Following the BJP’s landslide election victory, Sudha Ramachandran highlights the importance of building a strong, inclusive India
With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning a landslide victory in India’s 17th general election, Narendra Modi has secured another five-year-term at the helm as India’s prime minister. Although the number of seats the BJP won is not as large as that secured by the Indian National Congress in the 1984 general election, when it bagged 415 seats thanks to a sympathy wave on account of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the BJP’s victory in the just-concluded election is unprecedented in India’s electoral history. Not only has it won a second consecutive majority on its own steam – that is, without the support of its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) –but it has also improved upon its 2014 performance.
That year, the BJP won 282 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament. In the recent election, the party won 303 seats and, together with its NDA partners, will occupy 351 seats in the new Lok Sabha. The BJP garnered 37.4 per cent of the vote.
While it is in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan that the BJP picked up most of its seats, it made major inroads this time in eastern India as well. West Bengal, for instance, had only two BJP members in the outgoing parliament yet the BJP managed to win 18 of the 42 constituencies in the state. In the process, it has emerged the key challenger of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, displacing both the Communists and the Congress Party in the state.
Southern India, however, continues to elude the BJP. But for its strong performance in the state of Karnataka, where it scooped up 26 of the 28 seats, South India remained unimpressed by the BJP. Of the 91 seats in the four southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the BJP won just four.
In 2014, a strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the corruption-tainted Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government brought the BJP to power. In that election several voters said they didnot support Modi or his politics but voted for the corruption-free governance and rapid economic growth that he promised to bring.
This time, the election was about Modi. Voters said they needed to decide whether they wanted to give him another term or not. As the results indicate, their response was an overwhelming and unambiguous ‘yes.’
Political parties and politicians seeking another term in office usually suffer on account of anti-incumbency. Modi should have faced some anti-incumbent feeling, given that neither the Indian economy nor social relations did well under his leadership. According to leaked government data, India’s unemployment rate stood at a 45-year-high of 6.1 per cent in 2017-18, compared to just 2.2 per cent in 2011-12. Farm incomes nose-dived, as did industrial production. Many Indians were hit hard by demonetisation and a poorly designed and implemented uniform sales tax brought much hardship to ordinary Indians. Besides, violence against Muslims soared as lynch mobs with links to the BJP attacked Muslim cattle owners in the name of cow protection. Critics of the government were labelled ‘anti-national’ and even jailed.
However, none of these issues seems to have mattered to voters.
It may be recalled that in December 2018, the Congress defeated the BJP in elections to state assemblies in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. This was seen to be indicative of brewing mass discontent with the BJP’s economic policies. However, almost six months later, even these states fell to the Modi wave.
A surge in muscular nationalism in the run-up to the general elections, which Modi skilfully stoked, provided a shot in the arm to the BJP’s electoral prospects. In the wake of a Jaish-e-Mohammad suicide attack targeting a Central Reserve Police Force convoyat Pulwama in Kashmir, Modi promised a ‘fitting, jaw-breaking response’.That response came less than a fortnight after the Pulwamaattack, when the Indian Air Force bombarded a JeM training camp at Balakot deep inside Pakistan.
Thereafter, Modi focused on national security. He politically appropriated the Indian military for the election campaign. BJP posters displayed images of its candidates in Indian military uniforms and referred to the Indian armed forces as Modi’s sena (army).The message that the BJP hammered across India was that India’s national security was safe in Modi’s hands and that he is the only leader capable of defeating terrorism.
Once national security and belligerent nationalism became the BJP’s campaign agenda, the opposition’sattempts to focus voter attention on the BJP’s unfulfilled economic promises, the agrarian crisis, unemployment, etceteradidn’t stand a chance. Modi’s extremely well-funded campaign drowned out what opposition leaders were trying to say.
In addition, the BJP’s campaign benefited enormously from a friendly Election Commission, which repeatedly refrained from hauling the party up for its flagrant violation of election rules.
A divided opposition facilitated the BJP landslide further. There were far too many prime ministerial aspirants in the opposition. Consequently, they could not work together. They lacked the organisational efficiency of the BJP and were in a state of disarray throughout, unable to reach agreement on seat-sharing. Their biggest failure, however, was their inability to put before the people of India an alternate vision for the country, one that was different from the BJP’s Hindutva-driven one.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s election campaign was far more energetic this time than it was in 2014. However, his obsessive focus on the Modi government’s alleged corruption in the Rafale aircraft deal and his repeated chanting of the ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ slogan did not strike a chord with the masses, especially since they saw Modi as an ‘honest strongman’ who made them feel secure.
Besides, although the Congress’ election manifesto was far superior to that of the BJP, its contents were not communicated effectively to the masses. Its NYAY anti-poverty scheme, for instance, was a topic of discussion only among economists. It never went beyond this select group to fire the hopes of millions of marginalised Indians. Not surprisingly, it failed to translate into votes for the Congress, which consequently won just 52 seats, eight more than in 2014.
Some will argue that the BJP’s emphatic victory will provide India with political stability, but others would argue differently. Already, BJP leaders are working towards challenging governments in opposition-ruled states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, where the Congress has wafer-thin majorities.
West Bengal is likely to be another area of conflict between the Trinamool Congress government and the BJP. As a statesman and the leader of India, Modi will have to handle adroitly conflicts along political and religious lines, rising above them for the good of all.
There are also fears among the opposition that the Modi government will make unwelcome changes to the Indian Constitution. Will secularism survive?It is vital that India’s minorities are taken care ofand feel safe under Modi’s leadership,as the prime minister said himself in his first post-victory speech.Social polarisation must not be allowed to grow.
There are fears, too, that Article 370 of the Constitution, which grants Jammu and Kashmir special status in India, will be abrogated. Such abrogation would creation alienation and militancy in Kashmir, and serve as a fillip to Pakistan. There is also talk of the Modi government taking forward the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Northeast, which needs to be considered long and wisely.
Building a strong India has always been a priority of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. However, a strong India will be possible only if it is an inclusive India. History provides us with countless examples of social polarisation and internal conflicts culminating in the collapse of kingdoms and empires.