Review: 2019: How Modi Won India by Rajdeep Sardesai
Rajdeep Sardesai, among the pioneers of Indian news television, has an important skill in these politically polarised times. He can make a distinction between his political opinion — based on his world view and his ideological beliefs — and his political analysis — based on his ground reportage and the reading of larger political trends and public sentiment.
Sardesai’s own politics is liberal and moderate; he is a critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Hindutva world view. But this does not prevent him from recognising the underlying strengths of the party and its leadership. It is this ability to distinguish between his desire for what ought to be, the normative, with what is, the empirical, which made Sardesai one of the few journalists to have anticipated not just the fact that Narendra Modi would return to power in 2019, but also correctly assess the scale of his victory.
Sardesai has two other assets. The first is access. Decades in Delhi’s political journalism circuit has ensured he has a range of relationships across the spectrum, except perhaps with the top most leadership of the BJP in current times. He also continues to be a reporter, rather than just an anchor, travelling to the ground during elections, which has kept his instinct sharp.
It is this set of skills — access, ground reportage, sound analysis, and a sharp political sense — which Sardesai has deployed to put together his latest work, 2019: How Modi Won India.
The book is simple — and quite effective — in its argument and structure. And for those who closely followed the election, there is a lot which is familiar.
Sardesai documents how this was a truly TIMO — There Is Modi Only — election. This is true. For voters, the issue of national leadership was the leading concern. And the BJP made it clear in its campaign that the vote was for the leader. If it had depended on local candidates, it may — and this is speculative — have probably won half the seats it did. The Opposition just did not have anyone who could match Modi in the public imagination. Voters saw in the PM a Hindu leader, or a man committed to India’s development, or a messiah for the poor, or a nationalist securing India against enemies, or all of the above. More than in 2014, this election was truly presidential in nature. It exposed the limits of the Congress strategy of turning it into 543 local contests. And if the current trend holds, the Opposition may well have to think whether it can present a single, credible face for 2024, and build the person’s image accordingly.
The second element in the BJP’s winning arsenal was the election machine created by Amit Shah. The book conveys Shah’s ideological clarity, his organisational skills, his ability to work hard, and, through brief interactions that Sardesai had with him on either social occasions or in Parliament, Shah’s own views on particular issues or personal interests. There is little doubt that under Shah, the BJP became what I have called India’s greatest election machine. Through membership drives, a database of its members and supporters, constant campaigns, and a robust structure down to the booth and even the level of electoral roll pages, the BJP was able to take its brand and message down to the roots. Shah also succeeded in geographically expanding the party’s footprint, especially in West Bengal.
All of this, of course, costs money. Sardesai makes the point that BJP was the richest party, by a stretch, in the elections. But the issue merited more detailed treatment. Recent reports on the electoral bonds have shown that processes may have been subverted to institute a system which has substantially benefited the BJP. It would be a mistake to overstate the role of money in BJP’s win; it would be just as much of a mistake to understate it.
The other key ingredient of the BJP’s 2019 success was the role of the government’s welfare delivery schemes. From gas cylinders to toilets, rural housing to bank accounts, the Modi government not only delivered benefits, but made it known that it had done so.
This was combined with what Sardesai calls the rise of the political Hindu. The BJP’s campaign has been focused on consolidating both a majority and a majoritarian identity. This helps it unite Hindus — the goal of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — and overcome caste divisions. This has often taken the form of excluding, and even rhetorically targeting Muslims. The ongoing Delhi election campaign is a reflection of the BJP’s shrill polarisation strategy. The discredited politics of secularism of the past, where parties merely treated minority groups as vote banks, did create grounds for this backlash. But the BJP’s ideological commitment to remaking the state on Hindutva lines is quite deep and goes beyond elections. This has been visible in the past nine months, with the government using its electoral mandate to push changes in Jammu and Kashmir and amend the Citizenship Act.
The BJP, then, benefited from the nationalist mood. The killing of paramilitary personnel in Pulwama had created national horror. The PM told the national security apparatus that he wanted visible action. With the air strike in Balakot, the party machine went into an overdrive — to portray Modi as the only leader capable of defending India’s interests and teaching Pakistan a lesson. The BJP may still have won in 2019, but Balakot did enthuse the cadre and provide a bump.
But to take this message down to each polling booth and voter, the machine and the brand needed an additional ally: the media. Sardesai has invested considerable space in examining the compromised nature of the media, particularly sections of the electronic media, which have been more than cheerleaders for the regime in power. In addition, the BJP astutely used the deepening penetration of the mobile phone to reach voters directly, particularly through WhatsApp and other forms of social media.
Put it all together — Modi, the election machine, resources, welfare, nationalism, Hindutva mobilisation, and the use of the media and mobile — and it is not a surprise that the BJP did as well as it did in the 2019 election. Sardesai’s work is a competent examination of these, and other, ingredients. Perhaps he needs to now shift focus, from examining how the BJP wins to how the BJP governs, for that will now determine the trajectory of the Republic.