The brief visit by Barak Obama to Delhi was, quite predictably, another occasion for those infected by Modi allergy to attempt resurrecting the very contrived issue of rising intolerance and threats to the freedom of expression in India. Whether these attempts succeeded or were deftly fobbed off by a consummate politician who has very different priorities is a matter of opinion. What is clear, however, is that the casualties of Modi allergy seem inordinately interested in mobilising opinion abroad, perhaps to make up for the Indian public’s deep scepticism of their fear-mongering.
The past week witnessed another setback to the theory that Indians are growing weary of Mann ki Baat and are now yearning for a sacred thread-wearing Rahul Gandhi to give the country back its dynastic rule. The civic elections in Uttar Pradesh should, ideally, have not got any significant media traction. Local democracy is important to political buffs, not merely because they reinforce and strengthen democratic impulses at the grassroots; they also serve as barometers of political equations in the localities. However, the details are over packaged in aggregate numbers that often make it very difficult to detect local colour and variations. There are umpteen local stories that can be told to explain why Aligarh voted the way it did, but not Varanasi and Jhansi. Unfortunately, they rarely get told to a larger audience.
This inevitable retreat into a bird’s eye view, however, also serves a purpose. With rare exceptions, even local elections are not entirely about the proverbial parish pump. They are a blend of the local and the national, although the proportions keep changing. The Hyderabad-based AIMIM led by the Owaisi brothers, for example, made its debut in the UP local polls. What its scattered local presence implies is worth exploring. But that story would not emerge by a reading of election statistics alone.
Similarly, the stories of why the BJP won, say, Jhansi in Bundelkhand but lost Aligarh in UP will not automatically emerge from cold statistics. What the aggregate numbers do tell us, however, is quite profound. First, it would seem that contrary to the emotional outrage that greeted the selection of Mahant Adityanath to the post of Chief Minister in the summer, the electorate of UP don’t seem all that agitated by the choice. The overall election outcome would suggest that the expectations that governed the big Assembly election victory of the BJP are still very much intact and have not degenerated into disappointment. There are expectations from the Adityanath administration and these have nothing to do with his religious credentials.
Secondly, in view of the Prime Minister’s larger than life presence in all areas of public life, it is impossible to separate the UP verdict from a facet of national politics. In stark terms, it implies that the perception of Modi as over-burdened by growing economic dissatisfaction is a narrative that should be viewed with a generous helping of salt. Had there been anger and frustration over demonetisation and GST, the UP municipal and local body elections would have registered a sharp fall in BJP’s support. Since this didn’t happen, there are good reasons to believe that Modi is broadly on the right track — politically at least. I refuse to believe that these trends are confined to UP and won’t have a bearing on the forthcoming Gujarat Assembly election.
Finally, the assertion that a rejuvenated Rahul Gandhi has injected new life into the Congress party seems at present to be a case of wishful thinking. There may be various local factors responsible for the Congress’ indifferent showing in both the parliamentary constituencies of the Gandhi parivar and it is by no means certain that these will translate into a vote against incumbent MPs in a general election. However, read with the evidence of the Congress’ larger failure to capture new ground in UP or even recover old ground, there are reasons to be sceptical of the gushing enthusiasm for the Congress Vice President on the strength of his office’s better social media performance.
The election in Gujarat will have its own dynamics. The outcome will not depend on the number of temples Rahul has visited or whether or not he is a real or fake Hindu. These are merely incidental noises of a bitter campaign; the outcome will be a judgment on the BJP in its totality. This includes Vijay Rupani, it contains Amit Shah and, naturally it is also dominated by Narendra Modi. There is silken thread that binds the concerns of UP and Gujarat.
The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha.