By Swapan Dasgupta
Under normal circumstances, the declaration of results at the end of a long and bitterly contested election is followed by an onrush of platitudes affirming the “maturity of the voters”, the reinforcement of “democratic values” and the opening of a “new chapter” of parliamentary politics. It is not that such ritualistic self-praise was completely absent last Friday morning as the Electronic Voting Machines began revealing the preferences of India’s many millions of voters. However, the usual quota of anodyne remarks and self-satisfied we-told-you-so comments were replaced by two developments that happened in rapid succession. First, by 9.30 am—barely 90 minutes after counting began—it was sufficiently clear that Narendra Modi was going to be India’s next Prime Minister. The NDA, it was evident, was coasting to a majority. Secondly, around 11am or thereabouts, another far more dramatic trend became visible: the BJP was on its way to crossing the magic 272 mark on its own.
That Indian voters had got over their infatuation with fractious coalition politics and were ready to repose full faith in one side should have been greeted with whoops of delight. After all, there is nothing like an unambiguous verdict to facilitate decision-making and political accountability. Unfortunately, the quantum of excitement that this development should have produced was felt more in the outside world than among the assembled punditry in the TV studios. Where the cameras and bright lights were positioned, the mood was one of nervous tension. In one channel the mood, it was reported, was distinctly funereal. Democracy, it somehow seemed, was good only if the outcome was along predictable lines. On May 16, Narendra Modi played the role of party pooper. He spoiled what was planned as a long day and possibly long night of speculation and posturing.
That Modi was, well, a politician cut from a very different cloth was always known. That he played by his own set of rules that often appeared incomprehensible or even outlandish was also known. His relationship with the fourth pillar of democracy had also been awkward: he was the man who was hated, feared and yet never out of gaze. For years on end, viewers and readers had grown accustomed to Breaking News scrolls that began with the mandatory “In a big blow to Modi…” When he won the 2002 election and came to Delhi, self-righteous reporters boycotted his lunch and boasted about their walkout for months thereafter. Lofty editors with a sense of social superiority used to routinely dub him “mass murderer” with the same condescending sneer that Mani Shankar Aiyar reserved for his infamous “chaiwala” expression. Yes, Modi was every cub reporter’s punching bag, the man who was not merely the outsider but even an outlander.
The prospect of such a man becoming the presiding political deity of Lutyens’ Delhi and living in the same bungalow that once housed Rajiv Gandhi filled the beautiful people with the same disgust that Indira Gandhi felt on realising that the palatial residence of her iconic father would now be occupied by Lal Bahadur Shastri. In 1964, the Nehru-Gandhi family ensured that Teen Murti House was unilaterally declared a monument to the late Jawaharlal. In the more egalitarian 2014, plotting a backdoor coup was out of the question. So the entire Congress Lok Sabha contingent from Uttar Pradesh—basically the mother-son duo—admitted to their party’s ignominious defeat but refused to utter the dreaded chaiwala’s name in their perfunctory congratulation to the “new government”.
The erstwhile first family set the tone. By the late afternoon, as the enormity of the change effected by the hoi-polloi began to sink in, the derisiveness began in right earnest. From “you will have to speak in Gujarati now” and “let’s write the final uncensored article” to “enjoy the last drink”, snobbish black humour took over. By the evening, huddled groups were shedding copious tears over what they visualised as the lifeless body of secularism.
Ok, I may be exaggerating the state of disorientation at not merely Modi’s victory but the complete decimation of the Congress. But not entirely. Around midnight, I went to the BBC studios for a recording of a programme on India’s elections for Newsnight. Over the long-distance link I heard the lament of artist Sir Anish Kapoor over the results. He despaired over the fact that India was now going to be led by a “mass murderer”. “This is not the India I grew up in”, he said.
He’s damn right. This was not the entitled world of the Doon School alumnus. Somewhere along the way democracy has finally kicked in. The age of deference is well and truly over. And it has been replaced by an India bursting with raw energy, demanding the standards of life Sir Anish takes for granted and proclaiming ‘dil mange more’.
India has been changing with the same intensity as the flag-waving T20 game. Economists have often invoked the potential of India’s demographic dividend but they have always shied away from addressing its socio-political ramifications. Modi is no trained sociologist but he understood what Young India meant far better than the dynasts who dominate the top echelons of the Congress hierarchy. To the entitled world he appeared brash, crude and outlandish and hardly prime ministerial. To the youngsters in the dusty small towns bursting with aimless energy, he was an icon who spoke their language and articulated their anger. On Friday, he did what the punditry thought was unimaginable: he encashed the demographic dividend politically.
Sunday Pioneer, May 18, 2014