The last 15 months gave us few reasons to smile. As the pandemic wreaked havoc around us and we kept losing those who we knew and some who we loved, there was only heart break. Last Sunday broke that circle of grief as news came in that three large states in three corners of India had finally broken our recurring nightmare of a one-party, one-man rule. Federalism made a quiet comeback.
I think India may have already made up its mind. Unless something dramatic happens, the BJP has begun its slow downward slide. And leading that slide is the same man who broke the piggy bank seven years ago. In 2014, it was a one-horse race. An embattled UPA2 was not only facing anti-incumbency but also a string of charges for financial improprieties. After years of hearing at the CBI court in DTHREE elhi, the judge threw out all those charges and acquitted the accused saying that not a single piece of admissible evidence had been put before the court. The CAG who had made those charges was gone by then. He was chairman of the Banking Board of India, appointed by the new government.
The new prime minister was the darling of the media, and the nation. His style and persona were totally different from that of his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, a globally respected economist and scholar, who spoke little and was a quiet, reticent man unsuited for the hurly-burly of India’s heartland politics. Narendra Modi was, in comparison, garrulous, aggressive, outspoken, never hesitant to call a spade a Sudarshan chakra. His election campaign was so sharp that no one had the slightest doubt the NDA would win. It did.
The Gandhis had had a long run in politics. Jawaharlal was the Mahatma’s choice as India’s first prime minister. Four generations of the family had ruled the Congress– and the Congress, too, was tired. But the party knew that a Congress without the Gandhis could be a worse disaster. It had too many claimants to power. The Gandhis held it together with a moral authority that their rivals described as privilege. Given that two out of the three who were prime minister were assassinated, privilege was perhaps a wrong word. But it somehow stuck and the family, once India’s pride, was dragged through the squalor of electoral rhetoric till they began to look like a liability. And that is exactly what the BJP wanted since they had no history, no heroes of their own.
Modi filled that gap. He became the new symbol of aspirational India. The fact that a chaiwala’s son, who proudly claimed to have grown up on a railway platform, was challenging an erudite economist acclaimed by the world was, in itself, a remarkable story. Millions of under-educated, under-employed young men saw in him their dreams fulfilled. He was the Salman Khan of politics. They loved his machismo. They adored his earthy style. Mont Blancs vanished from Lutyens Delhi. And Bipin Chauhan, who claimed to be Modi’s personal couturier, was the new star. His Modi jacket outsold the famous Nehru jacket that Paris fashionistas had once swooned over.
The Gandhis were always out of reach. They were meant to be admired, but from a distance. Even their closest advisers had little access. Modi, in comparison, was right there, on every TV screen, every day, almost within touching distance. And even when he wasn’t there, his hologram was there. Or his huge hoardings. His posters. And he spoke with familiarity, in a language the heartland easily understood. He taunted his rivals. He joked. He jeered. He brought politics down to the street. And, like Brutus, he began every address by calling his fawning crowds mitron. No, you did not have to respect him. You just had to vote for him.
What happened thereafter is well known. Modi has not held a single press conference. The fawning media still exists, but at a distance. Even his ministers complain they have no access. His only confidant is Amit Shah, an associate from his Gujarat days. His bureaucrats are largely from the Gujarat cadre. The stories about his humble beginnings are in cold storage. Instead, the monogrammed suit he got stitched to meet Obama has made it to the Guinness Book. He hails world leaders by their first name. While, in India, his numerous faux pas—from a sudden demonetization to a badly executed GST to a mishandled pandemic that has brought the nation to its knees—are now part of history.
Part of history is also the menace of his brownshirts. They give provocative speeches, attack innocent people accusing them of carrying beef, which the BJP government has banned but not in every BJP-ruled state. They attack interfaith couples in the name of love jihad, defend men accused of rape and arson, troll every dissenting voice on social media, and intimidate all critics. Anyone is fair game.
But the BJP’s big game was never this. It was to deintellectualize India, to cut thinking people down to size. A bit like Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This is why they spent so much time, money and effort in trying to capture Bengal. For as Gopal Krishna Gokhale had said, what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. Six of the ten Nobel Prize winners come from Bengal. Calcutta’s coffee house has bred more poets, painters, thinkers and political dissenters than any institution anywhere.
They first picked up the disgruntled TMC lot. Then they swooped down on the state in hordes. Modi addressed more rallies in Bengal than anywhere else. So did Amit Shah. They stretched the election across eight phases, held countless super-spreader rallies where thousands were bussed in from neighboring states.
But nothing worked. As Sunday’s results show, TMC will have 213 seats in the Bengal assembly and will form the government. BJP has 77. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP got 4 seats. The DMK with 133 will form the government. In Kerala, the BJP got nothing. Even its self-declared chief minister candidate, E Sreedharan lost. The LDF will form the government with 97.
The deintellectualization of India will have to wait. What we may now see, instead, is the flowering of federalism. And the rise of regional parties. The MVA, led by Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, is doing well in Maharashtra despite the terrible second Covid wave. If the Congress continues to take a back seat, as it has done in Maharashtra, we may see democracy flourish again in this great land of ours.
And since Mamata slayed the mighty Mahishasura of hate politics, perhaps she could take the first step.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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