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Aspirations vote out old slogans

New Delhi, May 16: An extraordinary mix of unprecedented hype, unbridled hope and unparalleled hard work enabled Narendra Modi to secure a magnificent mandate for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance today, far surpassing even the most optimistic opinion poll and exit poll surveys that had predicted a 272+ tally for the NDA.

Soon after counting began at 8am and results started pouring in thick and fast, it became clear that a veritable tsunami — make that tsuNAMO — had raged through the country, breaking record after record in the political history of independent India.

First, the BJP, on its own, won a historic high of 282 seats — a good 100 more than its previous highest tally of 182 under Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 and 1999.

Second, it is the first time since 1984 that a party has crossed the halfway mark on its own, which spells the end of (or at least a break from) the coalition era even if the BJP will take along its pre-poll NDA partners into the government.

Third, the Congress — which many had predicted would not reach a three-digit figure — proved them doubly right. Forget 100, it did not touch even 50 seats — the lowest-ever tally in the history of India’s Grand Old Party, its erstwhile grandeur crushed by the Modi juggernaut, its 128-year-old history in tatters in face of a resurgent, impatient, youthful India, and its status as a party (rather than an enfeebled family firm) itself in question after such a comprehensive drubbing.

The Congress’s only consolation, perhaps, is that it has friends and former allies with whom it can share a very ample humble pie.

The CPM, reeling from the Bengal rout three years ago, turned in its very worst showing and stands to lose national party status. And three big regional players — the Bahujan Samaj Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the National Conference — drew a blank.

Only three regional leaders managed to stand firm against Hurricane Moditva: Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, and Naveen Patnaik. Jayalalithaa made a near-sweep in Tamil Nadu, winning 38 of the 39 seats; Mamata Banerjee — fighting without any ally — narrowly missed the “third largest party” status to her Tamil counterpart; and Naveen Patnaik swept to a fourth term as chief minister in Odisha and looked set to win 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state despite a resurgent BJP.

The newest entrant into the chief minister’s club — K. Chandrasekhar Rao — also managed to hold his own, with the Telangana Rashtra Samiti trouncing the Congress in both the Assembly and parliamentary elections in India’s 29th state.

For the BJP, today’s victory was beyond its wildest dreams. Even Amit Shah, the man who crafted the party’s spectacular performance in the key heartland state of Uttar Pradesh through a combination of communal polarisation, caste arithmetic and sustained grassroots mobilisation, had predicted that the NDA would win between 295 and 305 seats. The NDA has secured many more seats than his best-case estimate.

The man at the centre of it all — Gujarat’s three-term chief minister Narendra Modi — chose to stay away from Delhi today even as BJP workers and supporters in the city, much like the rest of the country, erupted in frenzied celebrations. He is set to enter the national capital, with all the pomp of a conquering emperor, tomorrow.

The staggering scale of the victory has silenced Modi’s critics and detractors, at least for now, as the country and the world marvelled at the amazing and audacious journey of one man from the periphery to the highest executive office of the land, a man who overcame — indeed transformed — the taint of presiding over India’s most ignominious anti-Muslim riots into an armour of strength, and tapped into the yearning for a “super strong” leader after five years of what was widely perceived as an inept, direction-less, weak and scam-tainted UPA-II regime.

The Modi-for-PM — or “Abki Baar Modi Sarkar” — campaign may well enter textbooks in the years to come for its brilliance, energy, and effective messaging that in many ways surpassed the much-touted Obama campaign of 2008.

Although India has a parliamentary system, Modi ran a superbly crafted presidential-style campaign that pushed all the right buttons — it was massively funded by corporate India whose czars were the first to nominate their favourite chief minister as a possible PM candidate; it used every available medium to reach out to every corner of India with the Brand Modi message; it galvanised a whole army of volunteers — distinct from the traditional and formidable RSS-BJP cadre network — to keep up the momentum through the eight-month-long campaign from September 2013 when Modi was named PM candidate till counting day; it focussed on “growth” and “development” but did not shy away from subliminal Hindutva to consolidate its base when required, and it effectively posited the self-made man who came from humble “chaiwala” origins to challenge the politics of entitlement and inheritance epitomised by a “maa-beta sarkar” and its effete “shehzada”.

But all the corporate funding and advertising blitzkrieg could not have delivered without the relentless, indefatigable and unwavering campaign by Narendra Modi himself — who addressed more rallies in person and through 3D holograms than anyone in recent memory, who successfully cast himself in the mould of a macho superhero out to avenge real and imagined enemies and infirmities, and whose singular self-belief and unabashed self-promotion appealed to a new, aspirational India that has little patience with seeming abstractions such as secularism, inclusion and diversity.

Of course, even while portraying himself as the lone ranger, the knight in shining armour, Narendra Modi is not an individual unto himself, but a man who came up from the ranks in the RSS and then the BJP, and has the Sangh parivar’s ideological and organisational base at his command.

This network apart, the role of other BJP leaders — particularly chief ministers — cannot be minimised. If Vasundhara Raje fulfilled her Mission 25 and the Gujarat unit their Mission 26 — a clean sweep of all the seats in the two states, Shivraj Chouhan managed to deliver 27 of the 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh 10 of the 11 in Chhattisgarh.

The Modi wave clearly helped achieve these goals but the groundwork had been done by the chief ministers who won sweeping Assembly victories less than six months ago. Modi’s ability to get new allies into the NDA after Nitish Kumar walked out also helped expand the BJP’s footprint in the south and the Northeast.

Today’s victory makes the BJP a pan-Indian party like never before which has managed to breach the rural-urban, upper caste-lower caste, and the rich-poor divide. For now, it has replaced the Congress as India’s premier national party but for one aspect — Modi did not reach out to the minorities in any meaningful way, and the minorities remain fearful and wary of what BJP rule might mean.

In his victory speech at Vadodara this evening, Modi promised to take everyone along in his mission to transform India into a developed nation and a superpower but even as he spoke of being humbled by victory, his mien and speech showed no trace of humility.

The scale of the victory imposes its own set of challenges for Modi and his government. His foremost challenge is to turn around the economy and revive a 7-8 per cent growth trajectory as soon as possible. This will not be easy, especially if it entails cutting back on the social welfare schemes of the previous UPA regimes that large sections of the poor have got used to.

But, on the other hand, he now has a free hand to select his own team and pursue his own agenda without being hemmed in by difficult allies or a “remote control” extra-government authority as his predecessor did.

The economy apart, Narendra Modi’s biggest challenge will be to adhere to India’s secular constitution and not give in to the “majoritarian” instincts that come naturally to his ideological paterfamilias which has long waited for the BJP to acquire enough seats in Parliament to implement its “distinctive agenda”.

For the Congress, the only good news is that it cannot get worse. Congress workers often say that the party has gone through many ups and downs, and has “bounced back” — usually thanks to a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Indira Gandhi’s famous comeback in 1980, and the Sonia Gandhi-led UPA’s unexpected victory in 2004 are cited as two striking examples of the Phoenix theory. As such, Congress workers are unlikely to revolt against the Gandhi family even after such a rout.

But any Congress revival after such a comprehensive victory of the BJP looks bleak today. Rahul Gandhi has often talked of his desire to transform the Congress party into a vibrant, open and democratic entity.

Now that he is reduced to a leader of a tiny party in Parliament, he has all the time in the world to implement his oft-stated ideal. But for that, he has to shed his “now you see me, now you don’t” style, shed his brand of “power is poison” reluctant politics and acquire just a little of the hunger and ambition and stamina and energy of a Narendra Modi. That seems a tall order indeed.


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