Reflections on the election of our time

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The Uttar Pradesh election results are like a riddle wrapped in an enigma. The sheer scale of the victory, the arithmetic, shows it was a tsunami that no one had predicted. More than the act of prediction in the form of the exit polls that confounded us, the problem lay in deciphering the results. At the macrolevel, it is like watching the arrival of a juggernaut, whose presence now looks inevitable, but which still requires explanation of how it came there. At a micro-level, one looks at pieces which make as little sense as the whole picture. It is not the immediacy of the result that challenges us but what it implies for the future.

This is a strange election where one man became a national phenomenon. As a wag put it, Narendra Modi became a final cause, remote cause and immediate cause of the election results. He represented the idea of India the majority wanted. People believed his words and his utterances such as development, nationalism and “Make in India” acquired a shelf life beyond the original meaning of these terms. What Mr. Modi seemed to convey is what I call a lowest common denominator democracy. He has created a “roti, kapda aur makan (food, clothing and shelter)” imagination for the new middle classes. His communalism — which he wore like a badge, pretending it is a patriotism — is so blatant and confident that it challenges the old tenets of secularism making it irrelevant. When a Prime Minister, not merely a head of a party, refuses to allocate a single seat to a Muslim candidate in U.P., the message is clear. He has pushed out an old political vocabulary which already had a shop-soiled quality. His style of electoral ambush of appropriating the Opposition’s favourite stereotypes was acutely tactical.


Consider the issue of demonetisation. He was not devaluing currency but instead rendering some older political styles effete. The Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) could no longer claim to be the spokespersons of the poor. Ironically, Mr. Modi made demonetisation speak a political rather than an economic language. He demonetised political currency and challenged the bankability of terms such as secularism. Simultaneously, he appropriated the pro-poor platform by pretending to be anti-rich. He became an anti-corruption crusader in that sense, telling the poor that he was their way out of their current world. His combination of patriotism and anti-poverty became a potent brew.

The strategy

Let me be clear. It is a strategy that we have to understand. Mr. Modi formulated a symbolic strategy, while BJP president Amit Shah spelt out the tactics on the ground. He created a sense of the new, promising a sense of the world by appealing to demography and a new generation. He did it in two ways. He cleared the decks by treating Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi as old furniture. But he went beyond this by suggesting almost blatantly that the stereotypes of caste and ideology were outdated because change has dated them. Such categories create the captive minds of the old electoral politics. What he was offering was a simple aspirational, mobile society where those at the bottom of the pyramid — a clichéd word for the poor — feel a different sense of possibilities. His overt change in style, dress, and his muted muscularity all helped create an effective veneer around his political style. This not only added to his vote catching power among Dalits but also made old warhorses such as BSP leader Mayawati appear like yesterday’s newspaper. What Mr. Modi was signalling to each caste category which had frozen into a vote bank was that caste alone would not work. One needed development, innovation, a new sense of energy, and not the old lethargy of waiting for reservation. Mr. Modi hinted that the politics of ressentiment had to be replaced by a strategy of mobility.


Capturing the imagination

Third, Mr. Modi realised, that the media’s understanding of the social order was incomplete. He had a better hearing aid to listen to what I call grassroots voices. They spoke a different language of immediacy unembellished by the rhetoric of concepts. Mr. Modi’s concepts such as “Make in India” were more performative, promising delivery of the goods and competence better than any of the words that the socialists or the Congress offered to the people. It is in this sense that one has to understand that his victory was not merely an organisational victory created by Mr. Shah and the millions of party workers on the ground but also a literal capturing of the mass imagination. It was so total that it was virtually emasculating to the opposition. Brutally put, it went beyond a capture of votes to a seduction of the imagination. It captured not only the working concepts of today’s electoral language but also the very grids of thought that determine the thought styles of the future. It is in recognising this that this article, which till now appears like a compilation of what made the BJP tick, becomes a symptomatology of fears. Let me admit that I might have got my psephology wrong but my intuition tells me that my sense of the future might be pathetically and prophetically right.


An epitaph for the old

Think of a few simple facts. Here is a party which even after the Gujarat riots is virtually contemptuous or indifferent to the Muslim, clear that this critical election did not need the help of any Muslim candidates. Mr. Modi has also told Dalits that their politics, like minoritarianism, is doomed. The two great concepts that created the compost heap of Indian electoral politics, the vote banks which has acquired a reified life of their own, are socialism and secularism. Mr. Modi, in rendering them effete, has also created a set of closures we must understand. It is clear that while mobility is an aspirational dream, dissent today is an almost extinct possibility between the inanity of the left and the liberals and the hostility of the BJP regime. What we are facing is individual aspiration but a death of the old categories which at one time created the romance and the Utopian around words such as justice and equality.

The U.P. elections show that the old covenant around the concepts we once held sacred is dead. The hegemony of the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bajrang Dal combine is almost clear. What we face is what I am going to call the closure of the Indian mind. There are few possibilities of new political dreams. Mr. Modi is offering a straitjacket of a narrow idea of development and globalisation which contain no alternative possibilities, no dissent, no side bets. It is not a post-truth society we are confronting but a creation of a captive mind. This society by choosing Mr. Modi has closed itself to many great imaginations. What we see is not a new generation speaking a new liberated politics but a bowdlerised society oozing simplicities, created by the masterminds of propaganda. India, like the United States, has today become a collection of hard hat minds, facing a tragedy where the aspiration is global but the categories are parochial while masquerading themselves as national. Mr. Modi’s victory signals the victory of the parochial and affordably mediocre over any vision of the cosmopolitan or plural. Deep down it is the future which we have lost today. This is Indian democracy’s most ironic gift.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2022 8:25:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/reflections-on-the-election-of-our-time/article17462682.ece

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