A movie creatively titled Saand ki Aankh (Bullseye) is releasing across India a day after the BJP failed to hit it in elections in Maharashtra, Haryana, and by-polls in various states. You can safely presume that Manohar Lal Khattar and Amit Shah would not watch this movie, ironic and scornful since its title may sound to them.
Five months ago, when the BJP had hit the saandh ki aankh in the general elections, everyone had assumed that its shots would hit the sweet spot in every subsequent election. This euphoria had given rise to creative slogans like ‘Ab ki baar pachhatar paar (this time we will cross 75)’ in Haryana and dreams of crossing 145 on its own in Maharashtra. In retrospect, this time we cross 75 sounds more like a premonition within the BJP that Khattar maybe soon assigned to the margdarshak mandal reserved for those above 75.
A lot of reasons have been attributed to the BJP’s failure to walk the big talk. Some analysts are attributing it to the return of caste as the defining force in electoral politics because of the resurgence of Bhupinder Singh Hooda (Jat) and Sharad Pawar (Maratha).
Others are saying the BJP has been taught a lesson for being arrogant and foisting emotive issues on the narrative instead of focussing on the economy, jobs and rural income. All these are valid explanations. But, here is another theory to explain why the BJP failed to hit the proverbial aankh in this round.
The 2019 general election, it can be argued with the benefit of hindsight, was a Black Swan event (unexpected and unpredictable) triggered by just one event— the terror attack on Pulwama. The terror strike, its aftermath changed the course of the 2019 elections. In its absence the BJP would have struggled to win, just like in Haryana and Maharashtra.
This is because the voter had started getting disillusioned with the Narendra Modi government almost 18 months before the Lok Sabha elections. Almost every election pointed to this churn on the ground. In 2017, the BJP narrowly escaped a defeat in Gujarat (primarily because the Congress lacked the belief that it can actually win) when its tally came down to less than 100 after boasts of hitting the saand ki aankh figure of 150. A year later, it lost in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and got wiped out in Chhattisgarh, three of its bastions in north India in spite of hyperbolic saand ki aankh targets set by its leaders and whirlwind tours by Prime Minister and his current deputy.
The message from three setbacks and one scare (Gujarat) was clear: voters were not happy with the BJP. On the ground, issues like rural distress, unemployment and the havoc caused by demonetisation and faulty implementation of GST were creating a lot of discontent among voters. The message that the BJP is running amok like a bull in a China shop and acting as a disruptive force had started to take shape in the collective Indian psyche. If Lok Sabha elections were held in this milieu of rising anger, the BJP would have suffered heavy losses in the Hindi heartland. But, then came Pulwama, Balakot, the handle-bar moustache of an Indian Air Force pilot and a crescendo of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai.’ Pulwama saved the BJP.
People across the globe usually vote with their feet and then regret from the heart. Many times they get swayed by momentary emotions and take decisions that their rational minds later find difficult to justify (Hitler, Brexit for example). As historian Yuval Noah Harari argues, people vote for what they feel, not what they think. In May 2019, people felt a surge of nationalism in their hearts, so they got swept by the BJP’s rhetoric. But feelings, including those of love, anger, hurt, never last forever. In the end, the rational mind prevails, it always makes people think.
So, the Indian polity is getting back—it is not already there—to the pre-Pulwama period. People have started thinking about issues like unemployment, falling incomes, a flailing economy, low farm yields (the onion price crisis in Maharashtra) and caste identities. Nationalism, bogus slogans, divisive agendas and arrogant boasts of hitting saand ki aankh in every election are no longer doping the conscience of some people.
Democracy, as we know, is a constant quest for fooling all the people some time (Lok Sabha polls), some people, some time (Haryana and Maharashtra) until nobody is ready to get fooled by the old bull of emotive issues. People of Haryana and Maharashtra have indicated that the balance of this battle is shifting towards the real issues. Bharat Mata ki Jai, Article 370 and national registry of citizens are losing to unemployment, economy and real-life issues.
This, of course, doesn’t mean Modi’s days are numbered and we should be ready for the return of the opposition. Far from it. The elections are just a signal to both the ruling party and its rivals that voters are ready to evaluate the performance of the government and, if it is found unsatisfactory, they are willing to boot it out.
You can safely wager that in the next round of elections, the BJP will no longer make tall claims of hitting bullseye in Jharkhand, Delhi and Bihar (where Nitish Kumar’s party lost 4 of the 5 seats in by-polls). It would approach the electorate with its tail tucked in the legs, chest deflated well below the 56-inch mark and hands folded in supplication.
The challenge for the opposition now is to pick up the signals from the ground and amplify them by constantly hitting the Modi government on unemployment, economy and rural distress. The time is right for someone from the opposition to grab the BJP’s by its horns, fight its hyperbole and vacuous slogans, and become the voice of the electorate.
The BJP’s claims of hitting saand ki aankh, would henceforth only sound a lot of bull.