A Theory About Why the BJP Didn’t Do Well

A few days ago in my colony, I overheard a quarrel between a man who lived in a villa, like me, and a gardener. The master wanted some additional work to be done, and the gardener said that would cost him a few hundred rupees more. It must have been the morning cortisol or nationalism, which are probably the same thing in some men, the master exploded in rage at the “greed” and poor work ethics of migrants. He said, “You be careful. See what happened to Kejriwal? He acted too smart, not realising his size.” A few hours earlier, Kejriwal had been arrested on corruption charges under the government led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

When the quarrel began, I thought there was something unusual about the moment, because by the laws of probability, it was likely that both men were in the vote base of the BJP. The master is not the average BJP voter, but a very vocal one in the eyes of migrants.  The urban master hides an underrated clue to why the BJP lost 92 of the 303 seats it had won in 2019 (it won new seats to reach 240).

There was a time when the master and the gardener used to do the same things, like vote for the Indian National Congress and watch the same Hindi films. There was even a period when their children went to the same school, or at least studied the same text books. But then India changed and different classes did not do the same stuff in the same room anymore, unless one was serving. The extraordinary popularity of Narendra Modi 10 years ago changed this in one aspect of Indian life. Different classes once again voted for the same party, and even the same ideology. But this was odd and not fated to last.

Apart from politicians and some paid actors, who are the ambassadors of the BJP? Upper middle-class people in propaganda, journalism, cinema and the culture business. There are others, who are not so prominent but still are the ambassadors of the party. They are among the urban upper classes; they are the employers of househelps, drivers and gardeners. They are the mascots of the BJP because they cannot stop talking about how everyone else should be. And they are the worst ambassadors a political party can have.

Intellectuals tend to venerate voters when the results go their way. So it was not surprising that economist Raghuram Rajan complimented the intelligence of the Indian voter for diminishing the BJP. But we can understand elections without the myth of the voter’s pious soul. When we understand what people dislike the most, I think we get most of what they do.

Political observers now say that “hubris” harmed the BJP. In the Indian lexicon, this means arrogance and not self-confidence. In any case, culturally, Indians equate self-confidence with arrogance. But I do not think that professional politicians, even from the BJP, were as overtly arrogant as critics claim. In fact, for the past several months, they have been exhibiting nervousness. Some of the most authoritarian moves of the previous government, like jailing politicians and students and trying to intimidate actors and writers, were signs of it. Those who were full of bluster, those who were truly cocky, were the sidekicks, like the man in the villa.

Millions of average voters who once voted for the BJP saw the cockiness of its most visible ambassadors. Wouldn’t they dislike everything their masters favoured?

Generally, people do not share the ideology of those they despise. This is the reason why intellectuals find it hard to transmit wisdom. The problem is never that people are so dumb that they cannot see wisdom. People dislike wisdom when they dislike the mouth it comes from. It was a phenomenon that at first favoured the right-wing. But when the BJP found its own upper-class ambassadors, it probably had an adverse affect on the party’s base.

Observers cite several factors that influenced the verdict this year. The most persuasive mainstream reason is high food inflation. There are other economic reasons like unemployment and economic gloom that I don’t find so convincing. It is hard to imagine why BJP voters, say in Uttar Pradesh, would think the Congress or a regional party would enrich them. The election verdict has a punitive element to it. In the eyes of millions, the BJP had probably become a party of sahebs and bullies.

So, when the BJP engaged in the political tactic of using law enforcement against inconvenient politicians, it came across as a corroboration of the cockiness of the party’s upper-class sidekicks. And the hard tactics of the previous government de-intellectualized a complex nugget of intellectual wisdom—institutions have to be independent or one man may walk away with everything.

I admired one quality of the previous government in which the BJP had an absolute majority. As a citizen, I felt that someone was in control of the country, and even its future, and that was unprecedented. But it was also a period of suffocation. In every aspect of Indian life, people were scared of speaking their mind if it was not flattering to the BJP.

Before the previous government, the imprisonment of a politician was rare. There was a practical reason for that. It was political courtesy. Politicians in power knew that one day they would not be in power and they expected new winners to extend the courtesy. But there was a time when it appeared that the BJP was not afraid of ever losing power. Several rival politicians went to prison.

A diminished BJP may have to conduct more meetings and drink more sugary tea to push its economic agenda, but would also need to be more considerate and tolerant to other views. That is good for most of us.

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