After Gujarat polls, is Modi’s imagined power equal to its impact?

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In a brisk and obvious way, an election is a battle about numbers, a breakdown of seats, a conquest of constituencies. It is a battle, a competition for power. A preoccupation with numbers, however, blinds one to the fact that subconsciously an election and the debates around it may be a meditation on the nature and consequences of power.

For the last few years, India has been ruled by a majoritarian regime and power has been focused on one man – Narendra Modi. For the past decade, India had been looking for a strong man, exuding machismo, nationalism, and Modi fit the bill. Power can be an aphrodisiac, and Modi and India got high on power.

But power, even enormous power, after a few years does not have the same magic. The people want to know what the impact and imagination of power have been, the creative role it has played.

Power has to have a certain music through creativity, otherwise it has little to say beyond its orgiastic exertions. A mere spectacle of power distracts in two ways. First, it becomes impotent after a while and, second, people lose their sense of Hobbesian magic and want to curb it.

After years of Congress inanity and irrelevance, Modi was given a carte blanche. He became a juggernaut, but people started asking what juggernauts do. In fact, this became the plot of the Gujarat elections.

What could have been a walkover, a sideshow, suddenly became electric with tension as a democracy began reflecting on power. This had a double irony to it, as the Indian National Congress under Rahul Gandhi was seen as too effete to offer an alternative, and Gujarat was seen as a bastion, the point of origin of Modi’s spectacular trek to power.

In fact, there was a reversal of positions. The spotlight was on Rahul Gandhi and his transformation. It was almost like a piece of electoral magic realism. One saw a decisive, collected Rahul and, even more surprising, one saw a firm statesman, Dr Manmohan Singh, dismissing Modi’s accusations as empty canards.

It was like watching a lamb and a mouse play lion, and while the mouse roared, one saw the proverbial lion lose his majesty and stagger around like a confused rhinoceros. It was a carnival-esque inversion of politics, where top and bottom exchanged positions. One realizes carnival time is limited marked-off time, but it gave one a sense of possibilities.

This election can be read at two levels, as a harbinger of a future democracy, more competitive, inventive and responsible, or as a reiteration of the status quo, where the jingle of numbers restores Modi’s confidence in his electrical machine, if not in his policies

Beyond carnival-esque inversions, one sensed a range of scripts that the new Congress could play. The question was whether it could, like the old Congress, play the script of caste equations that has so far been the electoral mathematic. Or should it mobilize under new categories that can rewrite the old? It is necessary to emphasize this as a prelude because the immediacy of electoral results forecloses possibilities that have deep implications for the polity.

This election can be read at two levels, as a harbinger of a future democracy, more competitive, inventive and responsible, or as a reiteration of the status quo, where the jingle of numbers restores Modi’s confidence in his electrical machine, if not in his policies.

In the short term, the emergence of youth, the ascent and revival of Rahul, appear like temporary skits before the epic electoral machine of Amit Shah and company. The Gujarat election is like one of those cricket matches where scores do not indicate the magic of play.

Yet when carnival time is over, the magic of inversions ceases. The Boy Scout is no longer the magician, the old-time boss retains his control. Numbers become a dampener to the Congress. As one watches TV, one realizes that commentators waxing eloquent about the Congress switching colors and praising the wisdom of Amit Shah and Modi.

Their Bharatiya Janata Party did not achieve the target of 150 seats in the Gujarat Assembly but its victory was realistic enough. Between Himachal and Gujarat, the myth of BJP inevitability continued intact, and 2019 was already declared a walkover. Yet, as one watched the news being announced, the score always seemed close. The ifs and buts leveled out and what one saw was an organizational machine clamber over a climate of discontent.

A number of things became clear during this election. First, last-minute forays and interventions add to excitement and conjecture but there is no substitute for a well-organized election machine. Rahul Gandhi and his new Boy Scouts were no match for BJP president Amit Shah and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) machine. Rahul’s agreement with Alpesh Thakor, Jignesh Mevani and Hardik Patel created a scenario, but it was a scenario that never worked on the ground. His group could not convert this dissatisfaction into votes.

The concern is no longer with poverty in the classic sense that the Congress exploited, but with aspiration. The BJP understands this and builds on the language of aspiration

The BJP’s consolidation of urban and semi-urban voters is impressive. The Congress still has some play among the agricultural and tribal sections. Deeply, the new urban middle class believes in the twin planks of Hindutva and development. The concern is no longer with poverty in the classic sense that the Congress exploited, but with aspiration. The BJP understands this and builds on the language of aspiration.

Third, next to the BJP the Congress has little imagination about who is its primary voter. The Congress’ search for a place in politics is eclectic, depending on morsels of support it can find. There is no core group of interests.

Here, the BJP and the RSS have been acute in their homework. They have tapped into the unconscious of a middle class looking for meaning and aspiration and embedding it in a framework of interests. Second, the BJP has understood social change better, as the Congress still articulates secularism and radicalism, which is a period piece.

The poor as a sociological category are no longer the center of the imagination. The political vector is a middle-class, urban, aspirational man, and this the BJP understands. By centering its interest on this growing and tangible creature, the BJP has ensured the 2019 election.

Yet there are chinks in the armor that an older Congress would have met sociologically and organizationally. The Congress performance showed that mere enthusiasm is not enough. One needs a new imagination, grounded in sociology.

It is clear that if Rahul taps into such a world and the Congress recovers its political acumen, Modi is vulnerable. The attraction of new possibilities is powerful in India. If Rahul taps into such a domain and embeds it in a range of constituencies, Modi could be yesterday’s news. It is a future possibility we will have to entertain.

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