Fifteen days time is not even a ripple in the history of an ancient civilisation such as India. It has been just about 15 days since the emphatic verdict of the people of India was known. And it is barely over a week since the post-election celebrations culminated in the grand swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Council of Ministers.
For the victors, the period after the morning of May 23 has been celebratory. There may have been a few disappointments and heartburns over which individual made it to the ministerial team and who got left out. But that hasn’t soured the mood. Indeed, what is remarkable is how easily the remarkable transition of Amit Shah from being the most powerful BJP president after LK Advani to becoming the second-most powerful man in the Government has been achieved. More important, the Modi-Shah duo has not been forged as a political compromise — as say, the Nehru-Patel partnership was negotiated in August 1947. This partnership is based on mutual trust and a common sense of purpose. I believe it will make for coherent and purposeful governance.
For the losers, coping with the aftermath of the verdict has not been easy. Unlike 2014 when the Modi victory was interpreted by many as the electorate’s knee-jerk response to five years of political ineptitude and venality, and a proverbial black swan event, it has been very different this time. This time it is quite clear that, apart from Tamil Nadu and Kerala that differed sharply, the whole of India spoke in a similar voice. More important, the unequivocal nature of the mandate has been recognised by both the winners and losers. There may be a few stray voices that persist in questioning the integrity of the EVMs and demand an immediate return to paper ballots. But, like the Russian disappearing ink theory that made a guest appearance after the 1971 general election, this preoccupation with a grand conspiracy to steal the election will pass.
The political losers have reacted predictably. Rahul Gandhi’s second consecutive poll debacle has, naturally, created convulsions within the Congress and even destabilised State Governments in Karnataka, Rajasthan and, to a lesser extent, Madhya Pradesh. However, as yet, it hasn’t triggered any revolt within Congress and demands for a new, post-dynasty beginning. The discussions all seem to centre on what is the best supporting cast for the dynasty. Meanwhile, the fragile pre-election mahagathbandhans appear to be slowly crumbling, with individual parties looking for best ways of keeping their flock together in these difficult times.
So far, the real crisis has been visible in the determined army of intellectuals that was so important in creating an impression, both in India and overseas, that May 23 would be Modi’s expiry date. What has unsettled them is not that Modi has won — many of them were actually expecting a fragile BJP-led Government to assume charge — but that most of their assumptions about India, its culture and its mood, have turned out to be so wrong. Accepting a horrific intellectual blunder takes time and calls for both modesty and honesty. Remember, the reality of the earth being round and not flat took a very long time to become conventional wisdom. And the believers in a flat earth weren’t necessarily all fools and blind adherents of dogma.
I regret to say that this intellectual modesty has not as yet been forthcoming. Many intellectuals have, no doubt, suggested that it is necessary to return to the drawing board and identify errors that led to such a political defeat. However, the belief still persists that it was all a careless mistake that had knock-on effects and that once tactical miscalculations are identified, the path of political recovery is clear.
Last week, for example, I received a email from a bookshop specialising in Left-wing literature. It is worth quoting from it. “So. The barbarians are not at the door. They are inside, firmly established, lording it over humanity. May 23rd 2019 brought no cheer. It plunged progressive, secular, decent human beings into gloom and despair.” Even if we grant the author of this email a little literary licence, one thing is clear: The belief that the winners are akin to ‘barbarians’ and inherently not ‘decent’. There is an overwhelming sense of righteous correctness — behaviour that has its origins in tales of Christians being fed to the lions by Romans and yet not flinching from their faith in the ‘true God.’
The email also spoke about keeping alive the spirit of resistance. Now, some of this is pure bravado and a knee-jerk response to profound disappointment. It is not dissimilar to that silly Congress spokesperson who has recommended boycotting all elections until paper ballots were restored. It is also akin to the petulance of the Chief Minister who has chosen to boycott the Niti Ayog meeting to symbolise her Government’s refusal to give the Modi Government any legitimacy.
However, going beyond silliness, there are important signals that new Establishment must take note of. The belief that an emphatic electoral verdict warrants a new mood of reconciliation is noble but, alas, impractical. The hard core of the intellectuals — occupying strategic positions in higher education, media and even the bureaucracy — will not cooperate in the creation of the New India that Modi seeks to build. It is not merely that they have alternate visions —which in itself is not illegitimate — but that they have come precariously close to hating the very system that can allow such an electoral verdict. It is this contempt for democracy that is worrying.
Somehow, I am tempted to believe that magnanimity and democratic conversation are no answers to those who believe that they and only they have a monopoly of the truth. Unless this arrogance is destroyed, the culture wars must persist. An electoral mandate is, after all, merely a step-albeit a necessary step-in the larger recalibration of political power in India.