Modi Magic Loses its Spell: Is it Just the Beginning?

First, it was the humiliating defeat of the BJP in the high-profile West Bengal election early last year. In his desperation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had even resorted to a vulgar campaign against the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, but to no avail. Then came his unqualified surrender to the farmers sitting on the Uttar Pradesh-Haryana-Delhi border. Faced with their unstinting year-long agitation, he summarily withdrew the controversial farm laws.
Now, in the ongoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, Modi again finds himself on the back foot and again resorting to desperate measures. Just a few hours before the Uttar Pradesh election started, in a potential violation of the time-tested electoral code, he gave an interview to a national news agency that was in purpose and effect an electoral speech. It remains to be seen whether this ugly trick will rescue his party’s fortunes or not.
The electoral code, which prohibits canvassing within the electoral district 48 hours before voting, has become increasingly meaningless these days. The proliferation of electronic media ensures that any canvassing done even outside of an electoral district is simultaneously available in the prohibited zone. If it is a speech or an interview by the prime minister or chief minister, all TV channels act as if they are duty-bound to broadcast—recent developments in Uttar Pradesh bear witness. The system of multi-phase elections contributes to the malady.
In West Bengal, violations happened on a massive scale because the election was held across nine phases. Uttar Pradesh, with a larger electorate, has seven phases. That the Election Commission ought to address this problem is a routine suggestion, but the fact remains that as long as the code is in place, no one should violate it, least of all the prime minister.
Whatever the outcome of the five ongoing Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Punjab, and Uttarakhand, one thing is more or less clear. The BJP is no longer dreaded by its opponents; no longer is it cloaked in an aura of invincibility. This is despite the absence of any single leader who can effectively challenge Narendra Modi today. But India’s democracy remains notoriously capable of springing surprises and throwing up a dark horse who rises to the occasion. In any case, a Mamata Banerjee or an Arvind Kejriwal is no longer a dark horse. And there is no dearth of grey horses either.
Modi’s fading lustre is partly the consequence of his politics of Muslim-bashing, which ascends ridiculous heights during any election. It is not only laced with anti-Nehru rhetoric but also marks his total disregard for the idea of secularism, something he has pooh-poohed as a Western notion with little relevance for India. But one should remember that fundamental principles of governance are never country-specific. Moreover, secularism is much more relevant for a multi-religious, multi-ethnic India than any present-day Western nation-state that was once wholly Christian-dominated. Earlier conflicts between Catholics and Protestants are now history, but they only buttress the theory.
The BJP is learning this lesson the hard way. If ground reports following the initial phases of the Uttar Pradesh election held on 10 and 14 February are accurate, then the Hindutva card is fast losing its trump value. Neither Modi nor his Home Minister Amit Shah left any drop of communal venom un-administered as they sought to vitiate the Jat-Muslim bonhomie. And yet, the farmers’ agitation has succeeded in doing what no Indian political party could dare. Amid loud popular endorsement, they trumpeted Har Har Mahadev-Allahu Akbar (Hail Lord Shiva-Allah is great) from the stage. This Indian variety of secularism (Gandhian in essence, about which I have written elsewhere) must have rattled the BJP. Their only hope now lies with voters who are critically dependent on state-distributed free ration, whom Modi euphemistically labels labharthi (the beneficiaries).
The mass of disgruntled Muslim voters may eventually become Modi and the BJP’s nemesis. Somewhat ironically, it is the BJP that created this Muslim vote bank, converting it from a subject of staid theoretical debates into a sociopolitical reality. Early evidence can be found in the West Bengal elections when Bengali Muslims categorically rejected Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in favour of the Trinamool Congress. They clearly did not want to repeat the mistake of their Bihari counterparts, whose vote had been split across the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), AIMIM, and the Congress in 2020. As a result, the RJD lost crucial seats, allowing the BJP-Nitish Kumar combine to secure a narrow mandate. Paradoxically, it is Modi’s pet slogan, sabka saath sabka vikas (everyone’s development by taking everybody along), that is being turned on its head by no other a force than the BJP’s bête noire, the Muslims.
Muslim-bashing is an essential ingredient in Modi’s political formula, but it is far from the only one. Its other elements include the following: a powerful Centre that negates federalism, disregard for human rights as a foolish concept, disrespect for an independent press, indiscriminate use of draconian laws, branding many well-meaning individuals as anti-national, trumpeting India’s ancient glory beyond all proportion and falsely claiming that India is admired the world over. And the list goes on. Since our childhood, we have read Mahatma Gandhi and learnt that patriotism and falsehood are antithetical to each other. But does anyone care any more? Today our Members of Parliament worship the Mahatma’s killers.
I have slowly come to the realisation that nations with short histories are blessed. Countries such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and in our neighbourhood, Bangladesh, do not suffer from a compulsion to trace their eternal greatness millennia into the past. Today, half of India’s intellectual energy is spent on uselessly proving that the Mughals and Jawaharlal Nehru have stymied Indian greatness. Had they not intervened, this line of farcical argumentation goes, then Indians would have won global acclaim as the greatest people on earth. Blithely glossed over are the 200 years of subjugation under the British, as if the nationalist movement never occurred. Even a section of the educated Indian middle class has been bought into this fantastical formulation. To them, the Nehruvian period marks a dark age in Indian history.
Postscript: These days, many of us in the middle class avoid indulging in political discussions with friends and relatives, fearing that they may turn bitter. Here is something that offers us ‘libtards’ some succour. In January of 1962, the famous polymath and humanist John Bertrand Russell received a series of letters from the well-known British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, begging for a political debate. Russell’s unfailingly polite but morally resolute response was as follows: “I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us. I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.”
The author is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. He was an ICSSR National Fellow and professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. The views are personal.

The Leaflet