As the poll fever for the five Assembly elections winds down – even though both Rajasthan and Telengana have become unexpectedly exciting, with the Congress putting up a fight – it’s time to capture some broad trends.
What is striking are the areas where a consensus is now developing across parties, and one of them is the need to provide social welfarism – call it freebies, doles, handouts, what you will – as part of a safety net. The Congress and BJP are vying with each other to promise – and mount – new welfare schemes.
The Ladli Behna Yojana to give financial help to women has helped the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. With its guarantees which yielded it rich dividends in the recent Karnataka elections, the Congress is playing the social welfare card to the hilt in all the states. In Rajasthan, the BJP has urged people to not be taken in by “magician” Ashok Gehlot, knowing some of his government’s welfare schemes have gone down well. In Chhattisgarh, the loan waiver promise of the Congress to farmers could be a gamechanger.
We are seeing competitive welfarism not witnessed before, and these elections have again underscored the trend.
These elections have also shown that “competitive religion” is now going to be the way to go politically — and electorally. The list of promises to Hindus as part of Kamal Nath’s outreach programme is long. If he comes to power, he will, for instance, install idols of Lord Ram, Nishadraj, Kewatraj in Chitrakoot, have a Ram Van Gaman Path (tracing the path Lord Ram is believed to have taken when exiled to the forest), develop Janapav, revered as Parshuram’s birthplace, as a pilgrim site, revive the project of a Sita temple in Sri Lanka, increase the honorarium to Hindu priests. And so on.
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel is not to be left behind. He is building a “bhavya” temple for Kaushalya, Lord Ram’s mother, in the state, and his government started a Ramayan Mahotsav to promote Chhattisgarh’s “cultural identity”.
The use of mythology for mobilisation is not new. During the course of his 1990 Ram Rath Yatra, BJP leader L K Advani once said that he had no idea of the hold religion had in people’s lives. And it was the outpouring of reverence for the Ram rath – the modified vehicle he was riding on – that made him realise how effective a tool it could be for imparting the message of Hindu nationalism.
Years ago, C Rajagopalachari, or Rajaji as he was popularly known, statesman and India’s last Governor General, emphasized the importance of mythology in the life of India “as the skin and the skeleton that preserve a fruit, with its juice and its taste”. “Mythology,” he said, “ and holy figures are necessary for any great culture to rest on its stable spiritual foundation and function as a life-giving inspiration and guide.”
While the BJP has demonstrated that it gains by using religious symbols to polarise communities on Hindu-Muslim lines, the 2023 elections will show the extent to which the Congress’s Hindu card works – whether the party can manage to be a pro- Hindu entity without alienating the minorities, something Indira Gandhi managed to do skillfully, which helped her bounce back to power in 1980.
The 2023 battle is also being watched for the efficacy of Mandal-2, a card being played by the Congress with its demand for a caste census – another symbol of competitive politics over the mobilisation of OBCs. While Mandal-1 in 1990 altered the politics of North India irreversibly, throwing up a new OBC leadership – Gehlot, Baghel, Shivraj Chouhan and, of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi are part of that process – it played out more in UP and Bihar, and less in Madhya Pradesh, though MP too is an OBC-dominant state. 2023 might tell us how fertile a field MP is for the next round of OBC empowerment that is waiting to happen.
And, of course, the 2023 battle has reinforced the welcome trend of women emerging as a vote bank in their own right, with every party outdoing the other in providing welfare schemes and direct financial help to them.
Not long ago, a senior BJP leader, when asked how he would have gone about reviving the Congress, said he would “move through the old guard”. I looked at him enquiringly, “With 65% of India under 35… and the BJP constantly harping on the demographic theme?” (Interestingly, he expressed contempt for the younger leaders who had left the Congress to join his party.)”
Today, the Congress is turning back to its experienced leadership and it is the BJP which is looking away from its established leaders in the Hindi heartland states. The Congress is allowing a free run to its old guard. The party’s leadership – and its campaign – is headed by its older leaders, be it Gehlot, Kamal Nath or Baghel. It was good old Siddaramaiah who got the better of D K Shivakumar in Karnataka. Bhupendra Hooda is all set to get his way in Haryana, when elections take place there in 2024. And there is 81-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge at the helm of the grand old party, trying to steady a floundering ship.
This of course raises serious questions about how and when the younger leadership – like Sachin Pilot – will get their chance. (As of now his community, the Gujjars, are looking towards the BJP with favour because he has not been given his due in the Congress.)
While the BJP has accommodated its stalwarts, Shivraj Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje, and some of their followers by giving them tickets, they are not likely to become CMs again. Though the BJP has not declared its chief ministerial candidates, it is likely to choose new faces if it comes to power in these states. It has also moved many senior MPs and ministers from the Centre to states, ostensibly to strengthen the party there but also to make way for new faces at the national level. PM Modi appears to want to put in place his own team in the states and at the Centre.
Every election is a marker of the ongoing subtle and not-so-subtle social and political change. December 3 will be no exception.