THE moments come to mind when tutored political perceptions got laid low by the electoral vagaries of India. Indira Gandhi didn’t foresee the rout she faced when calling the 1977 elections, believing she had tamed the opposition with her whip hand.
Rajiv Gandhi, with a record 400-plus seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha, never hoped to sit in the opposition as he did in 1989. A.B. Vajpayee’s ‘India Shining’ gambit in 2004 looked totally invincible but ate dust, and Manmohan Singh returned for a surprise second term in 2009, undermining nationalist narratives of failing to challenge Pakistan on the Mumbai carnage of November 2008. Could the so-called Modi wave be different to what one keeps hearing from harassed friends?
Yes, one has studiously shunned Indian news channels in recent years because they only purvey unadulterated hate. And there haven’t been the usual visits to Delhi’s Khan Market, usurped by parvenue shoppers, a voluble base of the new crop of BJP’s urban feel-good supporters.
One wonders whether not watching TV news and not visiting Khan Market impedes the view of a saffron wave in India. It remains invisible to some, just the same. For, if indeed a surge exists, where is it to be found other than where the staged and co-opted TV cameras take us?
Some friends would say that shunning TV news is akin to the ostrich-dodging reality. A cartoonist may have come closer to the truth. “This priest looks familiar,” says a man to another, observing a bare-chested, dhoti-clad fellow running helter-skelter with a sandalwood mark on the forehead. “He’s no priest. He’s a TV anchor,” came the reply.
Where else has the Modi wave been spotted? Was it evident in the mayoral elections that even neutral observers say were rigged by the BJP last week against a joint candidature of the Aam Aadmi Party and Congress party in Chandigarh? Or was the fervour revealed in the somersault the Bihar chief minister took to court the BJP, because the opposition didn’t tap him as probable prime ministerial candidate?
There’s a risk of conflating common opportunism and desperate rigging in an innocent mayoral election as signs of a wave, silent or raging.
Was there a wave in Chhattisgarh or Rajasthan or even Madhya Pradesh for the BJP or against the Congress recently? Then how did so many opinion polls miss it? Does a difference of three per cent votes count as a wave? Let’s accept it. Changes can happen quietly, unannounced and that’s something we could discuss about the elections due in May. Which means the door for a shock verdict remains open?
Several friends — Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist — have been feeling low after watching the massively televised inauguration of the new temple to Lord Ram in Ayodhya last month. Hundreds of thousands are visiting the temple every day, notes an anxious anchor of an otherwise courageous news portal.
Liking Ram means loving Modi? The anchor would remember the times when hundreds of thousands sat religiously glued to Doordarshan’s Ramayana serial every Sunday morning in the 1980s, including in Lahore. A friend, who has earned respect in the trade union movement over decades, seemed overwhelmed by the surge in saffron flags and slogan-shouting hordes in the neighbourhood, magnified by openly right-wing TV anchors.
Was there a wave in Chhattisgarh or Rajasthan or even Madhya Pradesh for the BJP or against the Congress recently?
The 78-year-old says he is happy not to be around for too long to see the decimation of the India he loved and nurtured. Another friend of about similar age was on Facebook to announce his trauma. The malaise seems widespread, and the victims are mostly blameless even if their perception of reality is conditioned by their daily intake of toxicity whether through TV or at the club.
The housing society where Mani Shankar Aiyar’s daughter staged a fast to protest the Ayodhya event wants the family to move out. Pervasive communalism is no wave. Delhi authorities demolished a 700-year-old mosque last week. In any country that cares for architecture as heritage, the mosque would have been revered as a symbol of Hindu and Muslim artisanship.
Does the demolition signal a wave? The Babri Masjid was demolished criminally. The supreme court said so. Then, for reasons not very clear, the site of the razed mosque was handed to a religious body to build a temple on.
The prime minister of India hijacked the verdict favouring a trust. He rushed to inaugurate an incomplete temple to time with the polls, something the high priests of Hinduism have questioned. We saw Amitabh Bachchan and Mukesh Ambani in a queue of the well-heeled from Mumbai greeting the prime minister with folded hands at the Ayodhya event. A wave?
The BJP had established its rule in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and some other smaller states, by inducing defections. Now Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, says he has resisted pressure to join the BJP to evade arrest on spurious charges in what resembles raids on other opposition leaders to muster a majority.
The tribal chief minister of Jharkhand was arrested without a hearing from the supreme court in a 2009 land deal he denies any knowledge of. He, too, was under pressure to defect but promises to take the BJP head-on. Were Modi really confident of winning, the opposition demand to use ballot paper instead of the disputed EVMs would not be an issue.
The BJP holds sway in the cow belt, which can’t be taken for granted. In vote-rich Uttar Pradesh, it would struggle if Dalit leader Mayawati joins the INDIA alliance. Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh saw the BJP evicting Congress with small margins, not a wave, reason enough for Hindutva hordes to return to the mosque-temple disputes in Mathura and Varanasi.
Modi must create a wave where none exists. The opposition on its part needs to coalesce and not be chuffed over the humble-looking 37pc votes Mr Modi commands. The German opposition had misread Hitler’s 37pc.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2024