The by-election results are not a flash in the pan
The external affairs minister and a top Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Sushma Swaraj, made a forceful intervention in the public discourse last week. On March 13, when the latest turncoat to join the ruling party was formally feted at the BJP headquarters in Delhi, she tweeted: "Shri Naresh Agarwal has joined Bhartiya Janata Party. He is welcome. However, his comments regarding Jaya Bachhan ji are improper and unacceptable [sic]."
The widely shared tweet was in response to Naresh Agarwal's comment that he had been denied another term in the Rajya Sabha by the Samajwadi Party, which had preferred a "nachne gaane wali" film actress, Jaya Bachchan, to him.
Swaraj's criticism, which was echoed by other party colleagues and forced Agarwal to issue an apology, was welcome. But it also brought into sharp relief the lack of outrage when other BJP leaders have made far more odious comments - reeking of both misogyny and caste prejudice - against Dalit and backward caste leaders.
Take the case of Dayashankar Singh. In July 2016, Singh - who was then a vice-president of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh - accused the Bahujan Samaj Party leader, Mayavati, of selling tickets to the highest bidder and said she was "worse than a prostitute".
His comments led to an uproar in Parliament and the BSP staged big demonstrations in UP, forcing the BJP to expel him from the party. That the expulsion was just for form's sake became clear when Singh's wife, Swati, was made the head of the BJP's women's wing and then made a candidate in the assembly elections from the Sarojini Nagar seat in Lucknow, which she won. The Singhs belonged to the Rajput caste and became symbols of upper caste assertion over the Dalits, who were deemed to have become much too empowered over the past couple of decades in post-Mandal Uttar Pradesh.
One of the first things the BJP did after sweeping to power in UP a year ago was to revoke the expulsion of Dayashankar Singh and reinstate him into the party. No one criticized the decision.
That the Dayashankars are not an exception but the norm in the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP in the state became evident once again during the campaign for the recent by-elections held in Gorakhpur and Phulpur. Addressing a public rally in the Phulpur constituency in the first week of this month, the Uttar Pradesh cabinet minister, Nand Gopal Gupta Nandi, likened Opposition leaders to the demons from Ramayana. Ravana had been reborn as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh was Meghnad and Mayavati was Surpanakha, he said. Seated on the dais during Nandi's speech were the chief minister and deputy chief minister of the state - both were, reportedly, beaming.
Dayashankar Singh and Nand Gopal Nandi and numerous others of their ilk have been able to get away with their obnoxious remarks, and even been rewarded for these, because their targets are not "people like us". Given the upper caste domination of the media and most other institutions in the country, there is little outrage when those belonging to the underprivileged classes are insulted or attacked.
But away from the media glare, these assaults on their dignity and the attacks on their livelihoods have multiplied in different ways in recent years. And the resultant resentment is beginning to get manifested in ways that can no longer be ignored.
The stunning verdict of the by-elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar last week came as a shock to the entire political class because no one had quite gauged the depth of the anger and disillusionment among people who were believed to be still bewitched by the so-called Modi magic.
Yogi Adityanath, who could not ensure the victory of his party candidate from his own pocket borough of Gorakhpur within a year of the BJP's assembly election sweep, has attributed the shock defeats to "over confidence" and the inability to counter the last-minute SP-BSP alliance in Gorakhpur and Phulpur. His analysis has found many takers even among those not sympathetic to the BJP. The "opportunistic" alliance between the two bitter rivals is being seen as the main reason for the bypoll results.
But this misses a much bigger picture. For one, the SP and the BSP did not fight as an alliance as such. Mayavati formally announced support for the SP candidates barely a week before the elections. A week is too short a time to effect a large-scale transfer of votes in the absence of grassroots camaraderie. Mayavati's formal support gave fillip to a process that was already well underway in Gorakhpur and Phulpur: a coming together of the underprivileged and disaffected classes and communities reeling under the economic and social onslaughts inflicted on them by the assertive Hindutva and Manuvadi politics of the Yogi regime.
The Kisan Long March from Nashik to Mumbai is as much part of this narrative as the results in Bihar and UP. Both underline that Narendra Modi's repeated mantra of "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas", his constant bragging of heading the most pro-poor government in the history of independent India, and Amit Shah's matchless ability to convert the BJP into a ruthless election winning machine, can no longer camouflage the growing restlessness in rural India that is slowly seeping into the urban mindscape too.
Farmers' distress is not a new phenomenon but rather than addressing the systemic problems at stake, the BJP governments seem to have only exacerbated it. Cow vigilantism, for instance, is not just about the horrific lynching of Muslim cattle traders. It has led to multiple problems on the ground too. Lakhs of people dependent on the leather industry and on cattle trade have lost their jobs and livelihood. But even those not directly involved with these professions have been affected. A frequent complaint of farmers at protest rallies that have taken place in different parts of north India in the wake of the Kisan Long March is that stray cattle in their thousands now enter the fields and destroy the crops of farmers -who are helpless to do anything in the ideologically charged atmosphere that has taken over areas where the Hindutva forces have gained ascendancy.
After its sweeping victory in UP last year, the BJP was convinced that Modi had triumphed with his demonetization gamble. Despite the Opposition highlighting the disastrous impact of the ill-thought-out move that destroyed many a small business and led to big job losses, the BJP argued after the UP result that the people had supported the prime minister's bold initiative to crack down on black money and to end terror financing.
But with the Reserve Bank of India confirming that almost the entire money in circulation returned to the banks, and with no end to either cross-border terror attacks or Maoist violence in central India, the public mood has soured over the last year. That the government refuses to raise wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or begrudges loan waivers for farmers facing crop failure and yet allows the Nirav Modis to rob banks of thousands of crores and then disappear into thin air (days after he posed with the prime minister for a pretty picture of India's rich and powerful in Davos) is only turning the sour mood bitter.
In the early phase of the Modi regime, protests by a new generation of student leaders and Dalit activists and resistance from old champions of progressive politics were dismissed as the dying cries of a liberal order heading towards extinction. A "vipaksh-mukt" New India, a euphemism for a One Party-dominated Hindu rashtra, was almost on the anvil.
But the events in recent weeks - kisan protests, by-election defeats, cracks in the ruling National Democratic Alliance - are reflections of a widening subaltern rage. It is for political forces to now channel it or get consumed by its unpredictable consequences.