There were always good reasons for the BJP to be defeated in the Delhi Assembly elections. First, the party is in power in the three municipal corporations in the Capital that have a shabby record. Indeed, one could say that they are a blot on the Swachh Bharat campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Second, the BJP could offer no local leadership or face to take on Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose approval ratings always remained high. Third, the BJP had no youth alternative to AAP whose core team is packed with young faces. Fourth, large sections of the youth were, in any case, alienated from the BJP at the spectacle of violence on two universities in Delhi, Jamia Millia and JNU, in the weeks preceding the elections (after voting day, came reports of sexual assault on girl students of Gargi College in South Delhi by goons shouting Jai Shri Ram).
In the end, the AAP moved far more deftly and creatively than the older party. It was light on its feet in evading the BJP’s attempt to make this election about Hindu versus Muslim as opposed to issues of local governance. Partly because the BJP had nothing positive to offer at the local level, it decided to make the election about its ideological national issues. In the process, in full view of the national and international media in the Capital, the BJP dropped all pretence at civility in public life and ramped up the hate speech.
The desperation to also stick to its CAA agenda in the face of spreading protests in the Capital and across the country also drove the BJP to the point where we can state that in January 2020, the BJP completely abandoned its mukhauta (mask) model that has a place in the party’s history.
Mukhauta was the phrase that gained currency after a high-ranking RSS-BJP functionary described former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the mask/plausible pleasant face who gave cover to an ideological agenda. Vajpayee helmed a successful coalition in an age where numbers demanded moderation.
The BJP has a majority on its own at the national level but is losing power in states at a time when the economy is in crisis. There is now a palpable sense of economic despair in the air. In the week preceding Delhi’s February 8 voting day, a diplomat from a country with large investments in India revealed that their internal political assessments show a cycle of endemic social unrest leading up to 2024; they do not see the country as a safe destination to invest in infrastructure and do not expect the Indian economy to grow at a healthy rate. They were even factoring in a simulated war with Pakistan!
This shockingly bad economic projection means that the BJP cannot use traditional means to engage the young in a future that has hope. The current BJP and its ideological family have, therefore, made the shift to invoking enemies here, there, everywhere. In doing so, the BJP gives some youth the pretext to abuse, blame others for their misfortune and feel a sense of belonging to an ideology, some even picked up guns as was witnessed in three cases of shooting that took place in Delhi. In the past, polarisation was part of the strategy; in the future, it seems likely to be the main plank of the strategy along with the continued cult of the Great Leader.
The language of urban warfare and civil war was spoken in Delhi and hate speeches made by lawmakers without any real apology from the nation’s pre-eminent party. This is because they do not see themselves as replacing any middle ground — as the BJP of the Vajpayee era did — but in creating an entirely new ground and reality in India.
Besides, there is no one left in the national BJP who can pull off the kind of deft positioning that is required when a party pushes a hard ideological agenda and then tries to pass it off as reasonable. In the past year, the more plausible pleasant faces of the BJP passed away. Sushma Swaraj would have watched her Ps and Qs while talking about other women, be they protesters or leaders; she even maintained excellent relations with Sonia Gandhi although the two had contested an election against each other. Manohar Parrikar who managed to peacefully rule Goa with a large Christian population without any social upheaval is gone too. The most significant is the passing away of Arun Jaitley who determined the media spin given to events and was brought out as a troubleshooter when the script went haywire.
Half the second rung of the BJP has passed away while the other half has been rendered powerless. This includes Union minister Nitin Gadkari, former chief ministers Shivraj Chouhan and Raman Singh, who have all been cut to a size, smaller than their potential. What are left are the Big Two and yes-men and women, none of whom can muster the courage to speak up even if they thought errors were being made (and some do). And there are new entrants who are absolutely committed to this goli maaro tone and tenor without any pretense of being part of polite politics.
There is no turning back from the hard ideological line for the BJP. It’s also important to understand why Shaheen Bagh, the anti-CAA protest site in Delhi, that became a template for similar protests across the country, was made the main election issue by the BJP. It upset the believer for a multiplicity of reasons that lie beyond the Delhi poll. Shaheen Bagh marks the resurrection of the power of the nation’s largest minority supported by the large percentage of Indians who did not vote for the BJP. The protests have also been the sites of a creative outpouring through poetry, song and art. At a deeper psychological level, this disturbs the ideological adherents of the BJP, many of whom got a ‘feel good’ surge from the belief of having rendered Muslims powerless, from silencing them in Kashmir, to reducing their financial and electoral clout in other parts.
The political is also the emotional, according to philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum in her wonderful work, The Monarchy of fear. Briefly, she argues that a sense of powerlessness, economic downturn and fear of change also lies behind the resentment of others — be they immigrants, Muslims or cultural and intellectual elite.
Like most Indians now, the storm-troopers of the Hindu Right do not have good prospects in this economy. Shouting out the hate could be a release for them. They will continue to do so even after the defeat in Delhi and the same rhetoric heard in the Capital will first be taken to Bihar — where state polls will take place later this year — and then to West Bengal in 2021 and Uttar Pradesh in 2022. That is now the strategy of India’s pre-eminent party.
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