Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow is the title of a kung fu flick that ran and ran in Indian theatres back when films needed staying power to succeed. The movie came to mind after the Congress bested the Bharatiya Janata Party in three major state elections in December. Looking ahead to the larger battle of 2019, one can ask a question that would have seemed absurd just a year ago: will the snake find itself in the monkey’s shadow again?

At two points in the chop-sockey classic, a defeated fighter tells his opponent, “You better finish me off now, or you will regret it.” The brash victor lets the loser go, confident of winning in any future contest. The vanquished man learns from the defeat, acquiring partners or modifying his style of kung fu to gain an advantage in the next clash.

Something similar happened in Indian politics in the last decade. The Congress could have crushed Narendra Modi for good if it had seriously pursued justice for victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots after it came to power in 2004. Afraid of alienating sections of its Hindu constituency, the party let him off easily, considering him too weakened to play a national role. Modi, in turn, could have driven home his advantage in 2014 by pursuing credible charges of corruption against the Congress, including its first family. Instead, he honoured the traditional pact between major parties, which has kept the most powerful Indian political figures out of prison, unlike the Asif Zardaris, Nawaz Sharifs and Khaleda Zias of the neighbourhood. Confident he could wipe out a Pappu-led Congress through the ballot box, Modi saved his allegations for public rallies rather than the courts. The monkey, however, proved unexpectedly resilient, and the desperate snake now piles on extraditions and chargesheets that might be too little, too late.

India's political moves mirrored in the story line of a kung fu movie? (Credit: via YouTube)

Power shift

For three years after 2014, it felt like Modi had made the correct choice by going easy on the Gandhis, just as it seemed, after the Congress increased its seat count in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, that treating Modi with kid gloves had been the correct political strategy. In most state elections after 2014, the BJP defended its own strongholds while overrunning Congress bastions. Even when the Congress managed to claim more seats, as happened in Goa, the BJP cobbled together a majority by making small parties and independents offers they couldn’t refuse. Under Amit Shah’s guidance, the party made inroads in the North East in states where it had been a marginal presence. The snake was confirming its reputation as the craftiest beast of them all.

When the BJP became the single largest party in Karnataka in mid-2018, the fact that it had fallen short of a majority appeared irrelevant, since it was bound to break the Opposition and claim power in combination with a faction. Instead, it got outmanoeuvred by the Congress for the first time in years, and the tide turned. It ebbed further after the December setbacks in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Dragon Warrior

The final configuration in 2019 now appears a matter of finding the right partners. Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow shows the exponent of the snake style allying with a clan specialising in the tiger claw system. It is imperative that the BJP fight alongside the Shiv Sena in the next election, but the tiger isn’t making things easy. The BJP could have ruled Maharashtra without the Sena after 2014, but offered its old associate a share of power. Perhaps Narendra Modi thought of Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray as United States President Richard Nixon had of Federal Bureau of Investigation director J Edgar Hoover, that it was better to have him inside the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in. Thackeray, however, has spent his time aiming straight at the Centre. The tiger technique needs to work perfectly six months hence for the ordeal to have been worthwhile.

The BJP has also patched up with that master of the Drunken style, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who, swaying this way and that as if inebriated, has stayed in power for 13 years. To counter the snake, tiger and drunken master, the monkey needs all the help it can get. It must convince the mantis, the crane, and the leopard, at the very least, to join its cause. The final fate of the combatants, however, lies in the hands of the Dragon Warrior.

Po receives the Dragon Scroll in a scene from Kung Fu Panda. (Credit: via YouTube)

Although mixing kung fu movies might be a crime worse than mixing metaphors, we find ourselves in a different film. It is about a panda named Po who is a martial arts fanboy. Thrust unexpectedly into a fighting part, he seeks the secret to winning in a document called the Dragon Scroll. But the scroll turns out to be blank, showing Po only his own reflection. The secret is that there is no secret, being special is merely a matter of belief. That isn’t true, but it’s a wonderful delusion, and one the Indian voter will gladly accept along with the Dragon Warrior’s role in 2019. The ballot is the Dragon Scroll, reflecting the voter, turning the ordinary into the special. Whether the monkey wins or the snake or someone else altogether, they will all claim the true victor is the Dragon Warrior.