For the PM, it is time to course-correct
Sometimes, not winning an election can teach us much more than winning one. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the outcome of West Bengal assembly elections may actually present a great learning opportunity, if not occasion for course-correction.
First of all, the West Bengal hustings are not a debacle for the ruling party at the Centre, as many of its critics have made out. Raising your tally from three seats in the 2016 elections to 77 seats in 2021 is a huge advance. Not only is the BJP, for the first time in its history, the principal opposition party in Bengal, there is every likelihood of it forming the government in the next elections in 2026.
As to Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), she has proved that she not only has guts but staying power too. By returning as chief minister for the third time, Banerjee not only succeeded in overcoming anti-incumbency and an adversary with greater money power and might, but also, defeating an electoral machine led by the most formidable political duo in recent memory, Modi and Amit Shah.
It was a closely contested election. Contrary to the initial post-election analysis, the polls were a three-cornered contest, not a straight fight between the TMC and the BJP. What has been observed is that the BJP does best when there is a direct confrontation between it and another party. Else, its potential, mostly Hindu, vote-bank gets splintered. That is what happened in West Bengal. Straight contests work best for the BJP. Such is the logic of its electoral appeal.
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It is a truth that needs to be accepted that polarisation, especially on religious lines, does benefit the BJP. However, what these elections have proven beyond doubt is that this alone is not enough. I am not speaking of the BJP’s usual pitch to voters on development, prosperity, better governance and delivery of State schemes to the last person, lesser corruption, and so on. These are, no doubt important, and will continue to matter.
What I am suggesting, instead, is that a more general connect with the people was lacking, whether on linguistic, social, or cultural lines, the sense of belonging to a region and representing its aspirations. In other words, grounds for identification beyond the religious — this is where the BJP needed to fare better. The transfer of votes, if at all, happened usually in favour of the TMC, not the BJP. A significant number of those who wanted to vote for the Congress or the Communist Party of India-Marxist continued to support these parties, even if they knew that these did not have a chance to win. They did not feel persuaded to switch to the BJP.
Why? Because the inherent regional and emotional appeal of Banerjee’s Ma, Maati, Maanush, though coined for the 2009 and 2011 elections and not used this time, still worked. Banerjee’s supporters, including the Muslims, still voted en bloc for her.
Finally, the second surge of the pandemic intervened in the last stages of the eight-phase election. The BJP redirected its energies to combating the virus instead of winning the battle for Bengal. Vital momentum was lost. The almost universal criticism of the country’s leadership in handling the pandemic, much of it especially targeting Modi, might have also punctured the aura of invincibility that the BJP enjoyed.
Modi’s image has certainly taken a beating. It is, therefore, time to introspect and, if necessary, course-correct. How? For instance, to show more humanity and humility. Especially during a national crisis, it does not help a leader if he appears aloof, isolated, extraordinary, exceptional — or impervious to advice, and above criticism. Is a makeover in order to make Modi more people-friendly and responsive to good counsel?
As Mahatma Gandhi quipped about our rulers ensconced in the Viceregal Lodge, Shimla, which he first visited on March 12, 1921, “He is no king who maintains a distance, the height of five hundred floors between him and the subjects”.
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Admitting one’s errors, in this case underestimating Covid-19’s second surge, does not make one a worse or weaker leader. On the contrary, it shows a vulnerable, more down-to-earth, indeed, a more dharmic head of government who is not afraid to take responsibility. Modi has projected himself as an upholder of rajdharma, a just and judicious ruler, dedicated to working for the welfare of the people, irrespective of personal power or profit.
But in his photos and public appearances, he stands alone, like a lonely Colossus, far removed from the toiling, suffering, and now ailing masses. The massive human tragedy, not just loss of lives and livelihood, but the enforced impoverishment of hundreds of millions of hardworking but now terribly disadvantaged poor needs the healing and helping hand of a national leadership that is kinder, compassionate, and caring. In addition to vaccinations, oxygen, and medicines, the people also need the balm of gentleness and genuine concern. The sage-like Modi, with his flowing white locks and beard, should not appear too detached or out of touch with the people who voted him to power and still believe in his leadership. He has to lift them up and symbolically hold them closer to his very broad chest so that they can weep on his shoulders.
There is no doubt that India will recover from this catastrophe and emerge stronger. But Modi should not miss this chance to show that he really cares. Indeed, he did precisely that during the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, which actually became the basis of his dizzying ascent to power. It is time to recall the lessons learnt then because they might actually serve him better now.
Else, as a labourer on our grounds remarked to me, “Six years of goodwill will be lost in six months.”
Makarand R Paranjape is director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
The views expressed are personal