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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 17, April 19, 2014

A One-horse Race?

Sunday 20 April 2014, by Uttam Sen


The BJP-led NDA’s dominance in the media tends to create the vision of a one-horse race. But healthy skepticism can provide food for thought. For instance, that Narendra Modi does not signify what the BJP stood for and will not be for long identified under him with the nationalist Right which constituted the political axis with the Congress at the Centre and the CPI-M on the Left. The symbolism of the Right as conservative, the Centre as a modus vivendi on socio-political status quo and change, and the Left as reform, will be under threat. Yet even that re-classification has lent itself to the scholarly intuition that Modi is re-inventing himself by moving towards the Centre. Modi has been fine-tuning many of his public utterances to that effect. It augurs well for him, or anyone or party eyeing the prime ministerial slot and power in Delhi, because that location is the sine qua non for running the country.

Modi’s election campaign statements did not directly convey any espousal of the social or economic pecking order. To the contrary, in supposedly unleashing the capacity to develop business and make profits, for which his State provided the script, he was the pacesetter. From the days of being an RSS pracharak to the “CEO of Gujarat” he has established a reputation for getting things done, with the accent on outcome rather than the process. Yet the masses he addressed in political rallies across the north and west of the country were ostensibly taken in by a plain-speaking elder they could relate to, not tainted by personal corruption, promising to bring wrongdoing to an end and declaiming much the way hegemony traditionally predicates.

On the ground, the considerations were hard-headed vote-bank and identity indices, in which community and caste were pitted against inverse categories. Modi’s own Backward Class origin, promise of jobs and counter-inflationary prescriptions were expected to rope in a few more. The promise of anti-hoarding and price-control measures would always strike a chord. But there is no Atal Behari Vajpayee for the Brahmin vote, nor a Kalyan Singh of Lodh lineage for securing Other Backward Class (OBC) allegiance. If firmly embedded loyalties cut both ways, the detachment from the Rajputs of Rajasthan’s Barmer district, namely, Jaswant and son Manavendra Singh, could have a reverse thrust. Dr Murli Manohar Joshi’s emphasis on “swadeshi” at the time of releasing the party manifesto might have had its own connotation. (This transpired while mulling over Foreign Direct Investment).

Modi’s flock did not appear to have any corporate business on their minds, but the party’s kitty of the crores supposedly spent on the elections was effectively and imaginatively managed, keeping up a steady refrain over the media in voice and print of the deliverer rescuing the common man and woman from danger, inflation, “thieves and goons”, with income and prosperity to follow. The gist, as a commentator noted, was that Modi would not find it difficult to get past the regime before him. If anything, improving economic conditions would ensure that.

There are other appreciable circumstances, including the materialisation of the “neo-middle classes” from the periphery, literally of towns and cities, over the past decade. Significantly, the post-1991 liberalisation generation has now come of age and has witnessed nothing of the town-versus-country wrangle; yet the indig-nation that official statistics have been frozen till 2031, has reached a crescendo in some quarters. To them communications, among other things, are drawing the ruralite to the city, when they are not transforming the village itself. The aforesaid “class” is religious, natio-nalistic and materialistic and largely the type that would root for Modi’s policies and projects.

But when dared or provoked, its members also question the established order of things, including the feudalism of the village and the volatile proprietorship of the urban conglomerates and their ancillaries. Their political choice could waver between the two mainstream parties, the regional “heavies” or even AAP and the Left, depending on who can sustain them. This can make for a flux, given that the world’s biggest general elections have been inter-nationally certified as free and fair, and hence reflective of the people’s condition. Suffice it to say that the defining features are noticeable in some of the middle and upper middle urban classes as well. Their piety or commitment is the more functional, stress-busting kind rather than deeply rooted or ideological. The divisive nature of religion and caste is not decisive in their case.

As briefly dwelt on, the situation differed in certain contexts in the bellwether State of Uttar Pradesh. Classical caste and communal politics, particularly the second, presented the BJP with the moment for electoral mobilisation (namely, the Muzaffarnagar riots). But the suspension of the secular governance discourse, and its validation by old school politicians as the way of the world, should logically be rejected by the younger generation and the new class sooner or later, if not in this election, in the next one.

IN a parallel setting, much has been heard of the brutality of the 2002 riots in Gujarat, but comparatively little on the condition of traditional entitlements. Customs and beliefs that shape the goods and products of a society and their lifeline of commerce are integral to the milieu in Gujarat where there is no single cure-all panacea. The initial, difficult step of encouraging the aggrieved to bare their souls in the mahol (ambience) of the elections was laudable. The dissemination of information can enhance public knowledge and harmonise discordant notes on customary prerogatives and livelihood systems that were at the heart of the violence. This is also the reason why the reduction of the electoral discourse to the lowest common denominator is an opportunity lost.

Thus far the BJP under Modi has enjoyed a bonus, fittingly ahead of the rest. The BJP’s publicity delivery apparatus, inclusive of propaganda and agitprop, was of the most effective quality. Every blip on the media radar was picked up and parried. For that matter, electronic data fed the party and parivar with demographics at the mirco constituency level.

The BJP and its affiliates conducted as exemplary an election campaign, driving home by contrast lessons its adversaries could learn from, as it engaged its obversely undistinguished majoritarian preferences. But its political plat-form, which shared points of departure with other political parties, was archetypally contemporary. The egregiousness lay in seeking an essentially monistic mandate in a plural society, though conveyed more by word of mouth than the set text of the manifesto; for example, on the Ram Mandir. A more meaningful federal structure, poverty alleviation etc. are all there along with various aspects of modernisation, job creation, efficient delivery and the elimination of corruption.

But as in the past, even in the event of coming close to a majority, or, for that matter acquiring it, the party and parivar will be putting both survival and governance at stake without the coalition dharma which sustained their earlier incarnations, sometimes rescued from the brink by minority partners. Defining the idea of India by going against the grain can be a delicate proposition. As it happens, foreign policy robustness takes for granted a holism that could arguably be maintained, even streng-thened, by an appreciation of the new world order that the BJP agrees is emerging. National security in challenging times has also to strike the fine balance between firmness and an understanding of complex conundrums. For example, a prominent BJP ideologue’s agreement with fellow panelists on a TV programme that, without compromising res publica, the State must grasp the language of the tribals in a national trouble-spot, was significant. The thought of a reinvigorating national consciousness to instill altruism is salutary but by definition assumes inclusiveness.

If the vaunted custodians of our timeless wisdom compete to meet our mundane standards, we will at best approximate the residuum re-visiting the tragedy of the Mahabharata and the onset of Kali yuga. But to attain the qualities of the ages we need discerning receptivity, or so our assorted sages, as much as the pundits of globalisation, tell us. A well-known foreign Indologist couple had once held in a newspaper article that in the Jataka period the subcontinent was a happy, rational place to live in governed by the law of demand and supply, the movement of people and goods and a culture that celebrated mirthful diversity. As traditional stories and folk tales go, this is probably the least pernicious one to fit into the functional idea of India. A one-horse carriage would be hard put to govern variety and difference.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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