A Fundamental Shift?

This is Modi’s Defeat

Siddharth Varadarajan

Had the BJP won in Delhi, the party would have exulted in the potency of the Modi wave and the master strategizing of its president, Amit Shah. But now that the Great Leader has failed to get even the meagre waters of the Yamuna to make way for his juggernaut, this defeat will be pinned not on his "56-inch chest", or even on Shah, but on the drooping shoulders of Kiran Bedi and the party's city leadership. Success in the BJP has not many but only one father; failure, on the other hand, can never be his fault.

Modi's victory in 2014 was meant to represent that fundamental shift—the arrival of a new "aspirational" India that wanted economic betterment and did not trust the "handout" politics of the past. When the voters of Delhi were exhorted to "move ahead with Modi", the BJP was trying once again to hold out the same promise of inclusive development that allowed it to increase its vote share in the capital from 33 to 46 percent last year. The fact that the BJP's popular vote has fallen back to 32 percent suggests the "aspirational" section of the electorate deserted it this time.

Why did these voters leave the BJP and go over to the AAP? Because eight months of Modi rule at the Centre have made it clear that while the BJP makes vague announcements for the poor, it delivers concrete results for the corporate sector. Like the Ordinance which makes it easier for the land of farmers and adivasis to be acquired and made over to industry. Like labour laws and environmental reform which make it easier for industry to violate existing standards. The citizens of Delhi may not have experienced what these changes mean, but they are clever enough to realise the development being pursued isn't quite inclusive.

The aspirational voter also aspires to her vision of modernity, to a life in which the individual's right to live, dress, work, travel, love and enjoy life as she likes is as important as economic progress. For young voters, the Sangh Parivar's cretinous attempts to dictate cultural and lifestyle choices are completely unacceptable; and while they are not moved by the traditional politics over "secularism", they are smart enough to see the dangers that the RSS's divisive sectarian agenda holds out for their city and country.

Modi's complicity-by-silence with the book burners, film vandals and religious hate-mongers has not gone unnoticed among the swing voters he attracted just one year ago.

In truth the BJP's '3M strategy'—Modi, Money and Mud-slinging—failed to cut any ice with Delhi's voters. One day before votes were cast, the party played a fourth M card, majoritarianism, by trying to whip up hysteria over the unsolicited support declared by the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid for AAP. No less a leader than Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was deployed in a last-ditch attempt to inject religious polarization, but the strategy failed when Aam Aadmi leaders rejected the Imam's offer and accused the BJP of activating him in order to communalise the campaign.

As one looks beyond Delhi for the national implications of the BJP's spectacular defeat, two questions loom larger one for the BJP, the other for the Opposition.

First, will Modi and the BJP learn from the Delhi result and put an end to the divisive politics of the Sangh Parivar? And will the PM realise he cannot carry the electorate on announcements alone, that sooner he must deliver on the promises he made of mass employment, growth, sanitation and infrastructure? A rational leadership would read the Delhi result as a small-sample expression of the emerging national mood and put in place a major course correction. But Modi and Amit Shah are not likely to act rationally. Already people see attempts to ring-fence the "national government" and its policies. In the absence of any change, there is also the danger that the BJP's negative, sectarian impulses may actually sharpen.

As for the Opposition, the question on everyone's mind today is how easily can the AAP's act of stopping the Modi wave be replicated elsewhere. The short answer, of course, is ‘‘not very easily’’. Looking at the 2014 general election and all the major state elections India has witnessed so far—Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, and Delhi—this "wave" needs two conditions in order to prevail. First, a ruling party discredited by corruption, poor governance and anti-incumbency. And second, the lack of a strong, clear alternative to the BJP.

In 2014, the UPA was discredited and there was no real 'national' alternative to the BJP.

The same was true of Haryana, where the Hooda government was swept aside by the Modi wave. But the Modi factor showed its limits in Maharashtra because of the Shiv Sena, and in Jharkhand, where an alliance with the All Jharkhand Students Union was needed to push the BJP over the finishing line. In Delhi, the AAP was unencumbered by negativity and was the obvious choice for anyone unhappy with the BJP. That is why the Modi machine was stopped in its track.

Can these circumstances be replicated in Bihar? Perhaps, if Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (U) and Lalu Yadav's RJD stay united and strong, and remedy the poor governance record of the past year. But in West Bengal, it is the BJP that is looking to play the same ‘third alternative’ role to the Trinamool and the Left that the AAP played in Delhi, and there it is likely to meet a measure of success.

The victory of AAP has galvanised non-BJP parties everywhere. In Jammu and Kashmir, the People's Democratic Party may feel tempted to drive a harder bargain with the BJP now about a coalition government. However, in its most essential sense, what has defeated the BJP in Delhi is not some tactical alignment of political forces, but the emergence of New Politics. Only if this New Politics—whether under the leadership of the AAP or of other kindred forces—begins to take hold elsewhere, will Modi's national supremacy come under serious strain.

Vol. 47, No. 37, Mar 22 - 28, 2015