The new order is upon us in a surging tide of saffron that seems unstoppable. The Lok Sabha elections show the Bharatiya Janata Party advancing in a broad front across the country. Its reverses in the Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan assembly elections of November 2018 were a temporary blip and the fearsome electoral machine created by party president Amit Shah is running at full speed.

Not everything went to plan but the BJP (or the National Democratic Alliance that it heads) picked up seats in every region. In the north the one exception was Punjab but that was the failure of its alliance partner, Shiromani Akali Dal. It swept the west, with 100 per cent in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and 80 per cent in the richest state, Maharashtra. The most spectacular breakout, however, came in Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal.

The Congress used to be the national party, with its ability to capture the political elite in every situation. That mantle has turned saffron and BJP is quite at home in it.

In 2014, the BJP won two of the state’s 42 seats with 17 per cent of the vote. This time, it won 18 and 40 per cent of the vote. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress had 34 seats in 2014; this time it was 22 on a vote share of 43 per cent, just squeaking ahead. She will have to raise her game substantially ahead of the assembly election (in 2021) if she wants to stop BJP from muscling its way into the Writers’ Building.

A measure of its new dominance can be had from the score sheet of the assembly election in Arunachal Pradesh. It reads: BJP 41, its ally Janata Dal (United) 7, Congress 4, in a house of 60. It seems just yesterday that BJP was regarded as a “cow belt outfit” incapable of attracting voters anywhere else. This result shows how hard work can transform the bleakest electoral landscape.

The Congress used to be the national party, with its ability to capture the political elite in every situation. That mantle has turned saffron and BJP is quite at home in it.

In 2019, Amit Shah’s promise of “Congress-mukt Bharat” has the sound of the Last Post for the 134-year-old party. In Uttar Pradesh, the largest state, he limited Congress to one seat while exposing the delusion that underlay the Samajwadi-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance. When the two sworn enemies announced a grand alliance to share seats and consolidate votes, observers saw it as a formidable obstacle to BJP’s electoral ambitions. In the event, it was no contest.

True, the party won fewer seats, 62, than the last time (71) but its vote share jumped from 42.3 per cent to 49.6 per cent. Both the BSP led by Mayawati and Samajwadi Party lost vote share, the latter from 22.2 per cent to 17.96 and the former marginally, from 19.6 per cent to 19.26. As usual, the Congress was a non-player, but its vote share sank again, from 7.5 per cent in 2014 to 6.31. Its insignificance was underlined by the defeat of its leader Rahul Gandhi in Amethi to BJP’s Smriti Irani. Only his mother, Sonia Gandhi, retained her Rae Bareli seat.

While the vote consolidation did work to an extent, giving BSP 10 seats (zero in 2014) it made no great difference overall. The worse news for both parties is that BJP continues to chip away at their base vote. That is clear in the case of Samajwadi Party, which dropped over 4 per cent. Even BSP may be in worse shape than appearances because Mayawati’s party is an obvious beneficiary of the alliance. That may conceal the true extent of any erosion. It is worth noting that BJP took 15 of the 17 seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Whether by design or accident it has re-engineered the SP-BSP support base and there is little doubt that it is working on ways to widen that breach.

The story of UP is instructive in the way the party has responded to new challenges. The 2017 assembly elections had been expected to result in a three-way standoff. The BJP won over three-fourths of the seats. This time, the Grand Alliance of SP-BSP was forecast to take around 40 away from BJP; the actual number was 15, a loss it could easily absorb. This was touted as a wave-free election as BJP’s incumbency was decidedly mixed, especially on the economy. The national turnout was around 3 per cent lower than 2014. Nevertheless, it polled 6 per cent more than in the previous edition, from 31.3 per cent to 37.4, a tribute to its meticulous approach against the opposition’s irrational exuberance.

The hangover is bound to be severe but the lesson has not registered. Mayawati reacted by blaming  the voting machines and the Election Commission. Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress president but his party’s working committee rejected it and thanked him for his leadership.

Indeed, one of the more surreal highlights of this election was the multitude of opposition candidates auditioning for prime minister. Mayawati’s pitch about how she had been UP chief minister four times and was therefore eminently qualified overlooked one basic problem. Her party was at best going to win about 35 seats from one state. To form a government, you need a minimum of 271 MPs. She never said how she would find the other 240 when she staked her claim. Nor was there a word about what policy her government would follow, economic, social or foreign.

The parade reached the height of absurdity when 86-year-old H.D. Deve Gowda’s name was proposed for the post. K. Chandrashekhara Rao, Telangana chief minister, wanted to play king maker well before there was a glimpse of the kingdom. And then there was Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, originator of the national alliance idea, who tirelessly toured the country on his mission. It was as if they had all drunk the Kool-aid they had planned to offer the voter. On counting day Naidu watched his Telugu Desam Party lose all the state’s 25 Lok Sabha seats, humiliated by Jaganmohan Reddy, son of his old nemesis, who rubbed it in by sweeping the state assembly for good measure.

The hangover from this rout is bound to be severe but the lesson has not registered. Mayawati reacted by blaming it all on the voting machines and the Election Commission. Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress president but his party’s working committee rejected it and even thanked him for his leadership. Do these people even understand the nature of the challenge they face?

BJP’s Hindutva agenda has trumped every other programme. It may be nasty, nativist, intolerant, and demonise non-Hindus, especially Muslims, but a large number of people endorse it. Moreover, it is pitched by the country’s most trusted leader, Narendra Modi, selfless toiler for the nation. That is his brand and it is a smashing success. The trust that he enjoys despite one indifferent economic term is astounding, given that one of his most touted programmes, demonetisation, was an abysmal failure poorly covered up by shifting justifications for the exercise. Against this level of public confidence the regional and caste appeal of a party like Samajwadi Party had no chance when you add BJP’s overarching vision (“Congress + Cow”, as Arun Shourie said) when backed by a devoted, country-wide cadre.

In a post-victory speech, the Prime Minister expressed his regret that Muslims lived in fear and pleaded for efforts to calm their anxieties. He seemed unaware that their plight is the result of vigilante violence and hate speech by leaders like UP chief minister Adityanath.

The BSP had a much larger vision for Dalits nationwide, but Mayawati’s stewardship has seen it languish in UP and become a vehicle for her personal ambitions. Her core support may be intact but she has no ideas about or interest in the wider future. She says nothing about the way forward across India. Like the Yadav leaders, Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh, who failed to weld the backward castes into a durable and cohesive constituency she too has proved incapable of forging a common platform for Dalits. Against BJP’s logistical nous and emotional appeal these and other regional parties will find themselves outflanked. West Bengal is the obvious example.

As for the Congress, it shrinks with each election even as it persists with the delusion that it is indispensable. Moreover, it takes no measure to overhaul the organisation, all but absent in most states. It is now paying the cost of outsourcing its electoral effort through alliance as the cadres drift away along with potential leaders. This process has reduced the party to a hollow shell, with placemen pretending to be leaders, only to be found out every electoral season. The formula for revival is simple and almost impossibly hard. It has to rebuild its ground game from scratch. Before all the fine words, soaring philosophy and eloquent manifestos the party worker and regional leader have to be in place. The finest sentiments in the world will fail to move if there is no one to deliver them.

In a post-victory speech to the NDA, the Prime Minister expressed his regret that Muslims lived in fear and pleaded for efforts to calm their anxieties. He seemed unaware that their plight is the result of vigilante violence and hate speech by leaders like UP chief minister Adityanath who described Muslims as an infection. And he is just one among a group of saffron fire-eaters who have created an environment in which every Muslim is a potential traitor. It also rules out rational discussion.

Modi is asking for a reversal of the course that brought his party so many victories and which he indirectly endorsed through his diplomatic silences. The programme seems to have been bought in its entirety by young voters, making any chance of a more nuanced understanding of minority sentiment unlikely for a long time to come. It is impossible to say if he is serious but it does not really matter. There is no one left to challenge him on this or any other subject. Perhaps this is one of the necessary hypocrisies of leadership.