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Modi mainstreams the fringe

Modi mainstreams the fringe
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It is difficult to say whether acceptance comes first or adjustment. We had begun to deal with the Narendra Modi era with its pluses and minuses –...

Democracies across the world are passing through a grim phase. We have been witnessing, repeatedly and with growing decibels and menace, what was considered fringe and unacceptable to the people at large, grabbing the political centre-stage.

One reason why this has of late repeatedly happened is because we mistook the fringe to be foolhardy. We have been proved wrong. There is no respite now, nor is it likely for a long while

It is difficult to say whether acceptance comes first or adjustment. We had begun to deal with the Narendra Modi era with its pluses and minuses – there is a plethora of both to reckon with – when last year Brexit happened in Britain and the Americans elected Donald Trump.

And now a newspaper cartoon shows the bald head of new Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath being crowned with Trump’s carrot-coloured mane. The message is unmistakable. Their respective journeys have just begun and they have a long way to go.

Democracies across the world are passing through a grim phase. We have been witnessing, repeatedly and with growing decibels and menace, what was considered fringe and unacceptable to the people at large, grabbing the political centre-stage. One reason why this has of late repeatedly happened is because we mistook the fringe to be foolhardy. We have been proved wrong. There is no respite now, nor is it likely for a long while.

Their triumphs are through democratic processes, no doubt. If we are wedded to democracy, then we must accept a popular verdict and watch it at work. But we should also be willing -- and allowed -- to say that all is not fine. And, this being “allowed to” itself seems in peril and would need defending.

This is where acceptance and adjustment come. Is it to each his/her own, or should there be a collective move at counter-democracy?

The first move would need to come from the political parties that are jaded, their platforms outdated. Most of them suffer from being led by families that retain the stranglehold even as they visibly prosper. And most of them, again, engage in nepotism and openly favour groups that provide them the political support base.

The opposition parties lost out on these and other scores. They tried to match the toxic and divisive discourse thrust on them by Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They tried to counter Modi’s personal jibes with their own. Character assassination was on all sides. But they lost because they could not match Modi’s development agenda with their own.

The claims and promises of Akhilesh Yadav and Harish Rawat looked hollow considering that both had frittered away precious time in office in family (Akhilesh) and group (Rawat) feuds. They had climbed the election bandwagon rather late in the day. By contrast, in a battle of perceptions, Modi was able to push this agenda, making more promises than he had done in 2014 – and he got away with it.

None of the opposition parties had the BJP polls strategy to match. Modi made the opposition parties pauper with his demonetisation move. And the ‘kill’ came in the form of adopting of divisive means that polarised the voter. Having encroached on other parties’ disgruntled leaders, the BJP proceeded to poach on their support bases as well. And if results are any indication, it succeeded hands down.

Post-polls, we are told that the vote for BJP is the triumph of demonetisation – despite public suffering for several weeks and that included zari, weaving, pottery and brassware and thousands of small and medium enterprises in Uttar Pradesh.

We are told that women among UP’s 35 million-plus Muslim voters are supposed to have silently, even secretively from their domineering men, voted for BJP on being mesmerised by its proposed move to end triple talaq system. Projected as a sign of awakening among Muslim women, and although desirable for their well-being, this analysis to explain the Muslim vote is at best, romantic, with an eye on women elsewhere in the country.

As for the Muslim men-folk, assuming that they were in touch with the political situation on the ground, but not with the women-folk at home, it is more likely that their vote was neutralised by garnering the larger, better strategised vote of the majority community. That alone can explain the BJP win in towns like Deoband and Aligarh. Only a constituency-wise analysis might explain how large chunks of people whom other parties had taken for granted as their support base opted for BJP.

There is a chorus of appeals and demands from a section of the media that the Gandhi family should quit and let the Congress party survive, revive and build itself as a bulwark of democratic opposition. They are convinced, with considerable justification, that the party needs fresh thinking and resurgence so that there is a credible opposition for democracy to sustain and grow. There can be no doubt about the basis of their argument, whether or not the Gandhis heed it.

On the face of it, it is well meaning. There is no official response from the party. If at all, there is an appeal from Captain Amrinder Singh, whose leadership provided the party the only conclusive victory. A votary of Sonia Gandhi to continue in office some months back, he seems to have reconciled to her retirement in view of her reported illness and has sought that Rahul’s elevation be fast-forwarded.

One can discern this “quit-Congress” demand coming from two other quarters. One voices what has been talked about at cocktail party circuits and academia that engage in armchair political discourse, like they discuss latest Bollywood film in town.

The other quarter is formidable. Taking cue from the corporate sector that controls it, it pitches for the BJP. Hence the term secular comes within inverted comas, but Hindutva does not. Both the Gandhis have specific designations in their party, but pejoratives are employed to emphasise on the party’s control by the family.

Indeed, terms like secular and liberal have changed spellings and political connotations in the current discourse where the distinction between media and social media has blurred. Interestingly, some of this discourse that borders on trolling has aggressively crossed the national borders and made its presence felt in foreign media, especially in the neighbourhood.

Returning to Modi and the Yogi, the Prime Minister was indeed the mascot stressing on fast development of UP and won it for the party. But Yogi had also campaigned heavily using his trademark vituperation against the Muslims and making the mandir-masjid, smashan-kabristan pitches that also found echoes in Modi’s speeches.

A question that arises is: have the two agenda got mixed? Did the UP voter accept Modi’s development plank and promises and must now accept and adjust to Yogi’s? Is there a strategic shift on the part of the BJP and the Modi Government?

Taking it further, is this the shape of things to come, nationwide, where Modi will push the development agenda and Yogi, and taking cue from him, other BJP Chief Ministers, ministers and lawmakers, the party cadres and their affiliates, will adopt and push the ‘cultural’ agenda?

Will the country witness a harder Hindutva line from here on? Will it, for instance, see resurgence of “love jihad,” “ghar wapasi” and violence in the name of cow protection?

If that happens, UP may make it easy and more urgent for forging opposition unity that, in order to be effective, would need to be, not on competitive name-calling but on a coherent alternative agenda that needs reworking since it has been effectively appropriated by Modi/BJP. This is easier said than done, going by track record.

Yogi, too, has a long track record. In his first speech as the Chief Minister, he has promised to work for “all sections of society” and fast-forward UP’s development. Time will tell how far he means it and delivers.

It is a given that development and progress cannot happen without social stability and harmony. The two are sorely needed, for a decade at least, for a country of India’s size, population and diversity, growing fast economically and seeking a place on the global table.

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