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BARRING the omniscient soothsayer, no analyst/ commentator had quite anticipated the eventual electoral verdicts in the five states that went to the polls. And nothing captures the bewilderment of the expert more than the scale of the BJP victory in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand or the gains it made in Manipur. Equally noteworthy was the decisive victory of the Congress under Amarinder Singh in Punjab when many expected the Aam Aadmi Party to give it a strong fight, possibly pip it at the hustings.

Even as we struggle to comprehend the factors behind the verdict, as also the implications for the larger polity, it is intriguing that the same experts who had ‘failed’ to read the mood of the electorate are, post the results, ready with explanations that not only reek of certitude but suggest an inevitability. Of course, we are all wiser after the event and post-facto analysis can appear more robust. But to not recognize the frailty of our categories of analysis and methodologies appears somewhat disingenuous. Possibly also why the many pronouncements about the long-term implications of these results need to be treated with caution.

Much, for instance, is being made about the prime minister’s undimmed charisma, and his ability to convincingly convey a message of hope and aspiration, beyond narrow confines of caste and community, to a young and changing electorate. There is no denying that Prime Minister Modi is today, by far, the most popular politician in the country. Yet, why did this popularity fail to sway voters in Punjab or Goa? Is it that when confronting a strong, popular regional leader – Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, even Amarinder Singh –undoubted charisma is, by itself, inadequate?

Should we not also look more closely at the Amit Shah/BJP strategy to construct a broader social coalition of non-Yadav OBC groups and non-Jatav Dalits to add to the party’s traditional base among the upper castes? The BJPs wooing of community leaders and offering them representation clearly worked. So did Shah’s managerial acumen and the organizational efficiency of the party’s electoral machine. Equally effective was its media management and messaging strategy, particularly through the use of social media.

To this, we must add the ineptitude of the opposition, not just organizationally but in the focus on a far narrower social coalition, the Muslim-Yadav in case of the SP-Congress alliance and the Dalit-Muslim in case of the BSP. The obsession with garnering the Muslim vote, essentially by creating a fear about the BJP, only helped the BJP to further consolidate the others, helped substantially by a polarizing rhetoric. Similarly, the intemperate attacks on the prime minister, reflective more of a negative than a positive campaign, were hardly designed to enthuse the young and aspiring voter. All this is conventional electoral politics. By doing all that it did, and well, the BJP in UP was a deserving winner. Of course, Narendra Modi’s appeal and campaigning was a great boost, but in itself may not have yielded the numbers. Moreover, to claim that all this represents ‘a new politics for a new India’, seems somewhat stretched.

There is no denying that successive BJP victories have over the last couple of years propelled the party to an unprecedented position in national politics. Even though it continues to face a formidable challenge in states with strong regional parties/leaders, the long-term decline of the Congress, with no recovery in sight, has left it with no serious competitor in the national space. Never before has the BJP slogan of a Congress mukt Bharat appeared more real.

Whether this phase of electoral dominance translates into hegemony is less certain. That Narendra Modi today takes the position last occupied by Indira Gandhi is difficult to deny. Nor that he has captured national imagination like few leaders have in the recent past. But those claiming that he and his policies enjoy stable popular endorsement should remember that Indira Gandhi, hailed as Durga in 1971 even by the opposition, was in less than two years under siege, forced to impose an emergency to save her rule. Her stunning defeat in 1977 was arguably less due to the opposition coming together than the fact that the people deserted her. One enduring lesson of history is that ‘the people’, while admiring firmness and resolve in a leader are resentful of untrammelled power. Narendra Modi, in his hour of triumph, must guard against the search for coherence turning into an exercise of unbridled control.

Equally, he needs to control the propensity in his party, taking cue from the ‘successful’ strategy of not fielding any Muslim candidates in UP, to aggressively promote its distorted and dangerous vision of ‘the idea of India’. Unfortunately, his record, as also that of the various BJP governments, inspires little confidence. If not firmly countered, what today appears a glorious victory may well turn into a nightmare.

Harsh Sethi

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