The French politician who formally congratulated the mayor of Paris for losing the 2012 Olympics bid to London made perfect sense. The straitjacket of security, he explained, would drive summer tourists away from London towards grateful France. Paris would get the holiday business while London paid the 9 billion-pound bill for the effete glory of a forgettable media event. Win-win for the Eiffel Tower.
Boris Johnson, mayor of London, who has delivered all Olympics facilities within budget and a year ahead without being accused of anything more corrupt than an occasional ogle, must have sneered and chortled in response. But there is a major philosophical lesson to be learnt about fate. The lucky, they win. But the truly lucky know when to lose.
A very powerful Congress leader, his demeanour touched by a faraway wistful look, whispered a fantasy to me the other day: that the Congress had chosen to sit in opposition after winning 206 seats in the summer of 2009. Some crumbly structure would perforce have made a grab for power, doubtless with former Congress allies like DMK queuing up for the telecom ministry as their price for support to a BJP prime minister. Within weeks the whole lot would have been compromised at bargain rates, since they would be trading in used goods. Suresh Kalmadi would have welcomed the return of this version of NDA, since he could have bought out their bigwigs with nothing more expensive than the occasional first class ticket to a sports jamboree. This government would have either sought to sabotage investigations into both the Commonwealth Games and 2G spectrum, or defended them on some silly technical ground, leaving the quiet but well-fed Congress on a high moral plateau. The rackety NDA government would have collapsed in derisive confusion; Congress would win a clear majority in the winter 2011 general elections and Rahul Gandhi would be sworn in as the undisputed prime minister.
The BJP should be feeling extraordinarily pleased that it lost the last general elections.
In 2004, the BJP was unprepared for defeat; but then no ruling party is ever ready for bad news. In 2009, the BJP was unprepared for victory, which is less forgivable. The fault lay not in any individual, but in a more basic flaw: it had not still fully absorbed the extent to which the Indian voter had shifted from an emotional agenda to an economic ambition. In 2009, some of the more media-magnetic BJP campaigners were still behaving as if they were on the sets of a 1950s Bollywood historical melodrama. That age had, paradoxically, exhausted itself with the culmination of the Ram temple movement; once the mosque at Ayodhya was destroyed, it took its emotions along with it. The BJP lost the Assembly elections of 1993 in the very heartland that had sustained its most powerful emotional appeal; Digvijay Singh became chief minister of Madhya Pradesh that year.
Two general election defeats have created a double benefit for the BJP. The voter is ready to empathise again, feeling that enough punishment has been meted out. And the party understands that serious correctives are essential if the show is to go on. The first is happening. There is a visible rise in the BJP vote across the north. The party could shock its enemies and surprise its friends in the next Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. It has stemmed the bleed in Madhya Pradesh and returned to form in Rajasthan, while remaining steadily ahead in Gujarat. The correctives are still a work in progress. Nitin Gadkari’s principal task over the next year will be to put together a viable economic policy for the party which the voter can assess, measure and then identify with.
Why has the Congress slipped? Corruption is the easy answer, but not a complete one. The voter is angry about the theft of public money, of course. But he is truly livid at the fact that corruption has derailed economic growth. The first is sufficient cause for the visible and escalating concern that we see around us; the second can lay the seeds for insurrection. The Indian industrialist is talking through his bank account, investing abroad rather than at home. The worker is seeing the gains for which he abandoned the culture of strikes, being frittered away. There is confusion in villages as the landowner demands a share in that fixed lottery called land prices.
Protest is a legitimate part of any opposition’s duty, but that alone cannot convert the BJP into a ruling party. It has to rise above protest and become an alternative; from a trade union into the management structure that the shareholders of democracy can hire when the present management is voted out.
It tells us something when the language of business becomes perfectly applicable to the business of contemporary politics.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.