At one moment during the counting of votes on Friday morning, when the Bharatiya Janata Party’s tally of leads kept rising and the Congress’s kept nose-diving, it seemed to reach the point in a boxing bout when the referee is forced to stop the fight because further blows could jeopardise one fighter’s health and maybe even his life.
In the end, the BJP managed to not just knock out its opponent by winning on its own a phenomenal number of seats but also restrict the Congress to a level where it may be ineligible to be recognised even as the lead opposition party in Parliament.
This election will be memorable for the manner in which the BJP fought it: it projected Narendra Modi as a single leader; it launched a well-funded and tech-savvy campaign early; it struck a chord with a message that cut across different segments among voters — first-timers, men, women, urban and rural; and it succeeded in expanding the BJP’s footprint across regions, classes and communities.
This election also changed the paradigm of how political parties leverage class identity. For two decades, Mandal-era politicians, resting on their core OBC base, decisively defeated those associated with the Hindutva agenda. But this time, there was a pan-Hindu consolidation, across caste lines, especially in North India. Yet it wasn’t a mandate where religion alone overpowered caste. The BJP’s stunning victory also shows how voters have chosen as individuals and not as members of narrowly defined social groups. Modi’s message of governance and development has worked with an electorate that is younger, more urbanised, educated, and with big hopes and dreams.
As for the Congress, it can blame many factors for its decimation. For one, it made the blunder of not fighting by the new rules set by its challenger: it chose not to field a prime ministerial candidate; its star campaigner, Rahul Gandhi, appeared hesitant and devoid of any vision or a cogent agenda for the future; it fought a campaign using outdated methods; and targeted Modi and the BJP by repeatedly raising the bogey of communalism, which clearly didn’t work with today’s voters.
The Congress’s defeat is also owed to the brand of governance the UPA pursued in the past five years during which the focus on economic reforms got diffused and the emphasis on social sector giveaways grew stronger.
In some ways, this strategy led to out-of-control government spending that eventually resulted in stubbornly high inflation, which actually hurt the poor — the very section that the UPA’s schemes had sought to help in the first place.
What is more, in 2009, of the 262 seats that the Congress-led coalition won, 115 were from urban constituencies, a growing swathe of the middle-class electorate that it all but forgot about during its years in power. A memory lapse that has cost it dear.