Manu Joseph: A theory of why the BJP did poorly in the elections

As the BJP rose to assume power at the Centre, different classes voted for the same party, and even the same ideology. (HT_PRINT)
As the BJP rose to assume power at the Centre, different classes voted for the same party, and even the same ideology. (HT_PRINT)


  • The urban upper-class BJP fan who employs poor migrants is the party’s worst ambassador.

A few days ago in my colony, I overheard a quarrel between a man who lived in a villa, like me, and a gardener. The master wanted some additional work to be done, and the gardener said that would cost him a few hundred rupees more. The master exploded in rage at the “greed" and poor work ethics of migrants. 

He said, “You be careful. See what happened to Kejriwal? He acted too smart, not realizing his size." A few hours earlier, Delhi chief minister Kejriwal had been arrested on corruption charges.

When the quarrel began, I thought there was something unusual about the moment, because by the laws of probability, it was likely that both men were in the vote base of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The master is not the average BJP voter, as his wealth and income are well above that level, but a very vocal one in the eyes of migrants. The urban master hides an underrated clue to why the BJP lost 92 of the 303 seats it had won in 2019 (it won new seats to reach 240).

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There was a time when the master and the gardener used to do the same things, like vote for the Congress and watch the same Hindi films. There was even a period when their children went to the same school, or at least studied the same text books. 

But then, India changed and different classes did not do the same stuff in the same room anymore, unless one was serving. As the BJP rose to assume power at the Centre, different classes once again voted for the same party, and even the same ideology. But this was an odd state of affairs and not fated to last.

Apart from politicians and some paid actors, who are the BJP’s ambassadors? Upper middle-class people in propaganda, journalism, cinema and the culture business., mostly. There are others who are not so prominent but are still ambassadors of the party. 

They are among the urban upper classes; they are employers of house-helps, drivers and gardeners. They are mascots of the BJP because they cannot stop talking about how everyone else should be. And they are the worst ambassadors a political party can have.

Intellectuals tend to venerate voters when the results go their way. So it was not surprising that economist Raghuram Rajan complimented the intelligence of the Indian voter for diminishing the BJP. But we can understand elections without the myth of the voter’s pious soul. When we understand what people dislike the most, I think we get most of what they do.

Also read: Lok Sabha Election Results 2024: 5 factors that didn’t work for PM Modi and BJP

Political observers now say that “hubris" harmed the BJP. In the Indian lexicon, this means arrogance and not self-confidence. In any case, culturally, Indians equate self-confidence with arrogance. But I do not think that professional politicians, even from the BJP, were as overtly arrogant as critics of the party claim. 

In fact, for the past several months, they have been exhibiting considerable nervousness. Those who were full of bluster, those who were truly cocky, were actually the sidekicks, like the man in the villa. Millions of average voters who once voted for the BJP saw the cockiness of its most visible ambassadors.

Generally, people do not share the ideology of those they despise. This is the reason why intellectuals find it hard to transmit wisdom. The problem is never that people are too dumb to see wisdom. People dislike wisdom if they dislike the mouth it comes from. It was a phenomenon that at first favoured the right-wing in India. But when the BJP found its own upper-class ambassadors, it probably had an adverse affect on the party’s voter base.

Observers cite several factors that influenced the verdict of these Lok Sabha elections. The most persuasive among these is high food inflation. There are other reasons given by election analysts, like high unemployment among the youth, that I don’t find so convincing. 

It is hard to imagine why BJP voters would think some other party would enrich them. This year’s electoral verdict, however, does have a punitive element to it. In the eyes of millions in India, the BJP had probably become a party of sahebs and bullies.

Also read: Election Results 2024 highlights: INDIA shrinks BJP numbers but PM Modi set for 3rd term

So, when the BJP deployed the political tactic of using law enforcement against inconvenient politicians, it came across as a corroboration of the cockiness of the party’s upper-class sidekicks. And the hard tactics of the previous government de-intellectualized a complex nugget of intellectual wisdom—institutions have to be independent or one man may walk away with everything.

I admired one quality of the previous government in which the BJP had an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. As a citizen, I felt that someone was in control of the country, and even its future, and that was unprecedented.

Before the previous government, the imprisonment of a politician in India was rare. There was probably a practical reason for that. It was political courtesy. Politicians in power knew that one day they would not be in power and they expected new winners to extend the same courtesy. But there was a time till recently when it appeared that the BJP was not afraid of ever losing power at the Centre. Several rival politicians went to prison.

A diminished BJP may have to conduct more meetings and drink more sugary tea to push its economic agenda, but would also need to be more considerate and tolerant to other views.

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