On the face of it, Modi’s big promise is development and his constituency is that India which now aspires not just for alleviation but elevation. On both counts, perhaps no other state in the country was a better candidate for his brand of intervention than Bihar. And yet, the campaign increasingly veered away from this promise and took a turn towards the negative. The language coarsened, the label of ‘anti-national’ came to be bandied about loosely, and the ad that it released in the final phase of the elections touched a new low when it came to using communal passions. Modi and Amit Shah both were at the forefront of this kind of campaign narrative, so it was very much a part of the BJP game plan.
It is tempting to argue that BJP has been poorly served by its attempts to polarise the electorate and by chasing the elusive dream of a unified Hindu vote bloc. But perhaps, there is a deeper malaise that ails the party that it finds even more difficult to escape. The victors of 2014 cannot stop being angry. If there is one thing that is leading BJP towards the path to self-diminution, if not self-destruction, it is the vitriolic and reflexive anger that its support base simply cannot control and one which its leadership does not try and contain. One sees it vividly in the tone used by its supporters on social media, in the succession of statements that its minor and major leaders routinely make as well as in the unrelentingly nasty manner of its TV spokespersons.
The fringe that is so often talked about is in reality not a set of people, but an aspect of the mainstream personality of BJP, an aspect that gets expressed most vividly by a few who get labelled as the fringe. The fringe is a festering anger that the party nurtures, and in spite of having won the national elections decisively, simply cannot let go off, since it derives so much energy and self-righteous validation from it. Mamata Banerjee had the same problem in the early part of her reign, this coming to terms with her own victory and shedding the accumulated anger of earlier times. But for BJP, there is far too elaborate and intricate a structure that is deeply invested in this anger to be able to rise above it. Unlike the anger of Mamata Banerjee which had its roots in the humiliation and harassment she was subject to, right-wing anger has deep ideological roots and goes back into a history that is partly imagined but vividly experienced at an emotional level.
Time after time, this sense of hurt surfaces in a desire to make the other side pay, with the ‘other side’ being constructed variously as Muslims, Christian missionaries, Naxalites, ‘paid media’, NGOs and award-returning intellectuals. It is interesting how much anger is directed at Congress and how much is laid at its doorstep, something that must surprise the former ruling party that is struggling with its own irrelevance today.
Anger can be electorally rewarding—in 2014, Modi harnessed the anger against the passive dynastic arrogance of the UPA with great skill, as did Arvind Kejriwal who spoke for the faceless and marginalised urban voter who did not figure in anyone else’s calculations. But for anger to be useful, it must relate to the specifics of the electoral context. If at all, Bihar needed Bihari anger, not a cut-paste version of somebody else’s anger imposed on it. Instead, the anger that emerged came from stored memories—the resentment against cow slaughter, the simmering anger against lower caste reservations, the easy, almost contemptuous dismissal of incidents like Dadri and Faridabad, all of these surfaced in one way or the other, usually in damaging ways.
Modi’s genius in the 2014 polls was to find the right dilution at which Hindutva became electorally useful. When used as sub-text, it might still have its electoral uses today, but the problem is the party simply does not know how to keep this genie in a bottle. Also, given that not much is perceived to be happening when it comes to development and you have a very skewed situation.
If there is something to learn from Nitish Kumar and even Lalu Yadav, it is to play the long game and play it cool. On social media, anger can feel rewarding; in the real world, it is the loser’s way.