Indian elections are always fun with a lot of sound and fury often signifying precious little. But this winter we had two very interesting elections: one in Gujarat and then that of the Congress president. The Gujarat polls were interesting for several reasons. It proved conclusively that identity politics survives decades of single-party rule and developmental diversions. Over 20 years after the BJP conclusively defeated the conglomeration of caste interests (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim), the Congress designed a potent Patel, Kshatriya, Dalit and Muslim combination, forcing the BJP to bring in the Hindutva bugbear of Pakistan.
Patels, the dominant caste, at times accused of being oppressors, are antithetical to the OBC Kshatriyas, Dalits and Muslims and hence it is not normal for a dominant-oppressed castes grouping to succeed. Yet, the Hardik-Alpesh-Jignesh-Ahmed alliance had caught the imagination of the commentariat. Sure, the exit polls, as I write this piece, have all predicted a decisive victory for the BJP. Yet, this election will prove whether an alliance of the dominant and the subjugated castes can ever be forged. If so, this can lead to a huge churning in social engineering because unlike the Samajwadi Party or the BSP, the Congress does not represent any single caste or community. If it still could represent disparate social units under one umbrella, it would mark the beginning of a new electoral era. Sure, the SP and the BSP had fought an election together and shared power as well in Uttar Pradesh in 1993, but those were two strong parties representing two antithetical castes coming together to share power. The new Gujarat experiment is different because these caste groups are not voting for their own representatives or transferring votes to candidates endorsed by their own party or unquestioned leader. Instead in Gujarat, the only glue that can keep this mutually apathetic group together is anti-incumbency. Is it strong enough to hold the oppressor and the oppressed together and share votes? Will Yadavs and Bhumihars ever pool their votes together in Bihar? A very important socio-political question will get answered on Monday.
Rahul Gandhi’s unanimous election too is of immense interest because he has emerged as an effective campaigner and an articulate politician, reflecting and representing anti-BJP sentiments across the country. Our essayist, B.R.P. Bhaskar, a veteran anti-establishment journalist, also seems to have glowingly validated Rahul Gandhi as the Opposition leader, which only proves that it wasn’t just the Congress, but the entire Opposition that was looking anxiously at the Gandhi family for deliverance. And to think that most of these admirers have all through their lives fought dynastic politics, authoritarian figures, privilege and social inequity only proves how badly the polity is polarised between pro and anti-Hindutva politics.
Elections, sure, are a source of great mirth. But I have been arguing for a long time that national politicians should not campaign for assembly polls. Let the assembly polls remain a local affair, fought on local issues of governance, corruption and incumbency. Otherwise, we would have a national election every six months because there is an assembly poll somewhere in the country always. Remember the Manmohan model where two consecutive assembly poll defeats in Punjab never mattered to the Prime Minister as these losses were never attributed to him. Probably, nobody was sure which state he represented, Punjab or Assam or just 10 Janpath.