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Opinion | Seven ways to unpack Modi’s handsome victory

The story of Modi’s rise and rise cannot be told without chronicling the abject failure of the Congress and the complacency of its leadership. Even in the three states it won in the December assembly elections, the party was unable to consolidate its position

columns Updated: May 24, 2019 13:54 IST
Election 2019,Lok Sabha election,Lok Sabha election 2019
BJP workers celebrate the party's lead on the counting day of 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Varanasi, May 23, 2019(Rajesh Kumar / Hindustan Times)

I always believed Narendra Modi would be prime minister again and wrote as much in the pages of this newspaper last week. But, as in 2014, I was wrong — as was nearly the entire journalistic fraternity — in reading the scale of the victory and the gigantic groundswell of support.

I called it the “Lekin Aur Kaun Hai Election” because most voters I met in the course of my travels asked me: “Who else is there?” But this was clearly much more than a TINA vote; it really was the #AayegaToModiHi Election, a more than enthusiastic endorsement of Modi as prime minister.

Here are seven ways to unpack Modi’s handsome victory.

There is a genuine hunger among people for visible and assertive leadership. Pundits can call this the Americanisation of a parliamentary democracy and the morphing of a complex election into a referendum on one individual. But that is just semantics. Many voters I met referred to the prime minister as mazboot or strong. The Balakot strike may not have had as enormous an impact as everyone thought. But it subliminally reinforced the image of Modi as an authoritative persona who is unafraid of risk. People clearly like that. The absence of any prime ministerial candidate on the other side only reinforced the status of Modi as being above the fray.

Political liberals were unable to claim nationalism and ceded it entirely to the BJP. When asked about what will swing their vote, Indians may not list nationalism as a concrete and easily definable issue. But it is quite evident that a vote for Modi was also seen as a vote for India in whatever amorphous and subjective way different individuals may have defined that for themselves. While the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)’s “tukde tukde” barbs and calling fellow citizens “anti-national” are unfortunate vitriol, the failure of competing parties to offer their own construct of patriotism played a part in framing the narrative of this election.

Anti-Modism and caste arithmetic miserably failed to stop the BJP juggernaut. There could not have been a more perfect alliance in terms of numbers than the gathbandhan (alliance) in Uttar Pradesh. But the results show us that Modi has beaten maths and transcended caste politics. And it is not just upper caste consolidation of the Hindu vote. A closer reading of the data shows us that in reserved constituencies, the BJP has done hugely better than other parties, taking the lead in 67% of the SC/ST seats. Of course we need more details to know what percentage of Dalits and Adivasis in these constituencies voted for him. But it does show Modi’s expanding appeal across caste groups.

Political Hinduism is now a reality. This was true not just for Bengal where the BJP set out to woo the cultural Hindu into making his politics an extension of his identity, but across large swathes of west and north India as well. Effective political communication was able to weld nationalism with Hindutva in a way that made the Hindu majority believe it was discriminated against, and here finally was the party ready to call it out.

The macro challenges with the Indian economy — the furore over the jobs data, the measurement of GDP data, the hiccups with the GST roll out and, of course, demonetisation — were all offset by the microeconomic welfare policies of the government. Even where there were some complaints about delivery, voters in the heartland routinely mentioned Rs 2,000 in their bank account received under PM-Kisan or a loan they’d managed to secure to build a pucca house or a toilet in the village or the gas subsidy scheme. In fact in my conversations with voters across the Hindi heartland, all of these were listed as reasons to vote for Modi well ahead of either Balakot or Hindutva.

A pushback against elitism and entitlement was a trope of the BJP’s 2014 campaign when Modi presented himself as the self-made man, the poor tea vendor’s son in contrast to the silver-spooned pedigree of the Gandhi family. The perception of the prime minister as a political outsider to the capital’s privileged elite continued as a successful theme in this campaign too. You may think it’s too abstract a concept to really impact votes. But even if voters did not use the words I do, the phenomenon they would describe was similar. The image of Modi as a spartan bachelor who had no children or family to distract him from his 24/7 job as a politician stood in stark contrast to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, whose children and husband joined her on the campaign trail. A number of voters believe that, unlike the Congress, Modi has no “family” to bequeath wealth or power to.

The story of Modi’s rise and rise cannot be told without chronicling the abject failure of the Congress and the complacency of its leadership. Even in the three states it won in the December assembly elections, the party was unable to consolidate its position. A party that is entirely dependent on one family has a structural crisis. And when even those leaders are unable to deliver, the Congress needs to ask itself some existential questions. Otherwise, Yogendra Yadav’s words demanding that the Congress needs to die may prove to have been rather prophetic.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 23, 2019 22:32 IST