The astonishing victory of Narendra Modi in UP elections is similar to what the Israelis in 1977 referred alternately to as the upheaval or earthquake. This was when Menachem Begin, the conservative Likud leader and former leader of the Irgun underground organisation, did the unthinkable by winning the national election, defeating the Labour-led establishment that ruled the country since 1948.
Modi’s victory indeed transforms India’s political landscape. BJP’s dominance is now a fact of India’s political life that everyone has to get used to. The party, with the means at its disposal, looks incapable of losing any state in the Hindi heartland. That should assure its hold on power for the foreseeable future.
The thing that will worry Modi’s opponents is that he has appeared to have cracked the code of securing enough support to repeatedly win elections. Nothing seems to have fazed him: the upheaval of demonetisation, the jobs that are yet to materialise, the education and skill levels that haven’t picked up for millions of unemployed youth, the backlash from Dalits following the flogging incident at Una or the death of Rohith Vemula, the focused minds of Muslims to vote strategically and so on. Modi has overcome these apparently through policy measures like gas connections to the poor, the force of celebrity, the projection of strength, the repeated messaging that conveyed that he is in charge of the public’s future. Through sheer visibility he created a unified experience of expectation, his rhetoric skilfully pegged to their levels of deprivation and prejudice, his ubiquity overwhelming the scope to scrutinise his record. Of course, he has the advantage of being backed by a formidable political machine with networks on the ground to get its caste arithmetic right and a war chest no peer can match. Anecdotally, he even turned the drudgery of demonetisation into a moral experience for millions that validated him all the more.
The measure of a political victory lies in the psychological effects it has on its opponents and how it will structurally undermine them.
The Congress is held together by the glue of the Gandhi family’s visibility, which currently seems to have little traction in the Indian political system. The accident of birth forced Rahul Gandhi into politics and he has rhetorically cultivated himself to be the inclusive figure that is consistent with India’s diversity. But the baggage of his party’s record and its delayed organisational revamp make it difficult to discern what social forces it represents – and that lack of clarity weakens its brand further and sets the stage for opportunists to desert it. The election results also knock the wind out of the Aam Aadmi Party’s sails. Bureaucrats and police officials will fall even more resolutely in line. India now appears to be Modi’s theatre to create what he wills.
Liberals have a lot to despair about this victory. They anticipate the “creeping authoritarianism” to accelerate, having seen literary, artistic and academic freedoms forcibly stifled, personal choices policed, universities bullied by student groups, law enforcement being weak and public institutions in steady decline. Right now those concerns seems less relevant to those who simply want to get ahead.
What next for India? The BJP has achieved dominance but will India be stable? That depends on how the party chooses to govern. Will it continue to be in campaign mode seeking to conquer all or will it pause, content and assured that it can win UP in 2019? Will it, beyond occasional inclusive rhetoric, be willing to experiment with less polarisation and forge a larger coalition through expansive spending, a gentler approach to minorities and judicious patron-client processes that could be politically profitable too? That’s what a party achieving dominance should do, in theory.
It’s a puzzle the BJP needs to resolve. There’s little indication so far that it would let up on its ideological ambitions, from recasting history in schools and universities, to controlling women, disciplining Kashmir and representing Muslims negatively to consolidate Hindu identity. The BJP may not have the stomach to change course as it would entail scaling back aggressive hardliners who are already out there shaping the public sphere.
Be that as it may there are good reasons for the BJP to rethink its strategy of aggressive nationalism even in its moment of triumph. Continuing to deploy the same will intensify social ferment, which India does not need more of. Two, Hindutva’s social project may not have the desired outcome for the BJP as various groups, including urban liberals, Dalits, Adivasis and women will continue to resist it. Lastly, it is not easy for a country to economically modernise and aspire for great power status while waging a war against its cosmopolitan intellectuals, who it needs for nation-building. The BJP may fancy replacing the current lot with a new intellectual elite made in its own image but it does not have a ready, credible cohort at hand; developing one takes time and investment in institutions which the government is yet to make.
Bringing down the social temperature is helpful for any country but the BJP is arguably unable to do so since a freer climate emboldens others to question its majoritarian project. India’s culture wars are thus set to continue and consume its energies. With skills, education and jobs falling way behind demand, the risks of the nation turning on itself are great.
(The views expressed are personal)