Two India speaking at cross purposes

THE electoral performance of Swaraj India raises a larger question centred on the prevailing political narrative in India. Increasingly, since the run-up to the general election of 2014, we are witnessing a growing gulf between what the electorate thinks and how a small intellectual elite perceives happenings in India. To some extent, this is unavoidable and common to all societies. Yet there is a linkage. In India, over the past few years, the thread that binds the two has snapped.

Every election produces winners and losers. It happens all the time and there is nothing exceptional about the phenomenon. The winners, while having digs at opponents, routinely mouth platitudes about being “humbled” by the verdict and repeat promises about effective implementation of election promises. The losers, in their turn, speak about their failure to communicate their message and stress the need to “introspect”. It is all very familiar.

The aftermath of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi polls produced the usual quota of template responses. However, what stood out was the response of two of the losers.

First, there was the Swaraj India, a breakaway group of the Aam Aadmi Party, which fielded some 212 candidates, all of whom lost their deposits — an interesting statistic that is inversely correlated to the media time and space it managed to hog. Responding to the debacle, its national president Yogendra Yadav argued that the electorate “has ordered Swaraj India to be the guard outside the House. We respect this mandate and humbly accept it.”

As an exercise in spin, this self-defined role is quite spectacular. The electorate, of course, rejected the new party which, unfortunately for it, lacked a common symbol for its candidates. But the reality is starker. Delhi’s voters may have rejected AAP and Congress but it simply ignored Swaraj India, an organisation whose existence is premised on the goodwill it enjoys among a small section of the media. This act of omission is interesting and indicates that those who set the terms of intellectual discourse in India enjoy very little or no electoral traction. It also reveals the alarming extent to which the media, particularly the English-language media, is driven by personal agendas of journalists and editors. Swaraj India has an absolute Constitutional right to see itself as a watchdog of civic life in India, but the belief that it has been conferred that right by a popular mandate smacks of both intellectual arrogance and delusionary politics.

The electoral performance of Swaraj India raises a larger question centred on the prevailing political narrative in India. Increasingly, since the run-up to the general election of 2014, we are witnessing a growing gulf between what the electorate thinks and how a small intellectual elite perceives happenings in India. To some extent this is unavoidable and common to all societies. Yet there is a linkage. In India, over the past few years, the thread that binds the two has snapped. We are witnessing at least two India talking almost entirely at cross purposes.

Does it matter? There are many in the political class who feel that the divergence between popular aspirations (and tastes) and the views of a section of the intelligentsia, while being a reality, is inconsequential. To the intelligentsia, the three-year record of the Narendra Modi Government constitutes a dark age for India. From returning State awards and raising the bogey of intolerance to rubbishing India’s economic performance, there has been a concerted attempt to suggest that India is on a slippery slope to hell. Echoing the English-language media that doesn’t seem to have reconciled itself to a BJP Government at the Centre, this doomsday scenario has been picked up by an influential section of the foreign media. While this unending stream of negativity has very little political impact — witness how little the coloured reports by a small coterie of agenda-driven journalists influenced the outcome in either Uttar Pradesh or in the various municipal and local bodies elections in different States — it does shape overseas perceptions. Modi has tried to counter this negativity by injecting the diaspora with a sense of India pride but there is no minimising the damage. This is more so when misplaced sympathy for the Islamist-driven stone throwers in the Kashmir Valley comes to be interpreted overseas as evidence of India’s waning resolve.

The second response of the losers which verges on the bizarre has been AAP’s reaction to its inability to secure control of the MCD. By arguing that the defeat, whether in Punjab or in Delhi, was entirely a function of doctored voting machines, there is a section of the opposition (and I don’t include the Congress which, despite its defeat, responded with dignity) that seems to have taken the politics of confrontation to dizzying heights. In choosing to live in its own echo chamber, AAP has convinced itself that its governance in Delhi was exemplary and that people were bending over backwards to ensure that there was an AAP Government in Punjab. Consequently, it is unmoved by arguments that it is almost impossible to doctor stand-alone voting machines on an industrial scale.

The AAP’s slide into conspiracy theories from the moral high of ‘alternative politics’ that initially drove it is tragic. However, it is also a function of its desperation to perform electoral miracles in a very short time. The moral halo it has conferred on itself is something that stems from the long association of its founders in non-governmental organisations. However, believing you have a monopoly of virtuousness is different from knowing and appreciating how lesser mortals perceive you. AAP needed a crash course in humility and the people gave it a monster dose of it. If Arvind Kejriwal can stop believing that he has been chosen by some divine power to steer India in the path of righteousness, he may yet be an effective political leader.

Between the devastating defeats in Bihar and Delhi in 2015 and the resounding victory in UP, Modi read the warning signs and took corrective action, slowly but surely. It is that willingness to embrace responsiveness over certitude that mark a statesman from a poseur.

The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha

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