Populism is a transaction, a deal sweetened with candies to make voters choosing between almost equally flawed political parties feel better about the outcome. It is a way of inducing enough voters to get consent to operate for a specific period, because no matter how eager they are to vote, they are equally skeptical of what they get.
Popularity is an entirely different matter; it is a feeling, and not consent to impose cruel costs on the citizen explained as beneficial, like the disastrous demonetisation and GST decisions, as also the further immiserisation of farmers already deeply in debt.
The results in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Mizoram and earlier Karnataka, Goa, Gorakhpur, Phulpur and the municipal and panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Punjab, signalled the eroding popularity of Narendra Modi.
The mistake that the Bharatiya Janata Party made, aided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the various Sangh Parivar organisations, was to confuse popularity with license to run riot. By the time the mistake was identified, it was very late; by questioning the citizenship of Hindus along with Muslims by branding critics as anti-nationals, seditionists and treacherous or illegals from across the border, flaunting Ram and his abode in Ayodhya as the Grail, and the crude changes of place names, the Sangh Parivar overdid the sentiment and lost popularity.
The homogenising mania of the Sangh Parivar with its conviction that power must be concentrated in one party and one person, does not work in India. A little time spent on reading the political history of the nation from 1967 and studying it carefully after 1977, would have served the BJP and its pundits better.
The BJP, driven by its passion to homogenise, looks to be in denial that the idea of one nation, cast in the Nagpur mould, is not how voters in places like Telangana, Mizoram, West Bengal, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Tamil Nadu see themselves.
They know themselves to be culturally sovereign people with lineages that go back to the beginnings of history. Greed and the haste to satisfy it may have driven the BJP inexorably to the point where it cannot turn back and repair the damage that seems to have been done by trashing regional leaders and their parties as “irrelevant.”
The reality in 2019, as a continuum of the transformation of the political space after 1977 when new parties and regional leaders underwrote the first non-Congress coalition in India, is that states and the political parties specific to the place, matter; sometimes as allies in a coalition in the state as happened in Uttar Pradesh with the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, in Bihar, before the coalition of Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav fell apart.
Regional leaders, caste and state parties represent a constituency of voters who have participated in fleshing out the vision of the federal structure in the Constitution.
The interpretations and appropriations by powerful regional leaders of the states as autonomous centres of power in political terms, irrespective of how lacking in autonomy these states are in economic terms, has forever changed the dynamics of politics in India. Which is why municipal and panchayat elections are critical and regional parties invest so much in the capture of these bodies.
To the BJP, the regional parties and their leaders may be inferior politicians; to voters they are reachable, no matter how flawed they may be.
The Congress, once upon a time, believed that one party one nation was the only glue that could hold India together.
In 2018, the idea of a single party reigning in all the states and at the Centre is foolish. The year has been dominated by the idea of the states uniting to establish a federal India ruled by a Front comprising all the anti-BJP and non-Congress parties. The promoters of the brand include Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress from West Bengal, Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam from Andhra Pradesh, Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party from Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party from Uttar Pradesh, H.D. Devegowda and H.D. Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular) from Karnataka, Stalin of the DMK from Tamil Nadu and as it happens Pinarayi Vijayan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from Kerala because his is the only Left party in power in any state, Farooq and Omar Abdullah of the National Conference from Kashmir. None of them are lightweights. They are all individually heavyweights and therefore collectively formidable.
What makes state parties so powerful and therefore big stake holders in government formation at the Centre is the capacity to win seats in Lok Sabha elections on their own.
The Federal Front design reflects just this: the regional parties would contest, compete and win from the states and then come together to form a government at the Centre. The coalition would be of equals, not an alliance to win seats in the states. Contrary to the old idea of coalition, where the individual parties gain political advantage in combining forces, the new idea seems to be that state parties are working out how to combine strength in order to beat the principal enemy.
The Congress under Rahul Gandhi seems to have grasped the logic of the new dynamics. The first time the Congress contested on this basis was in Karnataka, where it combined forces with the JD(S) only after the results came in. The optics of the united state parties at the swearing-in was the key; reading it wrong was the BJP's biggest mistake. It trashed the strategy as opportunistic, failing to figure out that the government was an entity like a corporate, where investors, big and small, were equals as investors, no matter who got to steer it.
The Congress has done it again. It has won in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and is formed the governments in two of the states with the support of the BSP and SP, powerful regional parties of the Hindi heartland. The Hindi heartland is represented by two big regional parties and a host of smaller local and caste parties, all of whom, individually and collectively, will be crucial to defeating the BJP in 2019.
The loss of so many seats for the Congress in Telangana was perhaps its mistake in cobbling an anti-Telangana Rashtra Samiti alliance. No matter how flawed K. Chandrashekhar Rao may be, he represents the idea of a unique Telangana, with its own identity and space. And, he is a son of the soil, a position that he has succeeded in unequivocally establishing. The Praja Kutami was a bad idea and the Congress bombed by sponsoring it.
In an age where “key words” have significance, appearing with insistent regularity on the web, words that once had pejorative connotations need to be pushed into the archaic usage category; regionalism, parochial politics, fissiparous tendencies, centrifugal forces, sub-nationalisms for starters, in the context of the emerging federal character of politics of government.
The two big national parties have a significance and place of their own; but, so do regional parties.
To imagine that the regional parties would play second fiddle forever is to read the change incorrectly. And, the fact that regional parties are way more flexible (sometimes aligning with the Congress and sometimes with the BJP, whichever suits the state best - like the states of the North East, Trinamul, AIADMK in the past, TDP, BSP and others) and faster in responding to political challenges is a signifier of the transformation of India's political landscape into an indigenous and ingeniously crafted model that could be transitional or permanent.