An auto driver in south Delhi once told me, in two sentences, how his life had changed. "Earlier, the cops used to stop me and before uttering a word, would slap me. Now, they still stop me, but don't slap."
It is difficult for those with a regular job to imagine how profoundly that changes someone's life. The man he credited this to was Arvind Kejriwal and his drive against police highhandedness during his first tenure as Delhi's CM.
The auto driver and thousands of others identified with the drabness with which Kejriwal dressed and spoke, the anger at the system in his droning voice, the simplistic (often dangerous) solutions of reconnecting electricity lines despite defaulting.
Many miles away in Bihar, a man convicted for serious fraud propelled a coalition to sweeping election victory. Large swathes of the state's poorest and most dispossessed continue to see themselves in Lalu Prasad Yadav.
In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee's party keeps winning election after election with all her street shrillness, giddying populism and a slum savvy, difficult to match even in Indian politics.
Such is the power of the underdog. A power sorely missing in the BJP today.
In 2013-14, Narendra Modi was the underdog. Savaged for 12 years after the Gujarat riots by the media, rivals and activists, he challenged a corrupt, indifferent regime and won a landslide.
The angry middle class, the poor, backward and forward castes and many others saw themselves in him. He was the most lethal underdog the BJP ever had - a former tea-seller from a backward caste taking on the mighty Dynasty.
Then the BJP lost its underdog to success. For a prime minister with such an imposing majority, who morning-walks with Merkel, power-lunches with Putin and buddy-coddles Barack, destiny has quietly replaced the precious mantel of grime with a troublesome glittering one.
The fiery underdog has been tamed and transformed into the Make in India lion of cold industrial cogs and wheels. It speaks majestically, statesmanlike. Quite unlike the underdog.
Kejriwal, meanwhile, with nimble-footed shrewdness, turns a city's grim battle against pollution into a class war. Only about six per cent of private vehicles are shut off and paraded with great fanfare for cheering masses. Bikes, which roam the fringes of class, are left untouched.
The underdog is happy (some martini-sipping flag bearers of the underdog are happier, but that's another subject).
What the BJP should really worry about is that the poor, the backwards, the minorities, the strugglers, the tasters of daily defeat still do not see it as their natural party of choice. Not all of them may be with you, but you can't be in power for long if none finds in you a home.
The Congress, despite its decades of rule, stayed in touch with the underprivileged through grassroots leaders like Kamraj or the strong socialist symbolism of the Gandhis. Till years of privilege, entitlement and charges of corruption caught up.
The BJP needs to reinvent its own underdog. It has to foist leaders in whom the lowest strata of society can see themselves.
Think about it: What will the BJP in 2019 go to the poorest, struggling electorate with? Its best underdog has been sacrificed to success. Even if it achieves dazzling development in the next three years, in a staggeringly vast and underdeveloped nation like ours, for every beneficiary there will still be many who stay deprived. The Vajpayee regime will tell you what happens when you tell them, from cool ads, that India is shining.
You can convince them only when you speak like them, express their angst, anger and hope, and request them for more patience - all in the language they understand. Politics is the art of the visible; of perception. When it comes to the underdog, India's ruling party currently has a serious challenge in that department.
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)