Politics of polls beyond the Vindhyas
In terms of heights and magnitude the Vindhyas do not match the Himalayas. Yet both these mountain ranges find mention in the Indian national anthem. This denotes their importance. That of the Himalayas is obvious. But the significance of the Vindhyas lies in the fact that they comprise a dividing line of sorts in the landmass of India. In the classical Puranic times, they were seen as elevations that comprised the southern boundaries of "Aryavarta". That was the land of the Aryans. It finds a mention in Valmiki's Ramayana as the limit of the Indian empire, prior to the exile of Rama. So the separating hills were something of a "Lakshman rekha". It was a line not to be crossed without inviting some serious consequences.
The inhabitants below the ranges were seen to be civilisationally somewhat distinct. This was reflected in minds and myths. Yet the dichotomy became gradually blurred through the process of history. Over time the divided portions began to see themselves united in voice and values. Eventually, the common experience of the contemporary tumultuous Indian democracy became the buckle that tied and hyphen that fastened the two parts. Geography became only a frame of reference. There are times, however, when some fault-lines do emerge. Of late these could be exacerbated by the unintended results of India's chaotic electoral politics.
Currently in the Union government in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule the roost. Their control extends over 21 of India's 29 states. But of the five major states in the south—Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Karnataka—the BJP held sway only in the last one. No longer. In a nail-biting election held in the state on May 12, the BJP, led by BS Yeddyurappa (popularly known as BSY), was out-manoeuvred. This was following a drama that would have matched any fictional thriller. The BJP had actually won 104 seats out of 222, falling short of the required majority by eight. The Congress of the incumbent Chief Minister Siddaramaiah secured 78. The third in the race was the Janata Dal Secular (JDS), led by a duo, former Union Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and his son, HD Kumaraswamy, with a count of 38. As the election results became apparent, the latter two quickly forged a post-poll alliance that raised their combined number to 116. With a majority sealed, they staked their claim to form government. They also agreed that Kumaraswamy would be the chief minister—an offer the junior partner in the pact could not refuse. The decision was now up to the governor of Karnataka, Vajubhai Vala.
In the action that followed, many believe that Vajubhai Vala did not cover himself with glory. He was a BJP member, indeed from Modi's home state of Gujarat. He, apparently, in view of his critics, succumbed to his preferences failing to rise over the cut and thrust of everyday politics (as governors of yore probably would!). He chose his fellow party man Siddaramaiah as chief minister. Furthermore, he gave the appointee a long timeframe, 15 days, to show a majority support in a "floor test" in the Assembly. But since it was well-known that the latter was eight members short, it was construed by analysts to be an open season for horse-trading. Audio evidence has since surfaced, though not yet authenticated, of his attempts to simply buy up opponents with offers of fortune and fame. These efforts came to naught. A wealthy Congress member, DK Shivakumar, herded the legislators-elect of the opposition much like a flock of sheep, moving them across locations in buses, away from the reach of the BJP. It cost money, but Shivakumar had enough to spare.
It was then that the Supreme Court, somewhat unexpectedly, came down on the BJP like a tonne of bricks. The opposition had petitioned them for relief. Appearing on the scene like a deus ex machina (God out of a machine) as in a Greek play, who enters the drama at a point near the end totally changing the course of the tale, the Court in its ruling cut the timeframe from 15 days to one. There was to be no time for the BJP to influence targeted politicians. Shivakumar was able to deliver the total numbers of those he had kept safely corralled in "resort hotels", at the Assembly doors prior to the floor test without any attrition. Yeddyuruppa saw no further value in waiting for the vote test. So after an impassioned speech eulogising self and his party, he resigned. Like the King in the Arabian Nights, his reign extended to little more than a day. Vala, who obviously did not mind having to eat the humble pie, had no option but to swear into office the coalition nominee, Kumaraswamy. Curtain was brought down on a play that Shakespeare would have delighted in penning.
No state in the South now had a BJP government. Some southerners began to speak of themselves as harbingers of change. They claimed to be offering a more "secular" option to the alleged "saffronisation" of India through the burgeoning influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the RSS, an ultra-right body) who champion Hindutva, and the veneration of the cow (resulting in the marginalisation of such minorities as the "untouchable Dalits" and Muslims). These southerners also see value in the "coming together" of the more affluent segment of the Indian Union—by which it is meant the states of the south. This, as opposed to some of the bimaru ("sick", implying "impoverished") states of the north such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.
This is one tendency. The other is that of an understanding among the regional parties of India, prior to the 2019 elections, to take on the BJP in the Centre. This would of course mean regional parties sinking their differences in the respective states to build an alliance in the Centre. For instance, Mamata Banerjee (an emerging counterpoise to Modi?) in West Bengal would have to align herself with her arch-foes in her own state, the Congress, and the Left. Not an immediate possibility, but can be a distant one.
The opposition to Modi, the Congress included, must be careful to avoid small successes spawning big aspirations. Some analysts are already juggling and calculating numbers in terms of seats in the future 2019 general elections. But mathematics does not always translate into politics. Any prognosis of Modi's political demise, to paraphrase Mark Twain, would be premature. As of now, beating Modi is a tall order. Never mind the failure to deliver on many counts. He remains immensely popular. But most armours have chinks. The challenge for the opponent is to be able to detect them. In Modi's case they are not yet discernible. Locating them would take more time. And relentless efforts.
The only other major all-Indian National Party is the Congress. It is led by Rahul Gandhi, the great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru. The latter, a towering personality, had urged Indians "to keep their tryst with destiny." It was a clarion call to high achievements. Indians have always since cherished those words. Rahul Gandhi does not obviously possess the image and eloquence of his famous ancestor. Also, now he may have to be content, unlike his great grandfather, to play second fiddle to smaller political entities from the region. But for the young Gandhi, a baptism of fire may yet work to transform him into an effective leader. If the "regional front", as Mamata Banerjee calls it, keeps the Congress with it, it is good for all-India sentiments. Without a major national party as the Congress associated, such an alliance may encourage fissiparous tendencies. The growing collaboration among the regionals resembles the gathering of the Greek chieftains to assail the walls of BJP's Troy as in the epic, the Illiad. Troy had fallen. Might the BJP? Alas for the champions of change in India, history does not always repeat itself!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is former foreign adviser to the caretaker government of Bangladesh and is currently principal research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.