City City Bang Bang, Columns

BJP- The dilemmas of victory?

As the Modi government completes three years in office, it finds itself in an enviable position. It boasts of a charismatic leader who has a committed mass following, an electoral machine that has started working extremely well, a core support base that is vociferous in its support and vicious in its attack of adversaries, an expanding footprint of influence in regions where it was historically weak, and an increasingly obedient media that directs greater scrutiny at a largely inconsequential opposition rather than at the actions of the government.

But beyond all these favourable tailwinds, what is its most striking feature today is that this very positive state of affairs has come about not because of the successes of the government, but because of its remarkable ability to turn its failings into its strengths. It is not that the government has no successes that it can claim, but that paradoxically, its successes have added modestly to its popularity, while its failures have become roaring successes. Today, it would appear that it doesn’t need to function efficiently or build a positive agenda in order to do well. Every time it fails to deliver, somehow not only is someone else blamed, but it actually derives strength from it.

Take Pakistan, where the government seems to lack a coherent policy and that does not seem to matter. After all the muscular posturing about Pakistan not daring to mess with the Modi government, the situation on the ground shows little sign of changing. Pakistan continues to cross the border and kill Indian soldiers, the TV studios continue to resound with anger, and nationalism as an issue continues to pay the party rich dividends. Far from undermining the government’s posturing, the continued violence on the border helps it keep nationalistic fires burning.

It is under this government’s watch that the situation in the valley has taken a sharp turn for the worse. This in spite of being in power in the state along with PDP, its ally. Kashmir’s mismanagement, however, is being attributed not to the government, but to the sinister agenda of anti-nationals who are sympathetic to the protestors’ cause. Given that none of these protestors are in government or have any connections with the armed forces, nor are they in a position to exert the slightest influence on anything that happens on the ground or indeed even in media, which is almost unanimous in its nationalistic avowals, to blame, them for what is happening in Kashmir is ridiculous. And for the government to escape any responsibility for what is happening is even more remarkable.

The Naxal problem follows a similar pattern. It is shocking that successive governments have allowed our para-military forces to become fodder for the Naxals. They are poorly equipped, ill-prepared and often have to follow mixed signals from their political superiors. There seems to be no learning curve at work here. Again the state’s ineptness has resulted not in its coming under pressure, but in ire being directed towards ‘anti-national’ student leaders in JNU, as if they are somehow directly responsible for the Naxal situation.

In all these cases, what seems to matter is the ability to harvest anger at the expense of people who can be aggressively blamed. It does not seem to matter what transpires in reality as long as we are able to take angry nationalistic positions and fantasise about muscular action. This is the government’s great insight- what we really need is something to be angry about, and preferably the object of our anger should be far removed from where we are so that we can keep raging about it without having the slightest need to do anything about it. The distant, the symbolic, the weak made to appear menacing- these are ideal enemies to focus our anger onc.
Of course, nothing illustrates the government’s ability to make a bad call look really good is the demonetization gambit. Far from suffering on account of demonetization, as UP has made evident, the party has derived enormous political mileage out of it. When the best thing that is being said about demonetization is that it did no lasting damage, the fact the government is not being held responsible even by the media is quite remarkable.

The speed with which the controversial choice of Yogi Adityanath has been normalized indicates how much the party is in control of its narrative. Here again, the appearance of strength creates the illusion of action. Adityanath may well turn out to be a good administrator, but the presumptive approval that has been generated in his favour so early in his rule is proof of the power of communication rather than performance.

At one level, there is little incentive for the government to do anything very significant. When the Modi government completed two years, the biggest question that was asked was whether it was being able to fulfill the tremendous expectations it had raised about the imminent arrival of acche din. Today, somehow that question is no longer seeming relevant. Post the UP elections, there is an air of inevitable permanence about the BJP government and that seems to put new policy initiatives on the back burner.

Now that the BJP has power and looks poised to retain it, the question it has to ask itself is what does it intend to use this power for? Does it back the logic of the current strategy till 2019 and hope to look at a more aggressive developmental agenda thereafter? Does it at some stage, move beyond the manufacture and recirculation of anger towards a larger and more inclusive destination? Even if it were to get more committed to its Hindutva project, will it ever move beyond thinly veiled attempts to lash out at other religious minorities and build a more inspiring and future-facing destination for itself? Or is this all that we can expect from it? More corrosive anger, more manufactured negativity, sharper divisiveness, and who knows- more comprehensive victories?

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