Misreading the new

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So much of the instant analysis of the Uttar Pradesh assembly election results echoes the bewildered commentary that followed Narendra Modi’s historic victory in the Lok Sabha elections of May 2014. Familiar arguments, such as the communal polarisation of the electorate, getting caste combinations right, the resort to “populism”, even the “stupidity” of the Congress party’s inept leadership, are being trotted out as explanations for the persistence of a trend.
None of these was an unknown factor in the run-up to the elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always unabashedly appealed to the “Hindu” vote, at least partly in the hope of neutralising the “caste” factor, regional parties have always been about caste and ethnic loyalties, every successful politician has been a “populist” at the hustings, even if a “reformer” in office, and the Congress has had a crisis of leadership for at least five years. Serious analysts must come forward with a better explanation for what is clearly a new trend in Indian politics — the secular decline of the Indian National Congress as a national party of government, and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party as a mainstream political party, with a vote base across the country.
But for any such serious analysis, political science requires new data and new tools. As in economics, so in political science, we see the persistence of old theories seeking to explain new realities. The discipline of economics at least got used to the idea of a paradigm shift from time to time: When facts changed, as John Maynard Keynes famously put it, theory caught up. The Keynesian revolution was one such paradigm shift. Then, after the implosion of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party’s embrace of market economics, even if with Chinese characteristics, the statist paradigm in economics went out of fashion. More recently, following China’s rise, the trans-Atlantic financial crisis and the slowing down of Europe, the so-called Washington Consensus and the “neo-liberal” economics it was built on have met their comeuppance.
Yet, the ideologically conditioned economists of the left and right persist with their old ideas, while the more pragmatic ones, with their ear to the ground, have been able to walk a new path. Economics, as a discipline, has been in disrepute over the past decade — this has challenged practical economists to come up with new ideas. However, we do not as yet see signs of a similar soul-searching among political scientists studying India. Most of them remain prisoners either of an ideology or of statistical surveys.
While ideological blinkers blind one to change that one does not wish to see, statistics and opinion surveys too have their limitations in a complex polity like India. If ideology ends up convincing someone that a tree is a pillar, statistics can end up making one miss the woods for the trees. Not surprisingly, therefore, contemporary political analysis continues to use theoretical tools from inter-war Europe or statistical tools from post-war American political science to explain the rise of the BJP and the popularity of Narendra Modi. Given this crisis in political science, journalists have become political pundits — and political pundits have become journalists.
The time has come to seriously understand the roots of the decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP. Neither is a cyclical or transient phenomenon. A senior Congress spokesperson said on TV that what goes up must come down and in politics, what goes down can come up; so, why worry. The next time round, the Congress will win and the BJP will lose.
It is a comforting thought for those in the Congress who sit in the Rajya Sabha and live in Lutyens Delhi: It is, however, not what the average Congress worker in Siddipet or Silchar, Sholapur or Sonepat thinks.
The Congress faces three very different, but inter-related challenges. First, it has no national leadership of any standing left: Sonia Gandhi’s appeal has faded and Rahul Gandhi has been demonetised. Second, the party’s regional leaders and cadre in many states, including traditional bastions like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telengana, are a dispirited lot. Third, the Congress has not been able to craft a new political platform even as Modi cherry-picks every good idea of the Congress and replays it as his own. In short, it is not the “timidity and stupidity” of the Congress leadership, as some analysts seem to believe, that is responsible for the party’s decline — the decline has been a long time in the coming and will continue till the party is able to re-invent itself under a completely new leadership. That is what Modi did for his party in 2013.
Finally, the BJP’s rise too is not just because Modi is Indira Gandhi Mark II, implementing the UPA’s manifesto and successfully communalising a large majority of Hindus. The BJP has come this far based on the strength of its cadre, its regional leaders and its appeal to a “new India”. On top of this, Modi has been able to project himself as both a strong nationalist and a pro-poor political leader. It is also clear that the BJP has a long-term policy perspective on all fronts, including economic, foreign and social policy that it hopes will give it the same political longevity the Congress enjoyed after Independence.
Taken together, these very different trajectories of the two national parties constitute a paradigm shift in India’s political economy and a power shift in politics. Given India’s diversity, there will always be space for other political parties in one part of the Subcontinent or another. Even the Congress had to yield space to other parties after the first general elections. The Communist Party of India defeated Nehru’s Congress in Kerala in 1957. By 1962, other parties unseated the Congress and a large number of powerful regional political leaders emerged. Yet, the Congress remained the dominant player.
Much the same could happen over the next decade, with several parties retaining regional relevance, even as the BJP emerges as the dominant national player.

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