By Raghav Bahl
Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.
A week is a long time in politics! Girl, how that cliché came alive in the last seven days. On Monday, 18 December, Prime Minister Modi’s politically invincible Teflon was cracked in his home state of Gujarat; on Thursday, 21 December, the Rs 1.76 lakh crore 2G “scam” boomeranged on BJP; on Saturday, the redoubtable Lalu Yadav was convicted in the second fodder corruption case; and on Sunday, 24 December, the maverick TTV, once a pariah for Amma Jayalalithaa, trounced her lifelong colleagues and a vindictive central government to claim her political legacy.
At the risk of preening, I must say I am currently enjoying a bit of popularity in the newsroom. I had predicted, almost recklessly, that the BJP would get truncated to a double-digit mandate in Gujarat. But since nobody would call the boss out, my colleagues remained deferentially sceptical. Once the BJP peaked at 99, I was quite the hero (one of the wagers I won was my pick of a 40-year-old Single Malt. I am still googling for the most exotic brew. If anybody has suggestions, do tweet ‘em to me).
TTV was the underdog who showed spine
I decided to stretch my gambler’s luck with my Chennai colleagues (the exceptionally bright duo of Smitha Tarur and Vikram Venkateswaran). At the very next editorial meeting, I had the following conversation with them:
Me: “I think TTV will win RK Nagar, because Indian voters are wise and emotional, who often root for the underdog, especially if they see him being hounded and persecuted”.
Smitha/Vicky: “No sir, the voters will simply press on the ‘two leaves’ symbol; EPS/OPS will win this one. Only the symbol matters for Amma’s followers”.
I shut up, even though I was unconvinced by their reasoning. I thought this was another instance of “us English speaking types”, failing to appreciate the innate wisdom of India’s illiterate voters, who have shown, time and again, that they are sharper than the pundits.
But since I don’t understand Tamil politics as much as I do the stuff in the Hindi heartland, I chose the safety of an uneasy surrender. I wish I hadn’t, because TTV’s resounding victory simply underscored what I had asserted – Indian voters are emotional and often pitch for an underdog, who is seen to be suffering at the hands of a domineering and bullying opponent.
TTV showed them spine, while EPS/OPS were seen as paying obeisance in Dilli Darbar (the Emperor’s court in New Delhi) – that was unacceptable to a people who have consistently opposed the central government’s diktat.
Rahul Gandhi, the underdog in Gujarat, showed similar spunk
In fact, the week of 18 December is screaming out a political message at M/s Modi and Shah, if they care to listen:
“Hon’ble Prime Minister, please change course. WE DO NOT LIKE POLITICS OF ONE-UPMANSHIP. Else, just as we supported you in 2014 when you were the underdog, we could switch our sympathy to the new underdogs that your regime is creating”.
If Gujarat showed that Prime Minister Modi is vulnerable, it also proved that Rahul Gandhi’s electoral graph has taken a political “karvat” (I wrestled with English options for “karvat”, but “upturn” is too unidimensional and “twist” is a bit negative, while “karvat” captures all the contradictory nuances of a switch, change, upturn, uncertainty, ephemerality – I simply could not find an equivalent phrase in English with the same greyness).
The voters are beginning to see him as a well-meaning, and wronged, political underdog – as the Gujarat outcome showed, that can be lethal.
2017’s hysterical TV news channels could do as much damage as 1977’s Shah Commission
Prime Minister Modi should dig into his memory trove and go back in time to the Shah Commission in 1977.
India’s voters had comprehensively punished Indira Gandhi for Emergency’s excesses, by wiping her out in the Lok Sabha polls. They expected the newly-formed Janata Government to move on and heal the country. Instead, the Janata rulers set up the Shah Commission, with the mandate to hound and persecute Indira Gandhi.
Every day she was scorned, called names, abused. Indian voters did not like that one bit. After all, she had once been Durga, the fierce Goddess, who had nationalised banks, liberated Bangladesh, launched pro-poor schemes, detonated a nuclear device – so why was she now being treated as a petty criminal? Slowly, Indira Gandhi’s political graph took a “karvat” – people began to see her as the underdog – and the rest is history, as she roared back to power within three years!
Something similar, albeit on a vastly different landscape, could be happening today.
The BJP regime is coming across as sour, prickly and forever angry. I am not sure if Prime Minister Modi has seen the prime-time performance of his spokesmen on lackey television news channels every evening? If he hasn’t, then he must – because what the Shah Commission was to the Janata Government in 1977, these shrill and unbelievably biased television news channels are to his BJP regime in 2017.
Every evening, these so-called “journalists” (more appropriate to call them hatchet-men or hired guns) sit and bash Rahul Gandhi. The BJP spokesmen on their programs hurl the choicest epithets.
The most laughable “issues” are trotted out, including a perfectly legitimate three-hour foray to watch a film with friends (as some BJP well-wishers pointed out, even Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani would go to see movies, often after getting electorally drubbed. So when BJP spokesmen lampooned Rahul Gandhi for doing this, they actually elevated him to the level of BJP’s tallest leaders!).
People are okay with criticism of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv; But do not like them being abused
Worse, unprintable invectives are regularly heaped on Rahul Gandhi’s “dynasty”. But people don’t share that hate.
Even Nehru’s harshest critics concede that he is an architect of modern India. Indira Gandhi may be reviled for the Emergency, but she also has a horde of admirers. Rajiv Gandhi may have fumbled on Bofors, Shah Bano, Ayodhya and IPKF – but he also ushered in the first whiff of a modern economy. What’s more, Indira and Rajiv were assassinated in the cause of the country.
As it is, Indians abhor anybody who speaks ill of the dead. So when BJP spokesmen jeer at the “dynasty”, as opposed to using parliamentary language to criticise them, many Indians don’t like that.
And when Rahul refuses to go tit-for-tat against such uncouth language, he is somewhere beginning to hit a chord with middle-class Indians who do not like the daily cacophony of hate. This is clearly evident in a rising social media resonance, more positive media commentary, general sentiment around paan shops, and of course, in Gujarat!
Even Tejashwi and Lalu Yadav could reap underdog tailwinds
Not just with Rahul Gandhi; something similar could be happening with Tejashwi and Lalu Yadav. The father won a mandate in 2015 which was stolen from him. People see him as a victim of a crass double-cross.
People also see scores of corrupt politicians going scot-free, but enforcement agencies going at Lalu with a vengeance. They sniff something amiss there.
In any case, people see Tejashwi as innocent collateral. I may be wrong, but just as I stuck my neck out in Gujarat and on TTV’s victory, I believe Tejashwi will garner the tailwinds of the underdog at Bihar’s hustings. Unwittingly, the BJP may be creating another lethal adversary in a state it swept in 2014.
Attention Prime Minister – politics had no fury than an underdog scorned.
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