As the temperatures sharply dip in the national capital, the political heat is rising. The BJP’s defeat in three Hindi heartland states means that we enter a big general election year with a marked shift in momentum. A galvanized opposition, restive allies and murmurs of dissent within, suddenly the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duopoly no longer seems quite so impregnable.
Amit Shah is often credited as the BJP president who has converted Indian elections from routine local fights into an all-out life and death ‘war’. Little surprise then when Mr Shah was quoted as having told a gathering of BJP social media activists in Pune that they must see themselves as ‘soldiers going into battle who take no prisoners’. Mr Shah may have been only trying to motivate his flock but the sharp rhetoric reflects a new election dynamic where a tweet, a Facebook post or a WhatsApp forward are the modern-day arrows and bullets aimed at bruising political opponents.
In 1996, soon after LK Advani resigned as an MP over his name surfacing in the ‘hawala’ diaries, we asked the original BJP ideological mascot why he had taken what many believed was an ‘extreme’ step. ‘It is a conscience call. I come from a party with a difference which is committed to probity in public life,” he claimed.
In the 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi had chosen to attack his opponents by warning that “hum apne virodhiyon ko unki naani yaad dila denge” (we will make our opponents remember their grandmother), his comments sparked off as much mirth as anger: The ill-chosen phrase which was meant to convey the sentiment that we will teach our opponents a lesson was seen to reflect the former prime minister’s discomfort with Hindi.
The only thing certain about Indian politics is its constant edge of uncertainty. If in the summer of 2010, you had suggested that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would hurtle to an ignominious defeat in the 2014 general election, you would have been a certified lunatic. The Congress was so convinced by its seeming invincibility that it quickly lost the plot. Today, amidst the 365-day celebration blitzkrieg, the Narendra Modi-led government's position seems equally unassailable: a victory in the 2019 general election appears very likely.
Political judgements based on opinion polls are hazardous at the best of times, but when there is a five-cornered fight like in Maharashtra, pollsters are often whistling in the dark. There were almost 50 constituencies in Maharashtra in 2009 where the margin was less than 5,000 votes, making any conclusive poll prediction a nightmare. And yet, let me stick my neck out on my home state: The BJP will be almost certainly the single-largest party and, in fact, should get a clear majority.
Indian voters have a knack of surprising political pundits. Just a few weeks ago, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah could do no wrong; now, after a series of byelection reverses, the Modi-Shah duo is being blamed for losing the Midas touch. Neither is the euphoria nor the harsh criticism valid: No two elections are the same and the extreme responses that accompany every election result are perhaps uncalled for.