regular-article-logo Thursday, 05 October 2023

Perceptions matter

In its own way, political analysis often resembles astrology. There are a multitude of events and trends on which the analysis begins but this, in turn, leads to a series of imponderables

Swapan Dasgupta Published 08.06.23, 05:59 AM
Leading from the front

Leading from the front

The appeal of astrology in India is profound, not least in the political class. The astrologers are, however, rarely unanimous in predicting the future, especially when it comes to their prognosis of national and international affairs. This is apparent when it comes to the more market-savvy astrologers holding forth on YouTube channels on the future of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

According to two astrologers whose assessments I quietly digested, Modi is in for a rough ride at present. According to one, the bad period extends until September-October of this year, after which he has a smooth ride till well past the scheduled dates of the general election of 2024. The other, while suggesting that the prime minister will secure a third term in office, has argued that the turbulence that he will experience in politics will extend till June 2024. This would suggest that the next general election will be very closely contested.


Astrologers believe that their conclusions are almost exclusively dependent on, first, the inputs on which they base their conclusions and, second, on their interpretation of the planetary positions. Therefore, the most accomplished of the soothsayers may well get their conclusions wrong if they proceed on inaccurate assumptions, notably the exact date and time of birth of the subject.

In its own way, political analysis often resembles astrology. There are a multitude of events and trends on which the analysis begins but this, in turn, leads to a series of imponderables. The most difficult one to fathom is the question: how are events and trends being perceived by individuals and communities? The mass media and community wisdom undoubtedly play a role in shaping perceptions but, again, the reactions are so difficult to anticipate because the inputs may vary wildly.

A few examples from the political world of West Bengal may serve to illustrate the infuriating difficulties in the path of crystal-gazing.

The first, related to me by a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, relates to a conversation she had with a group of theatre activists, presumably with far-Left inclinations. She was berated by the theatre people for attending a function where the Union home minister, Amit Shah, was present. “Weren’t you repelled at having to be in close proximity with him?” she was asked. “No,” she replied, “why should I be?”

She was then given an account of the supposed criminality of Shah. Acc­or­ding to this version, what happened in Godhra more than two decades ago was as follows: two rail carriages of Mus­lim pilgrims were proceeding for a haj pilgrimage when their train was set upon by Hindu bigots and the passengers burnt to death. The whole business was allegedly masterminded by the then chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, and his right-hand man, Amit Shah.

It is legitimate for creative people to be permitted a measure of literary li­cence, but the reworking of the Godhra train arson that led to the death of 59 Hindu activists returning from a kar seva in Ayodhya is quite bewildering. It is difficult to be certain if this narrative plays out in the ‘No vote for BJP’ propaganda that resonated during the 2021 assembly polls in West Bengal. However, what is clear is that a particularly vicious demonology has been built around the BJP. In parts, this unrelenting viciousness was observed during different phases of the Covid-19 pandemic when trains carting migrant workers back home were dubbed the ‘Corona Express’ by no less a person than the chief minister. It was in evidence, once again, when, in the early stages of the vaccination programme, some people were quietly nudged into being aware of the medical dangers posed by the ‘Modi vaccine’.

The recent train disaster in Balasore — one of the first examples of the aftermath of a major disaster being so minutely covered live on television — has reinforced the difficulties of gauging the public mood. For the detractors of the Modi government, the horrible accident that led to the loss of at least 288 lives was a direct result of national resources being wilfully diverted to the prime minister’s vanity projects, such as the Central Vista and the new Parliament House in Delhi, and the railway budget being spent on ostentatious projects, such as the drastic upgradation of railway stations and fast trains like the Vande Bharat. All these upgradations are projected, if the indignant posts on social media are any indication, as unaffordable for a ‘poor’ country such as India. The country, it is implied, must shed this preoccupation with modernity, not least with Hindu trappings.

The alternative view — leaving aside the conspiracy theories that invariably surface after any major disaster — is that the accident was unfortunate and terrible, but the important thing is to observe how the Modi government coped with the tragedy. Just as the grim story of the pandemic has now come to be painted as the story of the success of the free rations programme and the free mass vaccinations, not to mention the determination with which the creation and the production of the anti-Covid vaccine was undertaken, the focus has shifted to the rapidity with which services were restored.

The new narrative has also focused on the heroic role of the railway minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, the prime minister’s hand-picked choice to undertake the stupendous task of bringing India’s rail network into the 21st century. Certainly, there is no other example of a minister who rushed to the disaster spot immediately and personally supervised the rescue work and the restoration of services. This he did with the full cooperation of the Odisha government.

The real question in the coming days is which narrative will prevail? The initial hardships of demonetisation in 2016 rapidly gave wayto the popular impression that the exercise was necessary to curb black money. The grumbling over the lockdown has,in parts, given way to pride in India’s overall success in managing the pandemic without unmanageable disruptions.

In the coming weeks, the Modi government will be confronted with a series of challenges. The Kuki uprising in Manipur, the disgruntlement of the sporting fraternity over a political leader heading the wrestling federation, the post-Ukraine war rise in energy prices and the Balasore railway disaster, not to mention the BJP’s defeat in Karnataka, may have cumulatively given an impression of escalating crisis. What will, however, set the agenda for the 2024 election is how people end up perceiving events in the weeks prior to voting. It is this uncertainty that baffles political pundits and astrologers alike.

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