BJP, Left face existential dilemma
By M J Akbar
It may be difficult to deal with defeat, but the regret of a drowned dream is quickly overtaken by the compulsions of survival. Both the BJP and the Left now face an existential dilemma, and will require honesty to pare away that part of the dogma that has checked the growth of one and undermined the success of the other.
The BJP might want to consider a fundamental fact about our country. India is not a secular nation because Indian Muslims want it to be secular. India is a secular nation because Indian Hindus want it to be secular.
It would be wrong to dismiss everyone in the BJP as communal. But L K Advani's efforts to sustain the inclusive image fashioned by Atal Behari Vajpayee were constantly undermined by the rhetoric of leaders who did not understand that the language of conflict had passed its sell-by date. The turning point came with Varun Gandhi's immature speech. The BJP condemned it but did not disown it completely, for fear of losing the extreme in its search for the centre. What seems obvious now did not seem so clear then. Varun Gandhi should have been dropped as a candidate. Worse, Varun Gandhi fell in love with his new pseudo-aggressive image, and projected it in statements and pictures that went into every home through television. This young Gandhi even began to fantasise a future as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. It is interesting that regional BJP leaders understood that this was toxic. The Madhya Pradesh party bluntly told Varun Gandhi he was not needed while the Bihar unit was relieved when Nitish Kumar refused hospitality to both Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi.
The national ethos is shaped by one predominant desire: the hunger for a better life. Prosperity is impossible without peace, so the passions of sectarian politics, whether based on community or caste, have been replaced by the clear understanding that peace is non-negotiable. Prosperity, on the other hand, has always been negotiable, since it has never been a universal fact. India remains a poor country with rich people rather than the other way around. The poor want to be part of the India Rising story.
It is odd that the Marxists should have missed this. They lost the Muslim vote in rural Bengal, not because of Islam but because of poverty. The message from Nandigram and Singur was that land was being taken away from the poor in order to create jobs for the middle class. Nitish Kumar has won because he created peace, and took his promise of prosperity to those at the very bottom of the top-heavy caste ladder. He will be the envy of his peers at the next meeting of the nation's chief ministers.
It might be even odder if one draws a potential parallel between Bengal and Gujarat, but Narendra Modi's industrialization just might become a problem if he does not take corrective action. Taking the Nano that Bengal lost is only one chapter of a more complicated story. The poor are sensing that this cosy relationship between politicians and industrialists is benefiting either the rich or the middle class. The landless and peasants could turn against Modi if he does not resurrect rural Gujarat with the high-profile vigour he has offered industry. The DMK survived in Tamil Nadu because it gave the poor cheap rice and free entertainment. Buy shares in television companies. Every political party is soon going to hand out free television sets to voters.
The Berlin Wall has been breached in Kolkata. Is it only a matter of time before the Communist bloc collapses? Are Prakash Karat and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee the problem or the solution? Is there any alternative chief minister in Bengal who can fashion correctives and implement them with a hammer? The CPI(M) politburo meeting on May 18 was meant to be a celebratory event in the game of thrust and parry that was supposed to follow the results. It will now have the excitement of a dirge. Prakash Karat summed up this election pithily when he said, "We failed". It was not an individual's failure, since Marxist decisions are collective.
It is easy to sneer at the defeated, but a paradox needs to be noted. The Left may not be missed in Kerala and Bengal, but it will be missed in Delhi, since it injected serious debate into economic and foreign policies. It is not important that the Left was right or wrong. What is important is that it generated a debate.
It is obvious that governance is being rewarded, and Naveen Patnaik's vindication is sufficient evidence. But there is also a model profile for a politician that has emerged. The voter wants three qualities in his leader: honesty, competence and modesty. This is what he saw in Dr Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi added the flavour of the future to the Congress offer. He has won his place in power through this election. In all likelihood there will be a transition within the foreseeable future, particularly since the Congress has silenced its allies as effectively as it has neutered the Opposition.
Chief ministers like Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh delivered on all three qualities respected by the voter. Others got by on two, but they should not confuse reprieve with victory.
The dangers of success are more dramatic than the perils of failure. Complacence is an easy trap. Arrogance is seductive. Dr Manmohan Singh has been given freedom to govern, but his first watch has to be on a slippage by colleagues. By giving him freedom, the Indian voter has denied him an excuse.