Monday, March 13, 2017

Making sense of assembly elections 2017

 Ratnakar Tripathy

Take I: relation between the voter and the candidate!

I share the anxiety and the trepidation with many others over the unusually bold gusto with which Narendra Modi led the BJP to power in the UP elections. Forget the big numbers, I am speaking of the élan and the aplomb and the tireless persistence that made him roam the narrow lanes of Varanasi like a determined stalker of votes. But I am left even more worried over the post-election analysis and soul searching that has followed in the last two days. So much so I was unable to make a comment, any comment for several hours and spent much time on what others known and unknown have to say in print and in face to face conversation. That we as well-meaning and sensate individuals often do not get things right and make blunderous choices is a common place – in fact we may all look at our own lives as a series of follies, at times reversible and at times with a heavy price to pay. When you up the scale to a large body of voters in a huge democracy like India however, things change almost unmanageably. The wait for reversal takes a full four to five years. There is indeed much too heavy a price to pay and others who did not agree with you must equally suffer the consequences of your vote, but there is too a possibly bigger learning on a mass scale in the offing. And yet, democracy does not offer a linear highway for public learning and remains open to regressive swings.  

Let me come to the point a bit more directly – that Irom Sharmila, the eternal agitator and empathizer from Manipur got precisely 90 votes, drove commentators on Facebook and other platforms to the conclusion that even when you readily wear the cross expecting rewards, you may end up only with punishment and humiliation in the Indian democracy and this is where we stand today as far as the state of our democracy goes.  I will not argue against this pessimistic position and simply quote a public figure Pratik Sinha from Gujarat – ‘My late father Dr. Mukul Sinha contested from Shahpur seat in Ahmedabad in 2007. He got a sum total of 255 votes. This is after all the work he had put in 2002 Nanavati commission and fake encounters and more. There were many reasons for that, I won't go into those. However, electoral politics is a different ball game. Do not spite the voter just because Irom Sharmila got 90 votes.’

Unlike Sinha on the specific occasion I will perversely ask why not and try answering my own question in the manner of a ventriloquist. It will perhaps help me get over the gloom and the nihilism inherent in looking at the common citizen as a procession of slavish morons or even as the evil zombies that poison the ballot box with their toxic despair and as citizens who have failed in their duty unto themselves to elect the best. There are two issues here – the voter likes to elect a person primarily to rule and not to agitate or to do social work on the political margins. The leader as a representative in democracy is ideally meant to be a person who listens to demands and is in a position to fulfil them and not as someone who goes on an indefinite fast. This is the everydayness of a democracy and agitating comes later. Not just Irom Sharmila in Manipur, but even AAP has the handicap of being seen as the leader in ‘special situations’ when the routine democratic procedures fail and you have to take a day off to join the fellow citizens in the street. But more on AAP later. Just for a moment empathize with a politician, even the worst of them – if you end up blaming the voter for your defeat, do you deserve to be in politics at all? But this is what Sharmila is threatening to do in Manipur. Once we agree on this pragmatic and existential premise we may be able to proceed further. The voter like an animal of prey can be ruthless in defending itself against politicians of passage such as Irom and well even Amitabh Bachchan. They want you come back again despite rejection and persist in wooing rather than quit in the manner of Irom.  When AAP made a transition from a body of agitators to a political party, they seemed to be fully aware that despite all the agonizing, they have a crossed a line forever and there is no return.   

Take II: what went wrong with SP, BSP and AAP

I have a very vivid image like a dream well-remembered on this. I see Akhilesh and Mayawati in a homely domestic Ping-Pong match, looking sideways at the BJP as an unwelcome distraction. While in Bihar in 2015 an unlikely and as time moves an inconvenient détente was made between Nitish and Laloo, the two UP stalwarts were busy over sporting moves in what seemed like a friendly division of ancestral property, little aware of hovering claimants aiming for their jugulars with sharp knives. In Bihar it is well-known the stalwart Laloo made the first call to Nitish bending his ego for the moment as only a true blue politician can. In UP, Akhilesh may have taken the same initiative but his oedipal preoccupations did not allow the time or the moment to dial madam Mayawati’s number. They both wanted all or nothing, may be. The analysts are already looking at constituency based data and coming to the conclusion that they indeed were each other’s ‘vote-cutters’, a jargon thrown up by the Indian electoral politics. This may not have been a guarantee for a win but it would have been seen as a good try. But to come down to the nitty gritty of data already available and probably the first accurate and well-focused analysis in the press by a Political Science professor Gilles Verniers ‘‘The party’s strike rate, or the ratio of seats won against seats contested, is equally impressive and fairly stable through the seven phases of the elections.’ And more ‘The BJP’s strike rate maintained itself at around 80 per cent in the next four phases, decreasing slightly to 71 and 75 per cent in the last two phases. This means that the prime minister’s increased involvement towards the end of the campaign enabled the BJP to maintain its earlier performance, but did not raise it further.’

What do you make of this? Even if you still hold on to the logic of Modi’s charisma, do remember that the BJP under Amit Shah’s guidance got down to work in UP close to two years ago. In a report with the telling title ‘BJP’s election strategy: 900 rallies, 67,000 workers, 10,000 WhatsApp groups and chopper landings’, the journalist Lalmani Varma lists a series of campaigns and yatras by BJP leaders right since ‘Dhamma Chetna Yatra’ on April 24 last year. It is worthwhile going through the hyperlinked report if you are in a mind to carry out an educated post mortem of the UP elections. Put Akhilesh and Behanji side by side and they will seem to be twiddling their thumbs in comparison. 1650 college meetings and 77 mahila sabhas throughout the state just give you a flavour of the grassroots work done in UP when the SP was sorting out family problems and Mayawati was chasing the Muslim votes in the most blatant way possible.

As for AAP, I can see only one single flaw that went against it – its perverse insistence on centralizing its decisions in the manner of the Congress. According to reports from the ground ‘‘the only loyalty the party understood was the one towards Kejriwal. A journalist friend joked, the only qualification to join AAP is to remove your spine and replace it with a rubber tube.’ Do go through this hyperlinked report that decisively and squarely placed the blame on the centralist tendency that made AAP lose massive initial advantage it had just a few months ago, when it was seen as Juggernaut tearing its way into the interiors of Punjab. Clearly, every losing party had its own reasons for its customized debacles. All this may seem to add up to the faulty perception of course that Modi’s charisma is unbeatable!

Take III: Modi and the national mood

Despite my personal feelings I see two leadership qualities in Modi that stand out – the great appetite for personal risk and the courage to go the whole hog with a great sense of responsibility and owing which leaves no place for blaming others. I say this with particular reference to Akhilesh who despite his defiance of his father and uncle made a handshake with Rahul. In a climate when excessive masculinity is seen a virtue by the voter, he only revealed himself to be weak-kneed and a man wont to rest on crutches. More concretely, yes the SP found a ballast and not a balloon in the Congress.

What however continues to work in Modi’s favour the most is an atmosphere of what I call ‘extravagant hope’ [a la Alan Greenspan’s ‘irrational exuberance’] that rose as a recoil in the wake of the anomic political state created by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh over their eight year stint.  I see almost no basis for such hope but only an extreme straining by the public will to retain its cheer in the face of existential insecurity. Modi panders to it on daily basis through a whole variety of prides and exaggerated self-regard. But that this hope and hype are not likely to evaporate in a brief period of two years is clear from UP. In fact an artificially fashioned hope can be congealed into something harder than normal good cheer even if it proves rather brittle in the long or short run depending on the wisdom of the voting public. Another thing that is clear is that the more you criticize Modi, the firmer his supporters will become in the blindness of their faith – this is just how the Freudian defense mechanism works. So what can and should the opposition do?

Take IV: Need for a positive rhetoric

Looking at things from the perspective of the political and psychological mood described above at some length, it is not surprising that any criticism against Modi, the only perceived repository of hope riles a certain type of voter and he will not only refuse to listen to you but may even attack you physically. As we know when he does that he will find official encouragement as seen on various campuses and streets of India. It does not however mean that you cease your critical chatter but only that as a politician you try hard to present your own alternative. No wonder that for reasons rather unjustifiable, the AAP has acquired the reputation of a constant whiner among the public outside Delhi rather than a bold critic that it in reality is. In these non-normal and non-routine times, extra emphasis should be put on what you offer as alternative and do not appear to be chasing the public deep into their abodes hell-bent on making them see reason, your reason that is. Except the very devoted bhaktas the normal voter would willingly but patiently want to learn his own lessons or at least develop his own cribs before joining you in a stance of disapproval. Persistent and wide spread dissemination of relevant information among the common voter thus becomes very vital in times when the press has failed us. Impatience in political communication can prove frustrating in the long run and kill your political will leading to a contempt for the voter communities en masse. I say with full conviction that I find Sonia-Manmohan to be solely responsible for turning the politician Modi into a colossal phenomenon. One of the commentators termed the UP predicament ‘invisible wave’, in that a strong wave was there though no one could see it. This is not just tautological, it also neglects the follies of the SP and BSP, taking them as unavoidable fate.

2019: Beyond gloom and inaction

We no longer live in times when a political party waited almost passively awaiting its turn at power. The bigger leaders among the regional ones face irrelevance if they do not remain feverishly active on both regional and national level. With an army of trolls, vigilantes and propagandists, a partisan press to face on a daily basis, any politician who wishes to survive has to remain constantly active in compiling reliable information and making good use of it. There is a need for research teams and policy advisors of all sorts, right from the technical experts to generalists. I tend to agree with the renowned academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta in believing that ‘Today, we should humbly acknowledge that Modi’s star is soaring, while the opposition is crashing to the ground. Rather than begrudging Modi his victory, his critics need to ask, why is their political credibility so low? Some worry that the BJP’s dominance will turn into hubris. But the more immediate worry is that the despair of the opposition may turn into even more timidity and stupidity.’ Indeed I feel very concerned with the low moral-political stamina of the liberal, centrists, conventional and unorthodox left in showing signs of ‘extravagant gloom’ in contrast with a large body of Modi followers. My worry is largely caused by the prevalent assumption that the excesses perpetrated by the Modi regime will continue to find wide approval and that instead of passing through a transition we have already arrived at what may delusionally seem to be a stable political equilibrium. Do not please make the fluid seem solidly congealed just because things are not going the way you wanted them to go in your dreamy luxurious states of mind.  

Postscript: a stray advise/warning for AAP I again borrow from Mehta is implied in these lines from him ‘The AAP will be disappointed that an opening did not translate into victory. They will now also face a tactical dilemma — except in rare circumstances, any gains they make are, in the initial phases, likely to come at the expense of the Congress more than BJP. This is a real possibility in Gujarat — one that could help the BJP.’

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