“The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life,” said Rabindra Nath Tagore almost a century ago. Tagore, probably the most respected renaissance man of Asia, is revered as a household deity in Bengal with the nickname Kabiguru. He has such a revered place in Bengali culture that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's two-year-long 'bearding up' was widely suspected to be a poorly attempted imitation, in looks only of course, of the Nobel Prize winning poet, playwright, painter, composer, reformist, educationist and philosopher. Modi apparently wanted to woo the Bengali 'Bhadralok' before the 2021 Bidhan Sabha elections. But the Bengalis were not impressed by this cheap imitation and the ruling TMC, under Mamata Banerjee, won a landslide victory despite the anti-incumbency factor of two terms.
Modi's style of politics has perception management at its center. Singling out Modi for this would be slightly unfair, however, given that even greatest leaders like Gandhi or Lincoln, or even Obama, took great care in their messaging. It’s documented that Lincoln depended wholly on the network of friends among journalists and newspaper owners to propagate his ideas and breed a wave of popularity. But the controversial rise of Modi-Amit Shah duo in the BJP, and consequentially in national politics, marked a new era of Indian politics. As a successor to the subtle and gentle Congress PM Manmohan Singh, Modi shone in extreme contrast with his flamboyance.
This change in Indian politics synchronized with a transformation the world over that got associated with two phenomena: the rightist wave, and the post-truth era. One signifies the rise of strongly rightist male authoritarian leaders like Putin, Modi and Boris Johnson; the later is the phenomenon of the diminishing of the gatekeepers in the arena of information. As social media becomes the feeder of news to us, and the traditional media houses have largely vanished as the main source of information and analysis, we have seen a new era in politics. Although this is an ideal condition for a democratic set up and the unjust power of big media tycoons is limited by this openness, with tools available now to reach every mind directly, the access has been highly manipulated to promulgate fake news.
The rightist wave was driven by a majoritarian politics aided by the post-truth perception management. This understanding is an obvious logical connecting of the dots and the extrapolation is applied to understand politics everywhere for last few years, including here in South Asia. At first glance, there seems no problem with this simplification, but I have always been skeptical of such over-simplified versions of history. I am of the opinion that the social media and information age aided by the fourth technological revolution in the first two decades of the 21st Century has brought insurmountable changes in how people communicate. This in turn has spawned new methods and practices in the arena of political communication.
But, for this same reason, politics the world over has become more and more localized, and hence what we see is a series of events resulting from local conditions. But looking at all these events from a distance, and as humans have a tendency to look for patterns in everything, we have clubbed some events together to make the generalization of the idea of a wave plausible.
This simplification was mostly popularized by lazy liberal intellectuals the world over, including in India, where they were not ready to look at the indications of social upheavals. The rise of the BJP in India owes to a legacy that leads back to more than a century, and it gained foothold because of a strong feeling of resentment in the religious majority because of the perceived neglect and uprooting of the mainstream culture. In America, the rise of Trump was a result of similar resentments among the white people.
There is no denying that past events impact the outcome of future events and there can also be some domino effects. But a simple example from 2013-2014 from Delhi illustrates that people's voting patterns are driven by complex factors and it’s difficult to overly generalize politics. In 2013, the AAP had won almost half the seats in the Delhi Bidhan Sabha, whereas in the Lok Sabha elections six months later, the party did not win a single seat, while the BJP won seven out of eight. But the biggest surprise was in the Bidhan Sabha elections nine months after that: when the AAP again won 67 out of 70 seats. This rollercoaster turn of events in a timeframe of less than a year is intriguing, and speaks a lot about the collective intelligence behind people’s voting patterns.
With such a complex display of electoral behavior within a short time in such a compact political zone, generalizing a pattern for the world over in today's times is foolish. Even right now, some thinkers are misreading the Bengal elections. Shashi Tharoor, an author of more than 18 books and Congress MP, tweeted: ‘Bengal is a decisive win for the "idea of India", an inclusive, pluralist India where your religion or region don't matter. It shows BJP's electoral juggernaut is not invincible. And it reasserts the value of a federal India where States resist the overweening power of the Center.' Tharoor is obviously happy that somebody is able to put a break in BJP's momentum even if Congress itself hasn't been able to win a single seat.
But a closer scrutiny of the voting behavior comes from Prashant Kishor, the main elections strategist credited with the TMC’s outstanding victory. He said that 'no matter how polarized an election is, no party can get more than 50 to 55 percent of the majority community. In BJP strongholds, 50-55 percent of Hindus voted for them but the TMC concentrated on the 45 percent.'
Even though many commentators are projecting this result as Bengali people’s rejection of the BJP's Hindutva drive, the fact that the BJP is at more than 80 seats, and a close second in most of lost seats, speaks a lot about the creeping reach of the idea. If anything, the 'Royal Bengal Show' has not only shown the limits of majoritarian politics, it has also proved the limits of an overly simplified generalization of political events. This tells us to stop the unjustified fear of a majoritarian wave the world over and look for localized solutions to crucial problems. But above all, to paraphrase the Kabiguru saying, it shows us that 'the one who plants the right ideas in society, knowing that he/she will never really be able to benefit from it, has at least started to understand the meaning of politics.