Christmas in New Delhi is usually cold, even grimy with the fog on the brink of turning into a smog, police barricades and alcohol breathalyser detectors robbing the midnight revelers of whatever little joy they could muster in the resto-bars that have now taken up the space where once there were book stores, salons, pastry shops, and the stores where the middle class shopped, whether in elite Connaught place and Khan Market or the distant suburbs in the adjoining states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. We call it the National Capital Region, different from the city state of the National Capital Territory, a much smaller densely populated centre full of monuments of the Mughals, Nehrus and sundry other freedom fighters.
Christmas 2018 held out much more hope than emanated from carolers in the tightly guarded Sacred Heart Cathedral or the smaller chapels with private security, barbed wire and closed circuit television.
The eyes are still teary from laughing and crying as the electronic machines slowly churned out the results - some taking an astonishing eight hours or so instead of the 30 minutes they been predicted to take when they were foisted on a gullible pubic a decade or so ago. But as the results came from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and then the north east, it was clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party had been evicted from all five States which went to the polls almost on the eve of the general elections which are predicted for March or sooner next year.
Was this a weather wane? Or just the reverse, the morsel to whet appetites and mislead strategists of opposition parties in to a state of smugness. True, there were all too many local factors, but a handful also of national reasons. Nationally, the three major Hindi speaking, Hindu majority, largely agrarian and very populous Orthodox populations of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh had seen the same chief ministers rule for record 15 years each, and even the ever smiling Raman Singh in Raipur and the even more toothy Chauhan in Bhopal could woo the people just so much. They were tired, their administrations very corrupt and the promises they, and then Narendra Modi, made of jobs were just not coming. Death was more common, among farmers and landless labour. And the cows, now made immortal by national bans on their trade, had taken over the highways and the fields of the neighbours. Anger was palpable, and the people were not afraid of showing it.
In fact, more than frustration at unfulfilled promise and pain from the floundering medicare system, it seemed to be a total rejection of the persona of their rulers and their ideologies that had become apparent. The stray arrests of bloggers for satirising Modi or mocking the maharani of Rajasthan did not hold back people in the streets and cartoonists on the Internet from lampooning Modi and the rest.
For Narendra Modi, this must be the most important signal he can pick up from events leading up to the five assembly elections.. Perhaps the most important dog whistle came from Nagpur, the RSS headquarters where the fuehrer of the khaki long pants group, Mohan Bhagwat, subtly broke through the shrouds of secrecy - or at least a low profile - and started striding the national political stage as a star performer. He gave press statements, he organised televised meetings, and then he invited the world to come pay respects to the founders of the Sangh. His coup was in getting former President of the Republic, Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, to be the first outsider of his rank to address the cadres and pay floral tributes to the founders.
Mohan Bhagwat, in his very sanskritised by Maharashtrian accented Hindi, also made it clear that the RSS and its cadres could, and would, back anyone they chose to for the good of the country. Old reporters know this to be true. RSS cadres voted for Indira Gandhi at the fall of East Pakistan in 1971. They voted for Rajiv Gandhi when Indira was assassinated by her bodyguards who were angered by the military attack on the Golden Temple to blast out Jarnail Singh Bhidnrawalen, dreamer of a Khalistan for his group, but known among the majority community as head of a group which stopped buses and killed anyone who was not a Sikh. Rajiv Gandhi won a record making 404 seats for the Congress, an impossibility if one goes by demography and psychological arguments. If it suits its political design, the RSS cadre is available to back just about anyone the boss wants to do. It is more loyally transferable, this RSS vote, that even Mayawati can hope for with her Dalit vote bank. Modi knows that Bhagwat may well back Nitin Gadkari, a fellow Brahmin from Maharashtra and a man who has built up a solid reputation as a doer first as party chief and then as a senior cabinet minister.
Not surprising some of the cockiness has left Narendra Modi even if he continues to wear all those Rajasthani feudal headgear. This voice is now changed. In 2013, he hammered the hell out of the UPA government, Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, of course, but he strode the stage as a winner from Gujarat, a keeper of the Hindutva Flame, and a doer, all rolled into one. He was the sole performer, brooking no competition of the then structural party support coordinated by is major domo Amit Shah, particularly the BJP president.
The Ram temple is being pushed, but not fast enough. The Supreme Court remains unmoved to an extent and the case may well drag on till after the election code springs into action.
Narendra Modi is running out of time. The racing boots are definitely on the young and more nimble feet of the Opposition leaders, even if Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Kumar and the sons of Laloo Yadav seem taking their own time forging the sort of adjustment - not necessarily an alliance - needed to keep the votes away from the BJP and its allies.
Allies remember Sonia Gandhi relinquished it even when she was the sole leader. Rahul may do it too, even if he is the face of what he hopes is a tsunami against Modi.
As the year ends, Modi must be sleeping light, and very disturbed. His nightmare is of his own making.
(John Dayal is an author, editor, occasional documentary film maker and activist)