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A Rogue Wave Rising In The North

May 21, 2024 12:32 IST

While people voted in a fifth round that will set the tone as this election rounds into the straight, and while Modi on the stump chews the cud of personal grievances and hackneyed promises that have long since passed their use-by date, there is a rogue wave rising -- what damage it will do, we will know 16 days from today, observes Prem Panicker.

IMAGE: A woman holds a sign with a picture of senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi at an election rally in New Delhi, May 18, 2024. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

While randomly browsing Twitter a few days ago, I came across a video of an idyllic beach scene somewhere on the western coast of the US.

It showed one family picnicking, complete with table, chairs, barbecue and beach umbrella; couples sunning themselves, a few wading in the waters...

And then, literally out of blue sky and blue sea, this giant wave emerged close to shore and swept away everything in sight to the soundtrack of startled screams and yells for help.

The National Ocean Service (external link) defines a 'rogue wave', of the kind that hit those picnickers, thus:

Extreme waves often form because swells, while traveling across the ocean, do so at different speeds and directions. As these swells pass through one another, their crests, troughs, and lengths sometimes coincide and reinforce each other.

This process can form unusually large, towering waves that quickly disappear.


IMAGE: Aam Aadmi Party MP Swati Maliwal leaves AAP National Convenor Arvind Kejriwal's residence in New Delhi, May 17, 2024 after recreation of the May 13 incident by the police. Photograph: ANI Photo

Basically, such rogue events occur when discrete and seemingly unconnected events collide in time and space, acting together to create an impact far greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Unnoticed in the media hoopla surrounding the many interviews (42 of them in 45 days, the latest with NDTV coinciding with Sunday's ECI-mandated silent period) Narendra Modi has been giving captive media in a transparent ploy to hog prime time, lost in the furor surrounding the case of Swati Maliwal, obscured by the several red herrings visual media has dragged across the trail of public consciousness, various political swells traveling across the landscape at different speeds and times and even directions are increasingly coming together on a collision course.

IMAGE: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav at an election meeting in Phulpur, May 19, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The most striking manifestation (external link) of this coming together of discrete swells and undercurrents occurred om Sunday, in the Phulpur (external link) and Prayagraj (external link) constituencies of Uttar Pradesh, when unprecedented, unlooked-for crowds (external link) swept into the venues (external link) of rallies featuring leaders of the Samajwadi Party/Congress alliance, brushing aside police barricades that were clearly underprepared and overwhelmed, swarming over the stage and forcing Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi to abandon their speeches and leave the venues.

Prime time television largely blanked out the spectacle. Adityanath's reaction to those events will go down as one of the classics of this election cycle:

News 24 had posted on X (external link) : 'दो लड़के फूलपुर आए थे, जनता ही नहीं थी इसलिए उन्हें बैरंग लौटना पड़ा' - UP के CM योगी आदित्यनाथ ने कहा

Was Adityanath not properly briefed on what had actually happened? Or does he imagine that what happened in Phulpur and Prayagraj stays in Las Vegas?

In UP and elsewhere in the north, clips from the rallies have gone viral across local WhatsApp groups.

"Wait and see," a bemused regional journalist who called me from the midst of the Phulpur rally said, "this is now going to become a thing across UP... crowds are going to go nuts all across the heartland."

There is a rogue wave rising in the North.

IMAGE: Shiv Sena (UBT) President Uddhav Thackeray addresses an INDIA media interaction in Mumbai, May 18, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The fifth phase of polling features the least number of seats -- 49 -- of all seven phases. And yet, the way the game is playing out, this could be the hinge point of this election.

379 seats polled in the first four phases. The South is buttoned down, as is Gujarat. Monday's polling spans 49 seats across eight states.

In 2019 the BJP had won 32 of these seats (and its allies a further seven), so it has a lot to lose and little to gain.

Of the eight states, only two are decisive as far as this phase is concerned: Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.

In Maharashtra, 13 seats, including all six in Mumbai, polled in Monday and with this, polling in the state comes to a close. Of the 13 seats, the BJP had won six in 2019 and its ally the undivided Shiv Sena had won five.

Here, as in previous rounds in the state, the BJP is dropping seats for sure.

The grounds for discontent are many. Foremost is a groundswell of sympathy for Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar, who in the public eye have been betrayed by their own partymen, aided and abetted by Amit Shah.

Thackeray, whose hard-hitting campaigns appear to have surprised seasoned media observers (and I'm damned if I know why. Once the alliance firmed up, he was always going to be pointsperson, for good reason -- his calm leadership during Covid is still a talking point in the state) has been driving that theme in all his rallies.

IMAGE: Narendra D Modi with BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena Founder Raj Thackeray at the Mahayuti rally in Mumbai, May 17, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Thackeray received unexpected aid from the unlikeliest of sources: Narendra Modi, who in a moment of intemperance called Pawar a bhatakti aatma and Thackeray a nakli santaan of Sena founder Balasaheb.

To be fair, Modi was referring to the Uddhav faction of the Sena as nakli, but Thackeray was quick to seize the opportunity and to turn Modi's words into a mortal insult to the memory of the iconic Balasaheb.

Coupled with this is another Thackeray theme that has found resonance: That of Gujaratis looting Maharashtra, particularly Mumbai where all six seats polled Monday. The reference is to the several projects that were due to come up across the state, and which were shifted by Shah to Gujarat on the Eknath Shinde government's watch.

That hits two sore points in one. The Maharashtra versus Gujarat tensions are historical; the former takes pride in being the country's foremost business hub, and this 'loot', as Thackeray phrases it, hits Maharashtra's amour propre where it hurts.

Amit A Shah belatedly tried to compensate for the Uddhav factor by roping in Raj Thackeray and his MNS. That attempt to co-opt the Balasaheb brand hasn't worked out too well, though.

The MNS leader was invited to address a rally in Kalyan in support of Eknath Shinde's son Shrikant, and Raj Thackeray turned it into a diatribe against the inflow of migrants into Mumbai, and for good measure blasted Chhagan Bhujbal of the NCP's Ajit Pawar faction and a BJP ally, accusing him of having caused the split between Uddhav and Raj years ago.

An embarrassed BJP tried to walk things back, but the attempt didn't take in the face of Raj's intransigence.

Add to it the various economic stressors, affecting in particular the two large interest groups of farmers and women.

Take one instance as exemplar: In December 2023, the central government banned the export of onions -- a move that severely impacted Nashik, which is the state's onion farming centre and which polls today.

The Congress was quick to seize on the distress; in its manifesto, it promised a standardised import-export policy for onions to prevent such unexpected price turbulence.

IMAGE: Modi being felicitated at an election meeting in Kalyan, May 16, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

In early May, the government reversed itself and lifted the ban on onion export, but the move was too little, too late -- the anger had spread too far to be contained by a belated sop. (Actually, again in the interests of fairness, the government when imposing the ban had said that it would last for five months, which ended in May -- but on the ground, the BJP has not managed to convey that point effectively).

The upshot is that last week, when Modi was scheduled to hold a rally in Nashik, the police pre-emptively arrested 50 onion farmers to block possible protests.

The police action notwithstanding, onion farmers managed to infiltrate Modi's rally and raise slogans.

Net net, in Maharashtra the BJP is scrambling to defend itself on several fronts, while the Opposition alliance led by Thackeray and Pawar have merely had to keep hitting the BJP's pain points hard.

Things have been getting curioser over the last week. Ajit Pawar appears to have gone AWOL. Shinde is busy trying to defend Kalyan, where his son Shrikant Shinde, a two-time winner (with a three lakh plus margin in 2019) is facing headwinds.

Not only has the Uddhav faction of the Sena gone all out in support of its candidate Vaishali Darekar-Rane, there is an element of disgruntlement among BJP cadres who had been pushing for Ravindra Chavan, minister in the state cabinet and BJP MLA from Dombivili, to be named to contest the seat.

Against this background, new hoardings went up across Mumbai last week with both Ajit Pawar and Eknath Shinde conspicuously absent. The new billboards feature Modi and, slightly less prominently, BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis alone.

In 2019 the NDA alliance won 41 out of the 48 seats in the state with a 51.3% vote share, reducing the UPA to just five seats (32.07% of votes). This time, the reconstituted NDA comprising the BJP and the breakaway factions of the Sena and NCP is extremely unlikely to repeat that performance.

Punditry suggests that the NDA and the MVA will split the state's 48 seats -- which in itself argues a loss of 17 seats for the NDA. Ground reports indicate that the loss for the BJP and allies will be even greater.

The numbers don't matter at this stage, though -- this entire election has boiled down to a simple equation: Can the BJP/NDA hold the seats it won last time? Every seat lost is another tick in the 'no' column.

IMAGE: BJP Uttar Pradesh leader Yogi Adityanath holds a mace during an election rally in support of the BJP candidate for Jaunpur, Kripashankar Singh, in Jaunpur, May 19, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

That same scenario plays out in Uttar Pradesh as well, today. Of the 14 seats being polled, 13 were won by the BJP last time.

The BJP cannot afford to lose a single one of those seats, but it is very likely to lose at least five (or more, if you listen to deeply-embedded regional journalists).

Besides the usual factors such as agrarian distress, stray cows and price rise, factors impacting the election in UP include the increasingly evident stresses between the RSS and BJP on the ground.

That rift -- just a whisper or two in RSS circles when I first picked it up -- has become so pronounced, so in your face, that the media has begun taking note.

As if on-ground tensions were not enough, BJP President J P Nadda recently said that the BJP is all grown up now and fully capable of handling things on its own, and is no longer dependent on the RSS on-ground machinery.

Amit Shah, the word coming from BJP circles says, gave his party president what for; meanwhile, the Opposition seized on the ill-considered utterance to spread the message that if the BJP gets a third term it will finish off the RSS, likely with a ban.

No one in either camp seriously believes it, but the Opposition message has fanned glowing embers of discontent into a full-fledged blaze.

These growing tensions -- which the BJP tried to assuage in part by returning Adityanath to a prominent place on the hoardings, after having blanked him out in the earlier phases -- impacts the ruling party's get-out-the-vote operations the most, at a time when it can least afford it.

IMAGE: Senior BJP leader Amit A Shah with Dinesh Pratap Singh, the party candidate for Raebareli, during an election rally in Unchahar, May 17, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

On the other side, there is a growing consolidation of the Yadavs, the OBCs, Muslims (who are now returning to the SP fold which they had abandoned in recent times), women (among whom Rahul Gandhi's promise of Rs 8,500 per month in their accounts taka-tak-taka-tak appears to have found resonance, along with the recent promise to up the free ration quota to 10 kg) and disgruntled ex-BSP voters, making for a formidable Opposition combination.

Raebareli and Amethi are two seats the Congress is almost certain to take in this phase, adding one to its previous tally.

The BJP appears to have given up Amethi as a lost cause, despite the 'weak' Congress candidature of Kishori Lal Sharma -- Modi, Shah and Adityanath had, in 2019, led a parade of star campaigners who went flat out in support of Smriti Irani.

This time, Shah did one rally and Adityanath two, but Modi has been conspicuously absent, to Irani's embarrassment.

Against that, Priyanka Gandhi has camped in the constituency for the last fortnight, filling her days with hugely attended rallies, roadshows, nukkad meetings and house visits.

The Samajwadi Party, too, seems poised to pick up at least two seats and possibly, if emerging voting patterns play out in practice, likely two more.

Even the lower-end estimate of the BJP losing four seats of the 13 it had won last time is four too many for a ruling regime in an election where every loss hurts.

In the midst of all this churn, Modi appears to have dug so deep into his rhetorical barrel that he is now coming up with splinters. Sample these:

News 24 had posted on X (external link) : 'विपक्ष ने मुझे आज 104 वीं गाली दी है, उन्होंने मुझे आज औरंगजेब बोलकर नवाजा है' - PM मोदी का बयान

IMAGE: Modi during an election rally in Purulia, May 19, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

A PM going around with an updated excel sheet of abuses showered on him, real or imagined, has been a feature since the Karnataka elections when he said he had been abused 91 times (the BJP's IT wing promptly put out an excel sheet with columns for nature of abuse, day, date, identity of abuser etc).

A year later, it has now been coupled with another campaign staple -- the reference to the possibility of the Opposition causing the best-protected PM in our history actual physical harm.

In a rally in Jamshedpur he discreetly walked back his once-in-a-lifetime attack on Adani and Ambani -- and accused the Congress of being anti-business.

In Purulia (seven West Bengal seats polled Monday) he said (external link) that in the third term the 'corrupts' will all be jailed -- which is the promise he had made lo all those years back, when campaigning in 2014, and which jars when considered against the people his consigliere, Shah, has seduced or coerced into the party fold.

IMAGE: A BJP supporter holds a sign during a Modi election rally in New Delhi, May 18, 2024. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

While people voted in a fifth round that will set the tone as this election rounds into the straight, and while Modi on the stump chews the cud of personal grievances and hackneyed promises that have long since passed their use-by date, there is a rogue wave rising -- what damage it will do, we will know 16 days from today.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/