School of Thought

Hard lessons for Modi

Why the politics of aspiration has its limits.

 |  School of Thought  |  4-minute read |   24-10-2014
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The conclusive certainty with which the rout of regional parties is being credited to the BJP under Narendra Modi needs to be tempered with a reality check of our times.

What do we make of the dismal performance of SP and BSP in UP, RJD and JD(U) in Bihar, the decisive defeat of INLD in Haryana, the loss of the Maratha political identity at the hands of Gujarati leadership of BJP (something unimaginable for those who know the history of antagonism between the two communities)?

Successive elections show a definite movement of Indian politics towards a new centre. More than our politics it is our society that appears to be renegotiating its terms with traditional determinants of identity.

Language conflict brought regional parties in Tamil Nadu. The Mandal-era politics foregrounded caste as a key determinant of our political identity while the Ram Mandir movement brought our religious identity to the fore.

There is a very real risk of the BJP drawing the wrong lessons from the results of the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections of 2014. It may infer that this victory harbingers the return of the national parties and that the BJP brought about the rejection of local identity politics.

That would be too narrow and hurried a conclusion. A closer look tells us that something else is afoot here.

As India began to reap the benefits of liberalisation, GDP and growth figures became an essential part of everyday political parlance. Urbanisation is no longer the state of surroundings. It is the state of mind. Television and internet bring to us visual access of a better life being lived by people in several parts of our own country and the world. The viewer not only compares his or her life with the lives of those he sees, he also aspires towards it. The choices the voter makes as a consumer have no place for regressive revisionist politics. He demands politics of delivery, not deliverance.

Leaders like Sheila Dikshit, Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik kept getting re-elected because they not only deciphered the new language of the voter, they helped construct that lexicon too - the language of development.

The constituency of victimhood is fast getting replaced with the constituency of aspiration. And it is not just about the Bijli-Sadak-Paani factor in voting behavior. Aspiration goes beyond that because it is abstract, perceived and fluid.

Every system is ostensibly designed to create solutions to the problems of that era. Affirmative action and Sarkari doles may have worked when the voter was into a patron-client relationship with his leaders. As a consumer, the voter now demands choice and self-esteem. He can go for a Satsang, to a Sudhanshu Maharaj but for a heart surgery he will go to Dr Seth. And he will go to both these without any conflict. He is intolerant of the fig leaf of ideology and traditional, but currently unprofitable, ethnic affinities. His politics is minimalist and his relationship with his leaders is transactional. He is discovering new and loyalty-neutral networks of interdependence.

The 2014 voter is an angry, impatient consumer. He may not understand the relevance of growth figures on his day to day life but his political opinions are shaped by expert prime time panelists on the television. The talk of corruption impacts him - even if he finds himself indulging in everyday corruption as a part of the food chain of his immediate environment. The first to face the brunt of the anger of this voter were parties that continued paying lip service to victimhood of their constituency but missed the GDP bus and could not imagine how good roads could be more important than caste affinities.

If in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress were facing an incumbent NDA, the results would have been as startling as they were in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. The context would have been provided by any sitting government and the advantage taken by the leading opposition party. The BJP included, all parties are at a loss to reconnect with this new voter.

Notwithstanding the initial success of MIM in Maharashtra, the failure of BJP to make love jihad an electoral issue brings hope that religion as the determinant of identity is increasingly becoming electorally irrelevant. Notwithstanding the frequent attempts by a resurgent right wing at stoking a communal narrative and the exceptions of 2013-14, major riots are few and far between. The young voter is rearing to break free from the shackles of exclusivist identities and be a part of the growth story he is enviously hearing about.

Having tapped into the anger of the voter, Modi finds himself riding several tigers simultaneously - aspiration of the new voter and politics of identity. His liberal rivals gave birth to the politics of aspiration. He rode on the politics of identity to become and stay as chief minister of Gujarat. Rhetoric brought him this far. His tokenism and oratory may help bring the BJP to power in a few more state assemblies. If Modi fails to acclimatise himself with aspirational politics, he would be relegating our politics back into the same cesspool of mutually antagonistic identities from which his liberal rivals brought it out.




Pawan Khera Pawan Khera @pawankhera

Political Analyst working with the Indian National Congress

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