The scale and depth of the BJP-lead National Democratic Alliance’s victory in the 2019 General Election has taken everyone by surprise. A few outliers (like my own friend Salil Shetty) predicted a narrow defeat, but most observers put the BJP in the 250-seat range, placing their Alliance within touching distance of a majority. No one was prepared for the actual results.
I believe these elections mark a sea-change in the political landscape of India. Very clearly, it appears that the liberal-secular agenda is under threat. But is it really case? I have been doing some reading on this.
First, lets examine the Muslim position. The Indian Muslim elite do not say much. That is perhaps not a good thing in itself. Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) said that the Hindu mind had been rigged against Muslims by the BJP, but that as an Indian and a Muslim, he accepted the verdict and would oppose the government on issues of policy. That’s a fair position given the tone of the campaign from the BJP. But a more informed comment came from across the border in Bangladesh.
Writing in the Dhaka Chronicle, Shafiqur Rehman asks the profound question:
If and when modern humanism and liberalism crashes and burns, will future historians look back and say that Islam was the rock on which it first and decisively broke?
He actually asked this question two years ago in a blog post that I admire for its honesty. He further argues:
By obdurate refusal to accept the fundamental assumptions of post-enlightenment worldview, by obstinate resistance to assimilate with the mainstream when in the minority and by dogged persistence in recreating antediluvian theocracies when in majority, Muslims not only undermined the universal validity of the whole liberal project, but also sowed deep doubts about the liberal project among its previously most faithful adherents.
Is this an issue innate to the religion itself, or is it a failure of Muslims everywhere to adapt? It is true that a right-wing nationalist juggernaut swept everything in its wake away, but is it true that this is a recent phenomenon? Could we say that all of this began in 1991 when the Babri Masjid was destroyed? Again, a different point of view from Vinay Sitaram (who wrote the must-read biography of P V Narasimha Rao).
Hindu nationalism was born exactly 100 years ago. The colonial Government of India’s Act of 1919 allowed for direct (though limited) elections, a first in Indian history. Never before had Indians, as Indians, been able to choose their leaders. In a society composed of individuals with interests, this would have resulted in the ideal of western-style democracy. But in a society composed of groups with identities, the logic of democracy began to be seen through the prism of demographics. For the first time in Indian history, numbers could translate into power.
A remarkable insight, and one that was hidden in plain sight. Universal elections exposed the Hindu faith for what it really was – a majority. Subjugated by Islamic rulers, and then by the British who also demonized their religion as being pagan, backward, worthless and backward – it now had the power to look at itself very differently. It required politicians to unlock that self-image in very different forms. Gandhiji took the soft approach – he took the elite Indian National Congress by the scruff of its posh neck and dragged it into rural India, asking Congressmen to imbibe the spirit of India and infusing in it a basic concern with the reform of Hinduism, and invoking the mythical spirit of Ram Rajya. He sought a modus vivendi with all people of India while retaining his religious affiliation in the most obvious way possible. It was “Vaishnav Jana To” on one hand, and his deep endorsement of the Khilafat movement on the other.
The birth of the Hindu Mahasabha, around the same time, raised the Hindu question but in a wholly different way. It was a response to the aborted Bengal Partition on communal lines in 1905, the Minto-Morley Reforms in 1906 and the formation of the Muslim League. Veer Savarkar raised the question of whether or not Hindus and Muslims could ever co-exist in a single geographical entity. It gave birth to Hindu movements that sat uncomfortably with the secular Independence Movement. The demand for Pakistan in 1940 and Partition gave impetus to the movement, leading ultimately to the assassination of the Mahatma in 1948.
The Hindu project never really died in the aftermath of Partition and the assassination of the Mahatma. It just lay low. So what happened that shifted the momentum towards the BJP? After all, did they not win just two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984? Here’s Shekhar Gupta:
We are marking the end of the Mandal-Mandir politics and the unfolding of the Modi epoch…In 1989 ..the BJP, reduced to two in Lok Sabha by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, had begun to see a chance for a comeback in the last year of his prime ministership. Rajiv confidant and defence minister V.P. Singh had rebelled, and looked the natural leader for an alliance to replace Rajiv….(L K Advani) wanted the BJP to win power on its own. For this, the BJP needed an agenda going beyond the day’s flavour: Defeating “corrupt” Rajiv. He picked up Ayodhya, combining aggressive nationalism with Hindu revival. This was his Mandir doctrine.
The 1989 VP Singh Government was propped up by the BJP. In a desire to create his own vote bank, V P Singh revived and implemented the Mandal Commission Report, expanding reservations to castes not previously included. It sparked off a caste war that continues to this day, while at the same time, Advani opened a fissure between Hindu and Muslim by getting a mob to knock down the Babri Masjid while he toured the interiors of India spreading the message of the temple.
It is Shekhar Gupta’s view that the Mandir vs Mandal war has been settled now.
The 2019 verdict has ended that. To say that Mandir has triumphed Mandal will miss the point. It is more like Mandir, under Modi and Amit Shah, has subsumed Mandal. Helped along by Modi’s rise as India’s first full-term, full-majority OBC prime minister winning a second term, the Mandalite vote-banks are broken. Modi has taken the mantle from both Mandal and Mandir.
In terms of political geology, this isn’t just a tectonic shift, it is a continental collision. How has it come about? What are its consequences? What will it take going ahead to contest it, and invent a new pole in Indian politics?
Caste never really disappears from Indian politics, its roots are too deep and loyalties are too tribal. For now, caste has lost. Here’s Shekhar Gupta again:
Modi and Shah have dared to take the BJP where Advani and his generation had not dreamed. Their Mandir polarisation was read by the heartland voters with their evident sympathy with the upper caste anti-Mandal suicide-burners. Modi and Shah have actively reached out to the OBCs and Dalits. In Uttar Pradesh, they’ve been breaching both Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s vote-banks, diminishing them essentially to single-caste leaders — Jatavs and Yadavs respectively.
The rest are gravitating towards the BJP. Since it already has a Hindu nationalist upper caste vote-bank, these additional numbers give it devastating power. Bihar has been handed over to a non-BJP OBC leader (Nitish Kumar); the leader of a large and powerful Dalit group, Ram Vilas Paswan, has been accommodated. The challenge of Mandal, which kept BJP out of power for almost two of the past three decades, was put to flames in 2019.
What about the man himself? Clearly a force of nature, indefatigable, energetic, imperious and most of all, carries the image of being clean and incorruptible. Listen to Pratap Bhanu Mehta:
Modi deserves his victory. But this is also a moment of dread for Indian democracy. Let us be clear. This is the greatest concentration of power in modern Indian history. Never has a force emerged, not even the Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, where a leader had such unchallenged power in the party, a party organisation this energised, complete control over capital, and a vast set of civil society organisations that are poised for dominance in every institution in every corner of the country. India’s fate is now truly in his hands. This victory puts an imprimatur on the idea that India has given up on the central tenets of its politics. In both its institutional and aesthetic form, this is a victory for electoral Caesarism pure and simple, where the power of every institution, from business to religious institutions, will revolve around one man. In ideological terms, it is a victory for majoritarianism, a desire to openly marginalise minorities and assert the cultural hegemony of Hindutva. In sociological terms, this is yet another blow to those who peddle illusions about the power of caste and regional politics. Those identities are breaking down, and ripe for appropriation for the larger project of Hindutva. It is probably also the case that despite the cult of toxic masculinity that characterises BJP’s ideological discourse, Modi upended the politics of gender in new and creative ways. There are now no barriers to the Hindutva project that we take for granted that emanate from social structure. This is a victory for the politics of unreality. The Modi government has several successes to its credit. It certainly managed to create a sense that some of its schemes touched the lives of more people than ever before. But let us be clear: Modi has not won because of his economic success; he has won despite his economic failures. The economy is tottering at a growth rate that feels closer to four or four-and-a-half per cent. That this election was almost entirely bereft of a serious economic narrative of hope does not portend well. To be fair, the Opposition did not have any eye-catching ideas either. Indian elites are now compensating for a faltering India story, a make believe world where our explanation of our failures is the fragmentation of power. If only we gave one man more power, he would do wonders: Nationalism became a refuge for us, because participating in it seems to vicariously lift us, even though it does not do anything to secure India’s future. This is also, finally, a victory of the politics of fear and hate. In 2014, Modi struck a hopeful chord; perhaps it was easier as an outsider. But this campaign was a relentlessly negative one, full of mendacity and hate. This is not a poison that is easy to roll back.
Perhaps the most telling comment Mehta makes is this:
(Modi) has fully grasped the potential of a dangerous idea in democracy: That even evil that has a whiff of a larger cause about it has the power to move more than civility that is tainted with pettiness.
So that does this mean for Indian politics? Sitapati again:
This creation of a Hindu vote-bank has been a hundred-year project. In order to achieve this, it has been necessary to play up (and in many cases invent) what Hindus have in common. This ranges from common cultural grammar (a taboo against beef, the uniform worship of Lord Ram and now, a common reaction to Pulwama) as well as common loathing of Muslims as the “other”.
And does it mean Indian politics has now been frozen for a period of time? Shekhar Gupta:
Under the BJP’s 303 and 52 of the Congress, are two important numbers. The BJP’s votes have risen to 22.6 crore now from 17.1 crore in 2014. The Congress vote has also risen to 11.86 crore from 10.69 crore. The combined 2014 tally of 27.79 crore between them has now risen to 34.46 crore. In percentage terms, this is 57 per cent of the total vote compared to 50.3 in 2014. The vote Mandalite and other regional forces took away, is gravitating back to national parties. That’s why, you may take the Congress lightly, Modi and Shah won’t.
A new chapter has begun. Hindu Rashtra is here, delivered by the ballot box. Time will tell what it means.
2 thoughts on “Making sense of India 2019 – A Review”
As usual, a scholarly post.
I have a different view on lots of what is stated in this post.
India is changing. Caste, religion, identity, are factors yes, but are fading in the political choices of people. The young are not voting primarily on caste or religion. The electorate is yearning for good clean governance and leaders doing their best, or at least not doing their worst. I believe that’s the primary focus of electoral choice. Modi did not win this election in this manner because of religion alone (it contributed, but I argue far less than what is made out).
The electorate looked at the options. Modi is seen as decisive, well intentioned and not corrupt. There are aspects of him that different people don’t like – authoritarianism, intolerance, etc but the electorate judged that it was willing to live with that in favour of the positive. His track record to many voters is good – many of the pro poor schemes have been well implemented. It looked at the other options – nobody appealed even remotely close to Modi. Hence the choice.
As a justification for this point of view, look at what happened in Odisha in the Assembly elections. For the fourth consecutive time, the electorate plumped for Navin Patnaik – a man who does not speak Odiya. Same logic – decisive, well intentioned, not corrupt. They didn’t vote on caste or religious lines.
The religious factor in Modi’s victory is way overblown in my humble view. He is also being panned for the negativity, way too much. Rahul Gandhi and Mamta, to quote two examples, were worse. The language Mamta has used will make Trump blush. Everybody was alas, horribly negative. But that’s a world wide trend unfortunately – we live in times where being perpetually angry is a justified position to take 😦
Where there are no good choices, the electorate has voted against the worst choice (even if not enamoured by the alternative). I submit that is what has happened in West Bengal. In Tamil Nadu and Andhra, the electorate’s judgement on Modi was not positive. Hence they plumped for the least worst of the regional alternatives (against AIADMK and against TDP).
Modi is still not the most authoriarian of Indian leaders. Indira Gandhi was. But that is the biggest danger , I believe that faces Indian politics (in this I concur with you). Too much power centralised in one individual has rarely done much good anywhere in the world, anytime in history. A big risk the country is taking.
You are right – one of the points I should have mentioned is the amazing maturity of the Indian voter. Good constituency MPs or wannabe MPs have been rewarded. The entitled have lost. Overall, the vote can be interpreted as one for stability. This is far far more mature than what would expect from a relatively poorly educated and economically weak electorate.
I fail to share your view that Caste and Religion are on their way out. The demise of these two antediluvian forces has been pronounced before. I think that thanks to social media, the micro-segmentation of the Indian psyche has resulted in people being more and more conscious of caste identity. It may be entirely anecdotal but I have never seen so many Tamil Brahmins loudly proclaim their caste and question the whole basis of active discrimination against them for 70 years.