Thrilled, the chef decided to add five green chillis to every plate of daal. This time, the customers fled. They begged for water and found solace in their usual bland restaurants. The chef scratched his head as he wondered what had happened.
A similar scratching of heads is probably taking place at BJP headquarters. On its own, BJP won just one out of four Lok Sabha seats and one out of eleven assembly seats in the recent bypolls. The green chilli, in BJP’s case, is Hindutva. It works wonderfully with a section of voters. However, ratchet up the Hindutva too much, and it becomes a case of the daal with five chillis. The same daal you had relished once becomes a nightmare.
This tricky balance of Hindutva, where it needs to be there and yet not too much, is a tough one for BJP to manage. Historically, it always eventually fails. Extremism is a slippery slope, and once you go down that path you eventually do sink lower. Vajpayee managed it well – and became PM. Advani couldn’t, and he never could win at the Centre.
Modi did manage the balance very well too. The excellent messaging of development in the 2014 campaign, with the ever so slight hint of Hindutva, worked so well that he came in with one of the best mandates since Independence.
When the Modi government came to power in 2014 people had high, perhaps unrealistic hopes from it. High-profile names of bank CEOs floated around for the finance minister’s job. Many believed the PM would surround himself with technocrats and experts who would help make world-class policies and unleash India’s growth potential.
Of course, none of that happened. In fact, BJP ended up behind UPA in intellectual heft. UPA had its famous intellectual faces – the PM himself, Jairam Ramesh, Nandan Nilekani, Shashi Tharoor. It is hard to find their equivalents in the current government, isn’t it? BJP inherited Raghuram Rajan as RBI governor from UPA, but let him go.
What did happen was that the balance tipped in favour of Hindutva even more. Whether it was the crackdown on beef, or keeping silent on Padmaavat, forced nationalism or the occasional communal comment by BJP lawmakers – India continued to careen towards a more communal, majoritarian state. Fear grew, especially among minorities and those critical of the government. The green chilli content continued to rise in the daal.
And yet, in all this the government has missed a key insight about Indian Hindus. Yes, a large section of Hindus want to feel superior to Muslims. Right or wrong, they have a notion of Hindu entitlement and keeping the minorities ‘in their place’. However, deep down, these same Hindus don’t want to hurt Muslims.
As long as there is peace, a live and let live attitude is fine. Neither do these Hindus (barring a few fringe fundamentalists) want a religious state. Hindus respect their pandits, but have never let them run their lives.
However, the government probably missed all this when they did a blatant green chilli overdose – appointing Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of UP. The choice was odd as in all the other states BJP won, they appointed a work oriented, somewhat low profile CM, definitely not someone who wore saffron robes and made strongly controversial Hindutva statements.
And yet, many reasons for his appointment were given at that time. He has won elections so many times. He is an amazing orator. Oh, and he will be a great administrator – you wait and see.
Until now it was a case of the government looking the other way at communal incidents – maybe even justifying it as ignoring the fringe. Yogi’s appointment by the PM marked a turning point in perception of the modern BJP. It was the equivalent of BJP holding up a banner and saying ‘This is who we always were and still are, deal with it’. There wasn’t just half a chilli in the daal anymore. The daal now had five chillis.
This appointment handed something to the opposition. It gave them the credibility to gang up against Modi, despite their differences. No longer would an all-opposition alliance be seen as opportunistic. It would be seen as a saviour, the bowl of sugar that would protect you from the green chillis – that would save India from becoming communal.
Hence, we saw the opposition was not only able to successfully amalgamate their votes in the recent bypolls, but also steal some of BJP’s vote share. Of course, there are other reasons for BJP’s poor performance as well. Modi’s allure is dipping, as several sections of society feel underwhelmed by the government’s performance.
However, more than anything, the appointment of Yogi Adityanath is the turning point that will become an enabler for the opposition to unite in 2019. The opposition still has a long way to go in terms of scoring a win in 2019. It is also a whole separate discussion on what government they can actually give us.
For now, BJP has to learn one lesson from it all. No matter how much you think people love it, never overdo the green chillis.