The threat to the BJP in the beginning of the year and the challenge it faced in the last weeks of the year were similar.
The year ends for the BJP the way it began and compelling it to once again maintain a false sense of bravado when it knows something is not quite right. In January, the BJP was rattled about possible damage due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ham-handed strike on India’s cash economy. It was specially worried that the party would be left high and dry — with its traditional supporters like middle-class traders deserting it and the targeted “proletarian class” not enlisting. In January, the crucial polls in Uttar Pradesh loomed ahead and prompted by the RSS, the BJP declared that there would be no retrospective hounding of businesses that were entering the formal sector. By end-January it was clear that Hindutva bandwagon revival was the BJP’s last hope in UP after the note ban squib. The jury is still out if the unprecedented mandate was an endorsement of demonetisation or due to a blatantly polarising narrative in the course of the campaign.
Not content with a single analogy, Mr Modi had argued last February that “if there is a kabristan (graveyard) in a village, then it must have a shamshan ghat (cremation ground) too. If there is electricity during Ramzan, it should be there on Diwali as well; if there is electricity during Holi, it should be there on Id too...” Criticising the Samajwadi Party for its tokenistic politics is understandable. But when the Prime Minister steered the campaign into the conceptual “dark alley” where communities were waiting to resolve “1,200 years of hostility”, thereby diverting attention from the notion of vikas, or development, it became clear that despite belief, the Hindu Hriday Samrat visage remains the critical element of his moral fibre. The year ends on the note of clarity that the campaign for the Gujarat Assembly elections had two distinct phases — the pre-Modi entry on November 27 and post his appearance in the garb of the protector of Gujarati “asmita”. In this avatar Mr Modi emerged as a PM who could even accuse his immediate predecessor, and a former vice-president who demitted office barely a few months ago, of treason if only electoral pursuits warranted it.
The threat to the BJP in the beginning of the year and the challenge it faced in the last weeks of the year were similar. The method deployed by Mr Modi to extricate the party from the marsh it was bogged in due to blunders and miscalculations of its making was the same. In between the two low points was the theatrical rollout of GST at a midnight session of Parliament — an obvious attempt to provide Mr Modi with his own “tryst with destiny” moment. It required thousands of traders in Surat and elsewhere to convey that a place in history cannot be secured “on-demand” unless one is looking for a Tughlaquean niche. The worry however is that the two elections underscored that a divisive card works well whenever the party is in a spot of bother. This home truth acquired an ominous character as the Congress Party in Gujarat, and specially its now newly-elected president Rahul Gandhi chose to play the Gujarat game within the political template of Hindutva.
The year undeniably witnessed removal of the last vestiges of political idealism as converting political parties into election machines became acceptable. While the previous government too modelled state policy with the objective of strengthening the ruling party, a veneer of pretence for the aam aadmi was always maintained. This however was abandoned through the year in the course of elections, in questionable send-offs to people retiring from constitutional posts and by making constitutional institutions subservient to the dominant political party. Irrefutably, the year ends on a note of immense dejection because of the conclusion of the Congress that in the medium and long run, ideology has to be put on the backburner to electorally combat the BJP.
In a land of serial elections, there is no year when crucial polls are not on the calendar. In the coming year even contests in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura in February and Mizoram in November will acquire a national hue because the BJP is making a concerted bid to alter the Centre’s terms of engagement with the northeastern states. Issues that characterise the BJP’s distinctive politics in this region has capacity to generate disquiet and worries will become sharper as under guidance of the RSS, the party will possibly seek to widen the “Hindu footprint”. After emerging from the trough in Gujarat, the BJP will find the terrain in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and even Madhya Pradesh, all states that will vote in 2018, none too easy. Karnataka already is on the precipice of a social upheaval with the seven-member panel formed by the Karnataka State Minorities Commission to study the demand of the Lingayat community for a separate minority religion status due to submit its report shortly. The Congress has backed this demand to distinguish the Lingayats from Hinduism and consequently the issue has the potential of a political fallout as the BJP believes this is aimed at weakening the party’s support within the community. This is not familiar territory for the Congress and its leadership risks being drawn into a dispute although it is not completely familiar with deeper issues involved.
The concern is that social identity has become more complicated and has been the cause of ever-increasing conflicts. In the past three years India has carried the burden of aspiration for self-identification being frowned upon by the BJP and its allies. Incidents like the recent attack on the migrant Muslim in Rajasthan or the labelling of every Bengali Muslim as Bangladeshi points to the rumble deep in the country’s social belly. The worry is that that the dominant party’s priority is to harness conflict for electoral gains and its main adversary too is now increasingly being motivated by the necessities of electoral politics. In the coming year Indians will be led by its politicians looking at everything in the short run.