Delhi results and the road ahead for India

The nation awaits with bated breath the results of the New Delhi Assembly elections today. The BJP left no stone unturned to polarise the atmosphere. Everything was in the game – from the proposed temple at Ayodhya to the Balakot air strikes; from the incumbent Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal being called anti-national to the BJP leaders asking for who they call “traitors” to be shot. The BJP laid it all out for what it knew was in a sense a make-or-break battle. Like a drug addict who needs more and more of the substance as the high of yesterday becomes the baseline of today, the BJP brought in toxicity of unprecedented magnitude. This was delivered by a line-up of leaders that descended on the national capital, highlighting the significance the party gave to the Delhi Assembly. What started on the promise of development quickly descended into a diatribe against Kejriwal, laced with a communal overdose. The Chief Minister, strategically rather than generously, refused to come on that playground and kept hammering away on everyday issues like schools, hospitals, toilets, water.

The unintended consequence of this was that the election stood sharply, neatly and rather uncomplicatedly framed as one of communalism (or nationalism, from the BJP perspective and of the BJP variety) versus the agenda of development. The lessons of this battle will therefore be profound and carry the capacity to shape the political agenda of the nation in the years ahead. Exit polls have already suggested that the Aam Aadmi Party will win and Kejriwal will likely be Chief Minister of Delhi for a third consecutive term. If this is what happens, the Opposition will get some boost but there is the view being expressed by some that it will halt the BJP in its tracks. The argument is that the BJP, keen on power more than anything else, will change course or that it will bring back the focus on development. If that happens, it’ll be a happy outcome of the election.

The election stood sharply, neatly and rather uncomplicatedly framed as one of communalism (or nationalism, from the BJP perspective and of the BJP variety) versus the agenda of development. The lessons of this battle will therefore be profound and carry the capacity to shape the political agenda of the nation in the years ahead.

Unfortunately, these hopes are likely to be dashed.  The BJP has gone too far out on the road that now makes it, defines it and will compel it to work as the party of the ‘bhakts’, with development and other assorted promises thrown in only as a rounding off exercise while the main meal is militant Hindutva that knows no limits. Whether the BJP sees it that way or not, the party will necessarily be perceived only as that. That perception is now so well ingrained that it will likely act as a natural barrier to the party moving along any other track. Any move to descale the violent agenda of divide and rule will necessarily turn off the ‘bhakts’ while failing to inspire the others. This is plain and simple reading from where the BJP stands today.

Its record on development is dismal. The leadership is not particularly intellectually inclined. The thinking is decidedly prejudiced. Inner party democracy in the party is today non-existent. It’s saffronised leadership has no idea, let alone respect, for the values of the Indian constitution. The deep service the Delhi election campaign did to the nation was that it made the BJP stand out in its “isolation”. Long years ago, Lal Krishna Advani used the term “majestic isolation” to describe how the BJP stood on its strength and against what was then made fashionable as the “pseudo-secularism” of the Congress. That isolation stood out again in 1996 when the BJP under Atal Behari Vajpayee could not secure a single vote from the non-BJP alignment to pass a floor test. Vajpayee had to quit after 13 days in office. There was an air of majesty sought to be built around this then, or at least that is how the BJP sought to present it.

Today, that fig leaf has disappeared. The BJP is the party of the uncouth, the ruffian, the lumpen who has come to occupy high office without the dignity or the grace to learn even when sitting at the very top. It is a “cursed isolation” but since it comes from the party in power, the nation is even more cursed to bear this ugly burden.

At its root is greed for power, and a fixed worldview in a system that is more dynamic and complex than ever. Bhutto talked of a 1000-year war with India and took his country on the path of doom. The BJP is actually waging such a war in the mind. And it is Pakistan’s turn to watch as India slides perilously close to doom. The fall is total and complete.

The BJP is the party of the uncouth, the ruffian, the lumpen who has come to occupy high office without the dignity or the grace to learn even when sitting at the very top. It is a “cursed isolation” but since it comes from the party in power, the nation is even more cursed to bear this ugly burden. Given this dynamic, it should be fair to presume and worry that we have not seen the worst yet.

Like it or not, the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has worked hard to prove the worst of fears, even the outlandish ones, raised against it through the decades. This is a stage of no return. Either the party must be thrown out lock stock and barrel, or we must suffer it. Since it sits with a robust majority in Parliament, it has quite a significant run left. Given this dynamic, it should be fair to presume and worry that we have not seen the worst yet. The nation unfortunately must brace for more, even if the BJP is defeated in Delhi.

It was Goethe who said experience is only half the experience. The other half is the way we read it, add meaning to it, make sense out of it and draw lessons for living a life informed by the said experience. This demands open minds, an honesty of purpose and a desire to learn.  Since these are not particularly qualities of the BJP-kind, a loss (or worse, a win) for the BJP in Delhi will make little difference to the misery being inflicted on the nation. Look for arguments that will carve out all manner of readings – from vote share (of the ‘this-went-down-but-that-went-up’ variety) and vote margins to the more bizarre ones looking for conspiracy, anti-national forces and Pakistan to seek comfort and solace as the BJP inevitably stays on the path of destruction of all that democratic India stands for. If the BJP cannot change, the Opposition must. The Delhi vote must therefore galvanise them, and in that new set, a victorious Arvind Kejriwal will come to play an important part.

(The author is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)