Saturday’s poll verdict painted Uttar Pradesh, the country’s biggest state, in saffron hue. The changing colours and shades on the country’s political canvas over the past 20 years (on the right) is a story of India on the move: from being a nation that was self-contented with its historical, cultural and political legacy to one that is on a quest for new glories.
It’s no mere coincidence that the colour pattern shows drastic changes during a period when the country is headed by Narendra Modi, the first Prime Minister born post-Independence. The BJP declared him its Prime Ministerial candidate in September 2013. The party hasn’t looked back since, riding on the “Modi wave” to win every Congress-ruled state that went to polls.
The expanse of resplendent saffron and orange on India’s map in 2017—with shrinking patches of green and light green—depicts how the BJP that was dismissed as a north Indian Brahmin-Bania party not long ago has emerged as a pan-India party, virtually dislodging the grand old Congress from this perch of pride. The political landscape has never looked so shorn of greenery (see 2017 map), making a travesty of the Congress party’s claims that if India is a computer, it’s the default programme.
Before Sonia Gandhi took the plunge in active politics in 1998 and took over the reins of the Congress, the landscape didn’t look much different (see 1997 map); it was only slightly better then, with north-eastern states barely pushing its tally to double digits. The grand old party was looking rudderless with the Nehru-Gandhi family staying away from politics after Rajiv Gandhi’s death in 1991 and its top leadership sharply divided between pro and anti-Narasimha Rao factions.
It lost its base in the Hindi heartland post Mandal. Demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 under the watch of then Prime Minister Rao alienated a large section of Muslims from the party and triggered polarisation along communal lines, bringing the BJP to the political centre stage. There were new claimants for the Congress’ support base among the upper castes, Dalits and Muslims. A number of regional outfits came up to successfully challenge the Congress in many states.
The Congress watched it helplessly. There was no attempt to re-calibrate and re-orient its politics to make up for the loss of traditional support base. There was no political will or sagacity to own up and politically encash Rao’s bold and historic decision to open up the economy and initiate a spate of reforms that changed the way the world looked at India.
Sonia steered the party back to the path of revival (see maps for 2002,2007 and 2012) but it was more to do with the fact that it was the only alternative — or ‘default programme’ as Rahul Gandhi put it—than the return of its traditional vote bank or cultivation of new constituencies among the electorate.
Riding Modi’s popularity wave, the BJP has emerged as another alternative and the country has shown inclination to exercise the new option. Whether and how the monotony of saffron and orange colours on the country’s political landscape will be broken is anybody’s guess.