Christmas in New Delhi is usually cold, even grimy with the fog on the brink of turning into a smog, police barricades and alcohol breathalyser detectors robbing the midnight revellers of whatever little joy they could muster in the resto-bars that have now taken up the space where once there were book stores, salons, pastry shops, and the stores where the middle-class shopped, whether in elite Connaught place and Khan Market or the distant suburbs in the adjoining states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. We call it the National Capital Region, different from the city state of the National Capital Territory, a much smaller densely populated centre full of monuments of the now-hated Mughals, Nehrus and sundry other freedom fighters.
Christmas 2018 held out much more hope than emanated from carollers in the tightly guarded Sacred Heart Cathedral or the smaller chapels with private security, barbed wire and closed circuit television.
The eyes are still teary from laughing and crying as the electronic machines slowly churned out the results – some taking an astonishing eight hours or so instead of the 30 minutes they had been predicted to take when they were foisted on a gullible public a decade or so ago. But as the results came from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and then the north east, it was clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been evicted from all five states which went to the polls.
Was this a weather vane? Or just the reverse, a morsel to whet appetites and mislead strategists of opposition parties into a state of smugness. True, there were all too many local factors, but a handful of national reasons also played a major part. Nationally, the three major Hindi speaking, Hindu majority, largely agrarian and very populous orthodox populations of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh had seen the same chief ministers rule for record 15 years each, and even the ever smiling Raman Singh in Raipur and the even more toothy Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Bhopal could woo the people just so much. They were tired, their administrations very corrupt and the promises they, and then Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made of jobs were just not coming. Death was more common among farmers and landless labourers. And the cows, now made immortal by national bans on their trade, had taken over the highways and the fields of the neighbours. Anger was palpable, and the people were not afraid of showing it.
In fact, more than frustration at unfulfilled promise and pain from the floundering medicare system, it seemed to be a total rejection of the persona of their rulers and their ideologies that had become apparent. The stray arrests of bloggers for satirising Modi or mocking the maharani of Rajasthan did not hold back people in the streets and cartoonists on the internet from lampooning Modi and the rest.
For Modi, this must be the most important signals he can pick up from events leading up to the five assembly elections, and the few weeks that have elapsed since the terrible, for his party, results were announced.
Perhaps the most important dog whistle came from Nagpur, the RSS headquarters where the fuehrer of the khaki long pants group, Mohan Bhagwat, subtly broke through the shrouds of secrecy - or at least a low profile - and started striding the national political stage as a star performer. He gave press statements, he organised televised meetings, and then he invited the world to come pay respects to the founders of the Sangh. His coup was in getting former President of the Republic, Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, to be the first outsider of his rank to address the cadres and pay floral tributes to the founders. Mukherjee could not have forgotten that among those founders were people who conspired to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi.
Mohan Bhagwat, in his very sanskritised by Marashtrian accented Hindi, also made it clear that the RSS and its cadres could, and would, back anyone they chose to for the good of the country.
Old reporters know this to be true. RSS cadres voted for Indira Gandhi at the fall of East Pakistan in 1971. They voted for Rajiv Gandhi when Indira was assassinated by her bodyguards, who were angered by the military attack on the Golden Temple to blast out Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale - dreamer of a Khalistan for his group, but known among the majority community as head of a group which stopped buses and killed anyone who was not a Sikh. Rajiv Gandhi won a record making 404 seats for the Congress - an impossibility if one goes by demography and psephological arguments. If it suits its political design, the RSS cadre is available to back just about anyone the boss wants to do. It is more loyally transferable, this RSS vote, that even Mayawati can hope for with her Dalit vote bank.
Modi knows that Bhagwat may well back Nitin Gadkari, a fellow Brahmin from Maharashtra and a man who has built up a solid reputation as a doer first as party chief and then as a senior cabinet minister.
It’s not surprising that some of the cockiness has left Modi, even though he continues to wear all those Rajasthani feudal headgears. His voice is now changed. In 2013, he hammered the hell out of the UPA government, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, of course, but he strode the stage as a winner from Gujarat, a keeper of the Hindutva Flame, and a doer, all rolled into one. He was the sole performer, brooking no competition other than the structural party support coordinated by his major-domo Amit Shah, titularly the BJP president.
He is still abusing Sonia Gandhi and Italians of all sorts. But Yogi Adityanath does the same with more venom. So do others. He goes to temples, and so does Rahul Gandhi, brushing aside snide remarks on his caste, gotra and Italian Catholic heritage. Modi is no longer the only OBC on the skyline, much less the only protector of Hindutva. The Ram temple is being pushed, but not fast enough. The Supreme Court remains unmoved to an extent and the case may well drag on till after the election code springs into action.
Mr Narendra Modi is running out of time.
The racing boots are definitely on the young and more nimble feet of the Opposition leaders, even if Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Kumar and the sons of Lalu Prasad Yadav seem taking their own time forging the sort of adjustment - not necessarily an alliance - needed to keep the votes away from the BJP and its allies.
The two alliances are not really alliances of groups that compete viciously in their own areas. They are loose complementary confederations, each satrap of a defined territory getting the pole position in its stronghold. This brings them together much better than the BJP alliance. The Congress has no hope of winning back Tamil Nadu, which it lost a half century ago, or Bihar, four decades, or Uttar Pradesh, three decades and more. The allies do not have to fear it. The position of prime minister is also not an issue despite the brouhaha made at this time. Allies remember Sonia Gandhi relinquished it even when she was the sole leader. Rahul may do it too, even if he is the face of what he hopes is a tsunami against Modi. Every little bit helps.
At long last, the two formulations are almost equally matched across the country. If Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is a wheeling-dealing one, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra can be so for the Gandhi ranks. Mamta Banerjee may remain angry in Bengal, but Tamil Nadu can balance it. And so goes on the power play.
The current opposition has also the real advantage of a brood of young leaders who have no challenge or even parallel in the BJP. The sons of Lalu and Mulayam Singh Yadav, the new leaders on the national stage in M K Stalin, the new Dalit leaders of the power of Jignesh Mewani, and the brood of student and youth leaders such as Kanhaiya Kumar are the chess board’s new knights, whose moves will be difficult for the BJP to counter.
The BJP remains rich in physical resources. It has the moolah that can buy some votes. It has the current official power that can suborn institutions, including the police and the subordinate courts, the bureaucracy and corporate sector. The media is currently in its lap, though it is more a question if the situation will remain so as the deadline approaches. The media too changes colours very fast. Modi has damaged and eroded institutions, but the Higher courts, and even the Election Commission have self-healing abilities. This we have seen in the past.
As the year ends, Modi must be sleeping light, and very disturbed. His nightmare is of his own making.(Published on 31th December 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 01)