My friend Guddi has a great story about a Gujjar wedding she attended recently in Ghaziabad. It was a typically chaotic event, marked accurately by the swirling crowds around the dinner stalls. If Gujjar weddings are chaotic and the dinner doubly so, the scene around the tandoor is triply compounded chaos. Barely concealed competition amongst overmuscled Gujjar men in overtight pants for that precious hot roti ensures that none but the most Hobbesian men remain, circling the tandoor like hungry wolves, periodically thrusting their plate forward like fencing champions and shouting obscenities at the harried servers. In such a heart-stopping scenario, a young server had as Guddi recounts, figured out the formula to keep everybody from killing each other (or him). As soon as the roti would be pulled out of the tandoor, seductively golden brown and sizzling, this man would hold it high up with his tongs so everybody could see, then in an elaborate dance-like ritual, touch each of the empty extended plates in front of him with the roti, and finally, in a mysterious but authoritative decision, place it respectfully on a randomly selected plate. Repeat with every single roti that emerged from the tandoor. A hushed silence followed by nervous laughter followed every such flourish.
A veteran of the famously volatile NCR wedding, Guddi considered this man nothing short of genius. She told me, laughing but reverential, that he knew, instinctively, that the way to keep everybody happy was to make them feel that there was a system; a method in the madness. That they didn’t lose to random chance but to a near-miss in a pattern whose workings only the server knew. That they too, could have had the roti, if not for a last-minute intervention by a higher force. Higher forces, Guddi pointed out astutely, we like. Random chance, not so much. Competition driven by scarce resources, not at all. After all, we aren’t even poor, whatever the snapchat CEO might babble. And the tactile homage paid by the server to each hungry plate! That touch, before the vanishing act. Wasn’t that exactly the ritual in temples where each darshak touches the plate of prasad that the pandit then offers to the deity? By his innovation then, the server had elevated the receiver of the final roti to God himself, putting to rest all other claims with a grace and finality that far exceeded the situation.
Guddi’s story, on the eve of the MCD elections in Delhi, reminds me so much of the BJP’s current, seemingly unstoppable rise in Indian politics; and of the AAP’s seemingly stoppable one. It has been long known that the half-century long march of the Congress would grind to a halt sometime at the start of this century. From the very start and even before political independence, this self-appointed guardian of the national interest had been accumulating a growing snowball of discontent from this dizzyingly diverse polity – from Dalits and Adivasis to the petty bourgeoisie in the city feeling thwarted by slow economic growth to the hurt sentiment Hindu alienated by the secular-talk from Nehru’s time.
As Biju Mathew has recently pointed out on Kafila, anti-corruption/development and Hindutva were the twin pillars on which the rightward long march has proceeded, parallel to the long march of the grand old party. A poisonous legacy of the Partition, followed by ill-will amongst upper-caste Hindus from the time of the Hindu Code Bill in the 1950’s; cynical political calculation by the Congress with Shah Bano; and the simmering Haj subsidy bogey that has been kept alive by the undercurrent of Jan Sanghi and RSS-sympathetic political opinion was all grist for the mill. Never mind that state expenditure on festivals like the Kumbh Mela, the Ganpati festival and arrangements for pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra for example far exceed the Haj subsidy, which sections of the Muslim opinion have not surprisingly begun to cry is an albatross around their necks…
For decades, the forces of anti-incumbency have acted on the Congress, and it has absorbed them to a lesser or greater degree. When it became apparent that newer formations were ready to assert themselves in the Indian electoral sphere, and not simply the older challenges from the left and from regional, linguistic or independent parties, it was inevitable that the Congress would have to begin to answer for its crimes of omission and commission since 1947. Handed historic mandates again and again on a platter, the Congress remained a party of vested interests, a shaky vertical coalition of elites held together by an abstract and inconsistent secular agenda and a promise of development that was delivered to strategically placed elites and middle classes, with showy dashes of populism.
It wasn’t enough. By the 1990s, similar to glasnost-ing USSR, a revolution of rising expectations amongst liberalising elites, ironically partly inaugurated by the Congress’s selective welfare and growth policies, threatened to swallow the political leadership whole. Yet, the BJP having existed since the late 1970s in the shape of the Jan Sangh had not made much of a dent in the Congress’s base. It flirted with power, lost it, shuffled its leadership, played single-mindedly at communalisation after Babri masjid and yet looked like an upstart right until the last elections.
As it was, it was the new kid on the block – the AAP – with its talk of the demolition of corruption in Lutyens’ Delhi (similar to Trump’s misleading but powerful campaign for “draining the swamp” in Washington D.C) that appeared set to reap this democratic dividend of a different sort. When the AAP’s star was on the ascendant, it appeared to have captured the mood of the nation, the political zeitgeist. Everybody was tired of corruption it seemed, even those that had benefited from it the most. What nobody could agree on was what and who was really responsible for it. The policeman who took the daily bribe was surely operating in a different kind of universe from the 2000-crore spectrum thief. Yet the English word ‘corruption’ and the Hindi word ‘bhrashtachar’ both adequately captured the sense of moral failure that politicians represent in modern societies, and in the absence of time and effort required to disentangle all the tangled skeins of our complicated, and often corruption-tinged lives, we blamed the Congress. Nothing essentially wrong in that, since the Congress as has been noted above, was disproportionately powerful in the polity of this diverse country. The problem was how far the anti-Congress sentiment took democratic politics.
By all indicators, the AAP’s government in Delhi has presided over comparatively lowered living costs, higher levels of civic services and till date, and faced no major corruption taint in its term. On education and health noticeably, and to a lesser degree on environment, public transport and other basic amenities, the AAP’s performance has been a tiny silver lining in a dismal governance scenario. It is not a perfect formation by any stretch, riven by internal conflict both of personality and strategy. Plus, as Suhas Palshikar has recently written, as a party manifesto, anti-corruption seems a strangely narrow, negatively defined agenda. Yet, the AAP deserved to be taken seriously by ‘neutral’ middle class opinion fed up of so-called parochial caste or region-based parties. At the very least, its fortunes should have been followed more closely.
Beyond the dedicated AAP supporters however, ordinary TV-watching and news-consuming Indians seem mesmerised by high-decibel rhetoric the BJP manages to generate again and again in the national media. There is no other explanation for the bizarre phenomenon of differential reasoning applied to the BJP and the AAP. If the BJP’s demonetisation policy caused unbelievable hardship and has not yet yielded a single concrete result, people say give the government a chance, it’s intentions were good. If Kejriwal’s odd-even policy does not do as much as intended, but does show a noticeable improvement in air quality and huge improvement in traffic, the anti-AAP sentiment condemns it as a total failure. And then there is that sulky anti-AAP opinion of the former supporter – one that withdraws its support at the slightest sign of a flaw, since it was held to a higher standard than the BJP. This kind of opinion says at least the other parties weren’t pretending to be holier. Ah, so punish somebody for trying to raise the bar?
Again and again, the BJP has benefited from an agenda that in fact is the AAP’s raison d’etre – anti-Congress sentiment and in particular anti-corruption sentiment. After that initial Delhi roti to AAP, and one to Nitish in Bihar, the mysterious forces of Indian democracy have handed the remaining rotis wholesale to the BJP nationally and now in U.P. Having amassed those rotis (interestingly with a lower vote share in 2017 than in 2014), the BJP will of course keep serving its main dish – a thick communal dal makhni, one that has been cooking for a century on the sidelines of the Congress’s rule. In a Hindu majority country, Hindus voting as Hindus adds up to victory to the Sangh ideology in perpetuity, and this is what the Sangh Parivar will leave no stone unturned to ensure. If that fails of course, there are always endless opportunities for tampering with institutions – the judiciary, the media, both houses of Parliament, the Presidency, the Speaker, Governors of states with non-BJP governments, police, CBI, Lokpal, bureaucracy at all levels, and even the Election Commission. Every single institution can be presented to Hindu middle class opinion holder as tainted by the Congress, and therefore open to intervention like the EVM allegedly tampered in the recent U.P elections.
Funnily, while it is clear that communal polarisation is working to change the social contract that had been pledged in the Constitution at a structural level, ordinary political debate has so far given us little clues about what people think good governance is, or how much it matters in an election. In the meanwhile, know-it-all media commentators have been quick to put down the BJP’s current invincibility in the electoral machine as a vote for development, and for a mysterious form of governance that has been so far missed by the new favourite whipping boy of all – the Indian ‘liberal’. As for the players inside the political system, they are continuing, dazed and confused, but reverential towards power, and absolutely reverential towards absolute power; as the SP patriarch did in asking the new king to take care of his wayward son. Ask not who gets how many rotis…as long as the tandoor is running and somebody seems to be in charge.