down with a cabal of entitled patricians for interviews.
Now, again, I am not an expert, but in my humble opinion, the Indian electorate, the ones who vote that is and not necessarily share statuses on Facebook, react to language and violence and corruption in a way that does not align with the way they are interpreted in air-conditioned studios.
First of all, language. Actually politicians nowadays are very careful of what words they use to attack their opponents, because they know they are being recorded. Always. In golden days, they could say whatever they could and deny it, and that is why people came to election rallies, to enjoy the verbal fireworks. So no, language and personal attacks, do not lose elections. They are part of the fun.
Which brings me to violence.
Violence is so pervasive in India, from road rage to lynching a thief, that the average Indian voter only makes it an election issue if the violence is an existential threat. If he is alive (and hence voting), violence has not touched him, at least strongly enough to influence his voting choice. This is not a moral choice but a pragmatic one. One would expect the Indian electorate to vote on violence, only if it reached genocide level, and apart from a few people in Delhi holding long-stemmed champagne glasses, and those that are influenced by their opinions, no one on the ground realistically believes that we are Nazi Germany 1938 level.
Corruption is its own kettle of fish. The Indian electorate looks at government as a perpetual motion machine of magical munificence, or as the scientific name goes, “the mai-baap sarkar”. The relationship with the state is transactional , everyone is entitled to take from it, the politicians and the bureaucrats and the police, in the proportion of their influence and power. The Indian voter recognizes he is powerless as an individual, but he asserts his right as a member of a collective, caste or religion or profession or some voting block, to be able to drink from the trough.
The problem arises if this contract is disturbed. The UPA2 broke the contract by taking too much, beyond what it could claim as a right. And now the BJP finds itself also on the wrong side of the covenant. Not because it has crossed the line with Rafale, as our TV anchor will like to tell you, it is an electoral non-issue, but it has been perceived, in the states that went to election, as not giving back enough, where are the reservations, where are the loan writeoffs, where is the black money from abroad that was supposed to be brought back, where are the jobs for the boys, Nirav Modi and Mallaya run away, but we are left holding our bills and standing in line for demonetization. This was the core of the Congress messaging, done through Whatsapp, the only social media that counts (sorry Jack), and it hit home where it hurt, the perceived breaking of the contract. Na khayoonga na khaane doonga may be good electoral sloganeering, but the real message is “sab mil baithke khayenge”, and that’s what gets you the votes.
Which brings us to the core problem. Double-incumbency. Not just incumbency, as political pundits were telling you, but the dreaded double. With the BJP being in power at both Center and State, the eternal game of the Center blaming the State and the State blaming the Center for non-fulfillment of promises just does not work. Shivraj Singh Chouhan could have been in power in Madhya Pradesh since 2005, but, for most of the time, he had the advantage of the Congress at the center. Growing up in a state where the CPI(M) ruled for three decades, I have seen it first-hand. Why are there no industries? Step-motherly treatment of Center. Why are mills closing? Step-motherly treatment of Center. Why are there no jobs? Step-motherly..oh wait…American imperialism. Incumbency never touched the CPI(M) because they had victimhood down pat, the Center would never be Communist, and if that failed there was the World Bank and America and other sinister shadowy figures to take the fall.
The BJP is now paying the price for its success. And for its promises that realistically they were never going to keep. As a noted BJP politician said, we never thought we would win. The BJP could still have owned the narrative as they did during demonetization, you feel the pain but the big fish feel it more, schadenfreude is a good vote-catcher. But then the BJP let the UPA2 masterminds walk free, and they failed to scalp even one of the big-name crooks. Not one.
This is when the collective mind went to the promises, the “everyone is getting, why not me”.
The business class, the BJP core base, felt the pain of GST, and none of the surrounding feel-good of “taking one for the team”. The salaried middle class wondered why they were not getting tax relief. Demonetization came back as a talking point, but not in a good way. So did reservations and loan waivers. They came back not as issues by themselves, but in the context of how little BJP had done on corruption in terms of putting the heads of the corrupts on metaphorical spikes and parading them through the city. BJP supporters may point to numbers like how many more people have come into the income tax under the NDA, but no one votes on citations, footnotes and Excel files.
They vote on emotion.
And self-interest. Which brings me to Shivraj Chouhan and the loan-waiver. The BJP’s performance on infrastructure development has been solid. While obviously not perfect, because government rarely is, they can claim some pride in their record on electrification, sanitation, constructing roads and providing cooking gas. The problem with infrastructure development is that the electoral bump is temporary, unless you can time it perfect, it wears off, and what you have becomes the norm, something that is taken for granted. Far better in terms of getting votes are schemes that pay out regularly, guaranteed employment, or regular cash transfers, or summary loan-write-offs. Rahul Gandhi’s promise to write off loans within ten days actually led to farmers in Madhya Pradesh holding off selling their produce, if they sold before elections the money they would get from government procurement schemes would go to pay off their loan, if they wait for after the elections, it comes to them. Shivraj Chouhan did nothing for loan-write-offs, claimed they were not an issue [link], except that it always is. And lest BJP supporters appropriate the moral high ground of Shivraj Chouhan’s fiscal responsibility here, it does good to remember that Yogi Adityanath led the way in making electoral promises of loan waiving and reaping the benefit of that.
Except that loan waivers do not work. They do buy votes in the short term but little beyond. Like credit card offers, there is always the fine print, and payouts are never what people expect them to. And people who get themselves out of debt through write-offs find themselves pulled into more immediately, because the problem is much more deep-rooted, rising productivity, faster transport and less product loss, demand staying constant, and hence poor prices for the farmer. As someone pointed out, during the Congress era, onions were too expensive, now they are not expensive enough. But then again, elections are rarely about solving problems.
They are, and I have said this before, about emotion.
And, because this is good old heartland politics, about caste. In Chattisgarh, you would think that Ajit Jogi, Congress’s brand ambassador ever since the state was created, leaving the Congress would hurt Congress’s chances, bringing as he does a sizeable SC/ST vote to the hand. Except that the opposite happened. Ajit Jogi took some of the SC/ST vote with him true, but BJP did not get it, and what the Congress lost in terms of SC/ST votes, was made up through OBC votes, primarily from the Sahus and the Kurmis, who had never found themselves welcome at Congress with Ajit Jogi in power. The Congress, under Digvijay Singh protege and now Chief Minister, Bhupesh Baghel made key appointments to Sahus and Kurmis, and cut solidly into BJP’s support-base.
Rajasthan, which swings one side to another every election, which possibly led to this wholly inappropriate graphic, had always had a delicate caste balance and political alignment, with the Rajputs and the Gujjars leaning BJP, and the Jats and the Meenas leaning Congress. And this time, Vasundhara Raje faced unrest from the Rajput support base for a litany of reasons, of which one of them was the government’s perceived lack of outrage over Padmavat, which possibly makes it the most influential movie of the year.
Sorry Andha Dhun.
None of this should overtly bother the BJP. Caste is a game two can play, and more, and BJP has smart people who can handle the real-politik on the ground. Apparently, the central government is contemplating large-scale write-offs for farmers, which shows the lessons are being learned, and that the socialist welfare state has struck back. And the paradox of losing states is that you no longer have to labor under double-incumbency, and Congress can now be held accountable, they have skin in the game again, something that was not the case when it was in power nowhere.
But it is imperative for BJP to go beyond the denial stage of grief, and not bring up vote-share as Democrats do for Trump and our “liberal” media do to undermine the mandate of Modi in 2014, or blame NOTA, or try to brush it off as a “blip on the radar.” While the election went on a knife edge in Rajasthan, and BJP did not do as badly as some exit polls prophesied in Rajasthan, there is no denying that the Congress has gained significantly, and that if the objective was a Congress-mukt Bharat, that has been turned on its head. The eco-system is energized, the walls have been breached, there is blood in the water, and 2019 has swung wide open.