Byline by M J Akbar: A gift for the past
When the ageing but still incomparable Groucho Marx, now trundling into his eighties, was asked what he most wanted as a birthday gift, his reply was succinct: “Last year.” Which is the year from their past that the BJP and Shiv Sena would most like as a gift? 2001. Since then it has been a steady trot downhill.
The Shiv Sena’s stagnation is easily comprehensible. After a lifetime of leadership by a dominant patriarch it confused the man with the mission. The Shiv Sena has two dimensions. In rural Maharashtra it is the regional, Marathi-centric alternative to the Congress, playing the democratic game with a slant but within the framework of conventional politics. Its urban manifestation is different. In Mumbai, particularly, and in Pune, to a lesser degree, the Shiv Sena’s success has been through the sharp articulation of grievance and local pride, through a sensational rhetoric and, when required, violent agitation. Balasaheb Thackeray has been, for some years now, unable to either breathe such fire or turn his rather mild heir Uddhav into a fire-breather. His nephew Raj Thackeray walked into vacant space; the sound of broken windows was sufficient to persuade the young unemployed that they had found their voice. Raj Thackeray picked up 23.35% of the vote in Mumbai. Translate that figure into ground reality and it becomes more comprehensible. If roughly half the vote of Mumbai is Marathi, then the nephew took around half the Marathi votes cast. This is a huge swing, with an impact extending far beyond the 13 seats that he won. The Shiv Sena, already down by three per cent in the Lok Sabha elections from its support in 2004, dropped a further three percentage points. Balasaheb still gets respect, but that is really a homage to his past. The mission has passed on to Raj Thackeray.
The BJP has a larger dilemma. It is simply out of focus. It has nothing by way of a new narrative to offer, and its old one is so tired that it can’t get out of bed. The party has gone through an identity crisis before. Its first incarnation, the Bhartiya Jana Sangh, submerged itself into the Janata, under popular pressure, in 1977. The Janata never functioned as the sum of its parts, and proved so incapable to understanding the compulsions of power that it collapsed and split.
The bruised Sangh resurrected as the Bhartiya Janata Party, preaching some strange form of pretend-Gandhism, and was promptly battered in the 1984 elections. It reinvented itself through the street politics of the Ayodhya temple movement, consolidated its gains with patience during the Narasimha Rao years and won unprecedented rewards in Delhi. The Atal Behari Vajpayee years can be summed up quite succinctly. As long as the party followed Vajpayee’s advice, it maintained a keel that was acceptable to the country. When the party imposed itself on Vajpayee, the balance went awry. It was only a question of time before the keel broke. Since then the BJP has been struggling to find the balance between regional demands and a national presence, emotionalism and shrill invective, communal rhetoric and the compulsion of social peace as the necessary bedrock of economic development — and, finally, an image that reflects concern for the future rather than the conflicts of the past. Such contradictions had a direct impact on the Maharashtra elections. When it joined the me-too Marathi manoos agenda of the Shiv Sena, which is essentially anti-Bihari migrant labour, its Bihar unit publicly disassociated itself from the decision.
And so, typically, the BJP fell between the traditional two stools. The Marathi shrugged and moved to Raj Thackeray; and one can safely assume that not a single Mumbai Bihari voted for the BJP. BJP leaders have neither understood the reasons for their now prolonged stagnation or decline, which is why they embarrass themselves and their party with silly excuses on the day results are declared. Some bright spark blamed the electronic voting machines the moment the trend in Maharashtra pointed towards defeat. That leader had not lost an election, he had lost his mind.
The BJP’s real problem is a sense that it has got lost in a time warp at a moment when young Indians, the decisive element in the vote, are either looking ahead or bursting with anger and frustration. The BJP has been unable to offer a road map for the next years, or — unlike say Om Prakash Chautala — become an effective mobiliser of voter resentment.
This has been a poor election for all major parties. The Congress actually lost one per cent of its vote from five years ago in Maharashtra; while its embarrassment in Haryana was plainly evident. The NCP vote dropped 2.4% from 2004. The ruling alliance won not because it was better but simply because it was less worse.
Depression engenders an enervating lethargy. Government is of course recognised as a full-time activity, but Opposition has become election season frenzy punctuated by a few forgettable speeches during Parliament sessions. Opposition is the time parties use to expand their base; the BJP can barely protect what it had two decades ago in a volatile state like Haryana.
You can only dream of the gift of a past year. To survive in electoral politics you need to create a future.