The message from Gujarat
For psephologists, the Gujarat election is over. For the politicians, it has just begun. That is, its significance has just begun to unfold. Here are a few takeaways from this warm-up to the general elections, 2019.
First, the rural-urban divide is almost complete. The Bharatiya Janata Party returned to power because of urban support. Voters in rural Gujarat have turned elsewhere. What does that mean? The rural-urban divide is truly one of need versus greed. The anger of the rural masses against the BJP is because their needs have been slighted. The fortunate ones of Gujarat can look forward to bullet trains, but the village poor will continue to languish in pre-modern conditions. This discrimination against rural and tribal Gujarat cannot be defended by asking, "Are bullet trains bad?"
That is a dishonest question. And the outrageous thing is that even those who ask it know that it is insultingly irrelevant. The insult lies in showcasing the 'cake' - of Marie Antoinette fame - when the people are famished for bread. The BJP strategy is built largely on appealing to greed - and all that goes with it. The polarization between need and greed is now institutionalized. But the prime minister professes to love the poor in competition with the Congress. The poor are a high-value political treasure; like all treasures they are kept out of sight.
The second insight afforded by the Gujarat election is that propaganda blitzkrieg sways the urban population more effectively than it does the rural people. What it means is fairly obvious: propaganda is powerless in the face of crying human need. A city dweller - whose needs are met - may be hypnotized by the prospect of bullet trains flashing past. But they will anger a man whose stomach is afire with hunger and whose heart bleeds because he can afford neither medicine nor safe drinking water for his ill child. If the bullet train fails, so will political rhetoric. Words, no matter how rhetorically and craftily delivered, become lifeless in front of the pain and privation of lived realities.
The third is an insight of special importance for the elite. The developmental dream that has been dished out so far has amounted only to awakening our greed and, with it, the crude instincts of living pleasurably in utter disregard of our fellow humans. We have unwittingly become party to the creation of a national ambience in which the goal of life is contracted to filling our stomachs and encouraging our acquisitive tendency. We are remiss in overlooking the cheapening this has caused in our stature as human beings.
Admittedly, the United Progressive Alliance was corrupt and deserved our disapprobation. We stood in the marketplace and denounced it, as we should have. But something even more sinister is happening to us, and it is perilous to ignore it. While the UPA was impoverishing the exchequer, the National Democratic Alliance is cheapening our national character. It is worrisome how the glaring signs of degradation that loom large in the public domain are overlooked. Fear seals the minds and mouths of well-informed citizens and prevents them from expressing their concerns. Corruption is bad. But oppression - by spreading an ambience of fear - is worse. The first degrades the character of a microscopic minority, who have the opportunity to indulge their venality. The second vitiates the country as a whole, affecting all of us.
Given this, consider the urban-rural divide that the Gujarat election has unveiled. What does it mean? It means that the privileged city-dwellers - the middle class and the elite - are less mindful of lived realities than the poor are. They live only for themselves. And when people do that, they become sitting ducks for demagogues and peddlers of illusions because they cease to think and only stay enfolded in their private worlds. So, if the goods and services tax is fine-tuned, the trading community is mightily pleased. If it is brought down to five per cent, the hotel industry oozes gratitude. The rest of one's fellow human beings? They can go to the North Pole, if they wish.
What is not realized is that this very outlook will make slaves of all of us. No one needs to put us in cast iron chains. We will forge our own manacles. In human terms, the rural folk are freer than their infinitely more privileged urban counterparts, who alone figure on the silver screen of the good days now in progress. Predictably, the ploy used in the BJP's campaign strategy was fear. Pakistan will rule Gujarat via Ahmed Patel. Of course, it is unthinkable that such a suggestion should even be made. It is too repugnant. But that is not the point. What many in Gujarat did not realize is that not being ruled by a supposedly foreign agent is not quite the same as living under good governance. In fact, it is the failure in terms of good governance that forces a party to resort to such devious and desperate remedies.
If we have learned anything from history it is this: fear degrades human beings into fools, cowards and slaves. It paralyses our thinking faculty, blacks out awareness and turns us into herds that can be driven anywhere at will. Freedom is illusory so long as fear rules. The Gujarat verdict proves that the rich and the privileged are more vulnerable to fear. Greed and fear are twins. So, there was both gloom and then celebration in quick succession on the same day - December 18, 2017 - in Dalal Street.