July 21 will go down in history as a great day for democracy. The day a tribal woman was chosen President of India.
Whether Droupadi Murmu proves to be an active President or merely a rubber stamp will be decided after five years. Yashwant Sinha, despite a long, distinguished and successful career in politics, lost the battle. His defeat was a given. The BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi had the numbers for an easy win. And the opposition is once again left with some fundamental questions.
“Masterstroke” is a much-used word in the Modi era, be it by BJP supporters or their friends in the media. So much so, that it has lost its meaning.
But the choice of Droupadi Murmu as presidential candidate underlines strategic thinking in the BJP and its appetite to win every electoral battle convincingly, to convey invincibility – of the party as well as its top leadership.
Before 2014, the BJP had cadre, an ideology, and a strong organization, but it was still the “upper caste party”. On Modi’s watch, the BJP has tightened its grip on its upper caste votes, especially in north India. According to a CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) survey, more than 85% of the upper caste, particularly Brahmins, now vote for the BJP. But it is the growing support of the OBC and Dalit communities that has turned the BJP into such a formidable force. This was evident in the recent Uttar Pradesh election, with the virtual annihilation of Mayawati’s BSP and the shift of non-Jatav Dalit votes to the BJP.
Despite the Samajwadi Party’s good show, the BJP made gains among the “other than Yadav” votes. The BJP won despite anti-incumbency in UP, and the Samajwadi party was a distant second despite improving its vote share by 10%. This was possible because of the BJP’s outreach to new voters among the women, Dalits and the OBC.
It is no coincidence that Droupadi Murmu is a tribal and that she belongs to Odisha.
The BJP knows that other than the north Indian states, it has to break new ground in West Bengal and Odisha.
In the last assembly and parliamentary elections in West Bengal, the BJP emerged as the principal opposition party, decimating the Left and the Congress. This was the state where the BJP had negligible presence before 2014. After Bengal, the BJP’s next target is Odisha. The BJP knows Naveen Patnaik has won the last five elections and is not getting younger. The BJP would like to throw a serious challenge to Naveen Patnaik, like it did to Mamata Banerjee in Bengal. It has also aimed at tribal voters in Jharkhand, Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
It can be argued that just because the BJP made Droupadi Murmu President does not mean tribal voters will automatically switch to the BJP.
Ramnath Kovind becoming President did not translate to Dalit votes magically shifting to the BJP, but what came through was the party’s knack for strategic thinking, the desire to conquer new frontiers, the appetite for those extra votes and the killer instinct to win elections.
In a vast country like ours, political messaging is very important. The selection of a tribal candidate after a Dalit president sends the message that the BJP is no longer an upper caste party; it cares for the people on the margins and it is committed to empowering them.
So Droupadi Murmu had the USP, despite being the “lightweight candidate”, and Yashwant Sinha fell short, in the time of obsessive identity politics. He was a good candidate but at the wrong time.
That is the crux of the opposition’s failure as it struggles to put up a respectable fight against the BJP. In the presidential election, the opposition faithfully repeated its mistakes.
Its deficiency lies in the fact that at the national level, it has failed to read Modi’s mind; it has not been able to predict his political moves; and it has mostly been caught napping.
Modi brought in Murmu and it befuddled many opposition parties. JMM, one of the proposers of Yashwant Sinha’s name, voted for Murmu; Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena also changed its mind. Even Mamata Banerjee was forced to admit that had she known about Murmu’s candidature, she would not have suggested Yashwant Sinha’s name.
It is unfortunate that a candidate like Yashwant Sinha could not attract extra votes and couldn’t challenge the BJP and parties supporting it. Not even a little bit. If the opposition had put up a strong OBC candidate or a Dalit, it would have managed some sort of political message. OBC and Dalit leaders and caste-based parties in the ruling dispensation would have found it difficult to ignore.
To fight Modi, the opposition has to reboot. It has to reformat its political software. The world has changed. Modi has changed the rules of the game, but the opposition is still living in the past.
Unlike in the past, politics today is a 24/7 game which is played in a giant open colosseum. People watching the game prefer those who are gladiatorial in their instinct and fight to the finish. In the world of polarised interconnectedness, there is nothing called a symbolic fight.
(Ashutosh is author of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.