Five lessons for India’s political parties from the state elections
Besides obvious takeaways of declining popularity of Modi and credibility of the BJP, most important lesson is that electoral politics is undergoing a churn and it will no longer be politics as usual
Communist East Germany shed its socialism in a matter a few years. Nepalese citizens however embraced socialism in no time instead of kneeling to their Monarch, deemed to be a living god. They are examples of how fast citizens’ psychology and attitude towards prevailing or dominant political thoughts change.
A similar change appears to have taken place in the mind of Indian citizens as well. From a democratic, liberal and secular leaning people, they have embraced more fascist, right leaning, majoritarian religion appeasing forces. So much so that these forces have had an absolute majority in Parliament for the last seven years.
But are we seeing some sign of the wind changing its direction? Two caveats are necessary before we deconstruct the new mindset of Indian voters – one on the widely perceived malpractices associated with the EVMs and other election-related Indian system and the fact that religion still clouds how a vast majority of Indians think and act.
Notwithstanding these caveats, there are five obvious takeaways from the five assembly elections held last month and results of which were declared on May 2.
1. Perception of invincibility of the BJP election machinery dented:
With the relative ease with which the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the LDF in Kerala and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal won, the myth of BJP’s invincibility has been broken. Not only had the BJP poured in tonnes of money, but it had unleashed all the weapons in its arsenal like a pliant Election Commission, a subordinate Enforcement Directorate, Central Bureau of Investigation, Income Tax Department, Home ministry controlled CRPF, RAF, CISF, a lapdog media and till sometime back a compliant Supreme Court. Even with the backing of the RSS cadre and these weapons, they still failed to make a dent. If only the opposition parties develop a sense of confidence in themselves and are able to control the agenda and keep it secular and progressive, they may well regain the public’s trust.
The perception remodelling is necessary and best left to organisations with expertise in communication and perception management. The earlier models of polarisation based on caste and religion will soon be completely outdated. A Prashant Kishor can help immensely in such an act. An inclusive secular ideology backed with the idea of welfare for all can help rebuild the country.
India is one of the few countries where, despite strict laws, political parties have won polls by slipping money to the poor. But this cannot go on for long since citizens also need jobs, protection (law and order), economic development and willingness to maintain peace with those who profess a different faith. Money and fear will soon become blunted by over-use.
Political parties which listen to their electorate and design their strategy keeping the people in mind can turn the table. Popularity is commanded by actors and jokers, but to translate the popularity to votes, parties must have clear cut ideas of how to govern. In the recent elections Narenda Modi’s hollow words and his disregard for experts have again been exposed; and the voters could see through the hollowness.
2. Covid Crisis and Policy paralysis: Modi’s credibility has been severely dented both nationally and internationally by his false bravado and sheer incompetence. Foreign media have been critical of him, almost calling him a Nero fiddling while Rome burnt. Since the mainstream Indian media heavily dependent on government’s advertisement support could not be as critical, other independent small news content providers powered through social media – has carried the damning news to every nook and corner of the country.
BJP is now in the dock, largely due to the mishandling of the economy, rising inflation, disappearing job opportunities, worsening law & order, atrocities on the vulnerable sections and minorities, increasing crime against women, India’s waning status in the world and because of its blatantly pro-capitalist ideas and Hindu appeasement. This coupled with administrative gaffes and misgovernance – the very issues they had accused the UPA –do not seem to have been lost on the voters.
3. Can you be a nationalist if your ideology is not accepted nationally?: If BJP could not make their nationalism sway the voters in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Punjab, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jharkhand, Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bengal or Odisha, on what basis can they claim to be nationalist? A party which cannot carry all Indians together can hardly be deemed to be a nationalist or even a national party.
BJP is increasingly being seen as a party from the Hindi heartland trying to impose its ideas of one language, one religion and one party. The idea that it can control what people speak, eat, wear or how they vote, is facing growing resistance.
4. Sub-nationalism won: The recent elections have revitalised the idea of secularism and federalism and stressed the importance of regional, linguistic and sub-nationalistic identity. Treating all Indians with the same brush is neither feasible nor desirable, something that BJP is learning to its cost. A Bengali is as proud of his culture as a Gujarati and a Punjabi, a Tamilian and a Bihari. They come together as Indians only when they are treated equally and without discrimination. They need their space to govern themselves. Federalism is back with a bang.
5. Do not ignore women: Politics has been divisive and politicians have always won by dividing people or invoking the loyalty of people on the basis of caste, community and religion. Middle-class, businessmen, farmers have all been used at some time or the other – but polarisation of women voters had not been seen till these elections. The time is rife for an agenda to reduce crime against women and giving more representation to them in power. Notwithstanding the misogynists who abound in all parties, such a move will be welcomed by many.
The backlash in favour of Mamata Banerjee caused by insulting slogans and cat calls like “Didi-ooo-didi” will become more frequent. Both Mamata and Pinarayi Vijayan benefitted electorally from the unified support of women in these elections. It’s a lesson which should not be forgotten in a hurry.
(The author is a communications strategist. Views are personal)