The Indian Voter Has Had the Last Laugh in the By-Elections

Published: September 17, 2014 17:20 IST
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(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, and the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development. He has written 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

Few can confound the political experts as marvellously as the Indian voter. Narendra Modi's sweeping victory in the May General elections had led many to predict a new era of one-party dominance, with the BJP sweeping all before it in the foreseeable future. The next few Assembly elections were written off in advance. The new Prime Minister himself told his student audience on Teacher's Day that his position was unchallengeable for at least ten years. Political pundits, whether in various opposition parties or pontificating in the media, began coming to terms with the seeming inevitability of continuing BJP triumphs, while the Opposition parties were described as being in various stages of disarray.

But once again, the Indian voter has had the last laugh.

The ink was barely dry on the Election Commission's general election returns when three by-elections in Uttarakhand gave the Congress party a stunning victory over its recent conquerors. The BJP, still celebrating its national triumph, didn't bother to make too many excuses, though it did imply that their party had been too busy with the big picture in Delhi to pay enough attention to three small bypolls. Even the Congress' celebrations at the time were muted, since we were still absorbing the shock of the national defeat.

This time, though, no comparable excuses are available. The BJP was literally trounced in Uttar Pradesh, the state in which it had swept all before it just four months ago. It lost 9 of 11 seats it contested; even more remarkably, these were seats that the BJP had held in the previous Assembly. There was no gloss possible on this repudiation: it was a direct rebuke from the very voters who had just put the party in power nationally.

At the same time, in Gujarat and Rajasthan, two states where the Congress had so recently drawn a blank in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP surrendered ground to the former ruling party. In Gujarat, the Prime Minister's home state in which he was said to be invincible, the BJP lost two Assembly seats out of three. In Rajasthan, where the BJP had won a three-fourths majority in the Assembly just a few months ago and had swept every seat in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP lost three out of four seats to the supposedly defeated and demoralised Congress.

The message from the Indian voter was clear: don't take us for granted.

And that the BJP had. It had basked in the complacency that comes from believing your own publicity. Having convinced the media that the BJP's continued rise and was irresistible and inevitable, it swallowed its own spin. Wallowing in the surf of the much-ballyhooed "Modi wave", it assumed that it just had to go through the motions, and victory would follow. The Prime Minister, enjoying his new-found international networking, didn't even bother to campaign.

But the "Man of the Match" in the Lok Sabha triumph in UP, newly-anointed party President Amit Shah, did. And there lay the second message from the Indian voter: polarization won't work every time.

Amit Shah and his acolytes had convinced themselves that the atmosphere of communal hatred engendered by the Muzaffarnagar riots had worked in the BJP's favour in the parliamentary polls, by consolidating majority Hindu opinion behind the BJP. Accordingly, they promoted further polarization in Uttar Pradesh in advance of these bypolls. The virulent bigotry of Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj and similarsaffron-robed political leaders was unleashed. Nearly 600 episodes of communal violence occurred in Uttar Pradesh, mainly near the places where the by-elections were to be held. The spectre of "Love jihad" wasspawned as the new bogey to dread.

The tactic was crude - "if you hate or fear minorities, rally around the BJP" was the unspoken subtext - but in a country where religious sensibilities are easily aroused, it was assumed to be effective.

It proved not to be.

The UP voter instead voted overwhelmingly for the party that the BJP had caricatured as the poster child of minority appeasement, the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav. Those who had thought that the 2014 elections marked the beginning of the end for regional parties in Indian politics have had their comeuppance too.
Memo to Amit Shah: the Indian voter doesn't like being taken for granted. The Indian voter doesn't like appeals to the basest elements of human nature. The Indian voter voted for Modi's message of development and jobs, not for Adityanath's hate-filled religious sermonizing. And the UP voter preferred to trust a local party than a complacent national Goliath.

There's more. Your party wrote off the Opposition, particularly the Samajawadi Party and the Congress Party, and has just discovered -- as Mark Twain observed when he saw his obituary in the newspaper --that reports of their demise were exaggerated. There might have been a Modi wave in the general elections, but the wave has receded from the shoreline. Mr Shah,it's time to step off the surfboard and get back to the drawing board.

The platitudes will flow, in the inevitable punditrywe all have to endure as the price of following politics. Wake-up call. Time for introspection. Need for course-correction. My own thought, as someone who has deplored the BJP's complicity in raising the communal temperature and regretted Mr Modi's silence on the subject, is a somewhat non-political one. Love works much better than jihad. Maybe you should try it, Mr Shah?

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