Rahul Gandhi’s letter highlights incorrect diagnosis of ’19 results | Analysis
A pro-incumbency and personality-centric mandate for the BJP calls for a serious analysis of the 2019 verdict at many levels.
It is now six weeks since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pulled off a historic victory in the general elections. The Congress, in contrast, almost repeated its underwhelming performance of 2014, winning just 52 Lok Sabha seats against the BJP’s tally of 303.
The 2019 results are far more significant than the BJP’s 2014 victory. This is because they point towards a decisive pro-BJP shift in India’s polity. Had the BJP suffered reverses in these elections, the 2014 mandate could have been dismissed as an aberration. That the BJP has not only repeated its 2014 performance, but improved upon it, shows a clear ideological traction for its politics.
The 2019 rout of the Congress is also slightly more intriguing than its 2014 defeat. The party did not face anti-incumbency this time like it did in 2014. The loss came within months of Congress victories in the heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in direct fights against BJP. That the BJP bounced back from its defeats, including in the heartland states, suggests that the electorate treated Narendra Modi’s candidature for the prime minister’s post differently than that of BJP’s chief ministers in these states. Such differential treatment is not very common in India’s political history. An analysis published in HT by Gilles Verniers from Ashoka University shows that out of the 23 pairs of state and Lok Sabha elections held within less than a year since 1988, the party that won the state election went on to win the Lok Sabha election 80% of the times.
A pro-incumbency and personality-centric mandate for the BJP calls for a serious analysis of the 2019 verdict at many levels. Most politicians from the opposition have not bothered to do this until now. Rahul Gandhi, who has quit as the president of the Congress party, is an exception. A four-page letter released by Gandhi on 3 July, gives a glimpse of his interpretation of the 2019 verdict. He has attributed the BJP’s victory to institutional capture by the (BJP) government and poor organisational effort by the Congress, without acknowledging any need to rethink the politics of the Congress (especially between 2014 and 2019).
The letter says that the BJP ought to be opposed because its Idea of India is at odds with the “compassionate idea which permeates the hearts of millions and millions of my beloved fellow (Indian) citizens”. Gandhi’s claim of BJP’s Idea of India being at odds with so many Indians is not based on a widespread survey of how India feels. Back-to-back victories in 2014 and 2019 show that there’s actual political traction for the BJP’s ideology in the country. The party’s 2019 vote share was 37% overall (and a higher 46% in the 436 seats it contested).
Gandhi also hints at the organisational lacunae in the Congress’s effort and lack of a level playing field in the elections. “I personally fought the Prime Minister, the RSS and the institutions they have captured with all my being... At times, I stood completely alone and I am extremely proud of it,” he writes. Gandhi does not stop here. He goes on: “We did not fight a political party in the 2019 election. Rather we fought the entire machinery of the Indian state, every opposition of which was marshalled against the opposition. It is now crystal clear that our once cherished institutional neutrality no longer exists in India”.
Gandhi’s diagnosis about the causes for the BJP’s victory, if the Congress party were to accept it, will chart a definite path of what it ought to do to counter the BJP. It’ll basically require doing more of what the Congress, or perhaps Rahul Gandhi, has been doing all along — with a greater focus on trying to convince the voters that elections are no longer fair in India. Will it work?
The accusation about elections not being fair is extremely important, but, unless the Congress approaches the courts to pinpoint exact malpractices in the conduct of elections, it cannot be taken seriously. The fact that the same Congress organisation achieved very different results in pre-2019 assembly elections and the 2019 general elections, would suggest that politics rather than organisational effort is at the core of the Congress’s predicament.
While it is tempting to do a short-term analysis of the 2019 results, the continuity in BJP’s performance in the 2014 and 2019 elections merits a long-term view of the BJP’s political rise.
One set of statistics is revealing here. Ever since 1984, the first election contested by the BJP, the Congress has always contested more seats than the BJP. This was not the case in the 2019 polls, when the BJP contested 436 parliamentary constituencies (PCs) compared to the 421 contested by the Congress. The change is symptomatic of the BJP now has a bigger political footprint than the Congress. The BJP’s parliamentary constituency (PC) wise median vote share in 2019 is 21 percentage points more than that of the Congress. The median vote comparison at the PC level is important because it is a better indicator of a party’s performance across seats than a simple average, which can be influenced by good showing in some of the contested seats. The BJP did not acquire this dominance vis-à-vis the Congress in a day. This can be seen from a comparison of PC wise median votes of the Congress and the BJP since 1984.
Any analysis of the political dominance enjoyed by the BJP today has to deal with this long-term rise in the BJP’s political stature. If there is one thing which stands out in the BJP’s post-2014 performance compared to earlier, it is the absence of Muslims in its ranks, especially in terms of electoral politics. Both in 2014 and 2019, the BJP did not even have one Muslim Lok Sabha MP. This suggests that the BJP’s political rise is based on a strategy that is actually indifferent to the Muslim vote. Even in terms of Lok Sabha candidates, the BJP gives far less representation to Muslims (less than 2% except in 2004) than the Congress.
This has led to an unprecedented Hindu consolidation behind the BJP and its allies. Data from the post-poll survey conducted by CSDS-Lokniti shows that the BJP actually increased its already high support among Hindus between 2014 and 2019. The BJP’s growth among Hindus also transcends caste boundaries, the data shows. While there was a reverse consolidation of minorities behind the Congress and other opposition parties, it was clearly not enough to prevent a big BJP victory. The Hindus after all account for more than three-fourth of India’s population.
Any political strategy which tries to reverse the BJP’s rise has to usurp a part of the Hindu vote bank of the BJP. While economic factors can play a role in this, this will have to include a direct confrontation with the BJP’s Hindu consolidation agenda.
To be sure, the Congress and Rahul Gandhi did try to counter this politics by making a spectacle out of temple visits etc. This was clearly not enough. Where the BJP trumped such soft-Hindutva politics was in its anti-Muslim rhetoric, which the Congress and other opposition parties could not have indulged in. For instance, it attacked Rahul Gandhi for contesting from a Muslim majority seat (Wayanad), accused the Congress of being pro-Pakistan in dealing with cross-border terror and the Kashmir issue, and promised National Register of Citizens across the country to identify illegal (Muslim) immigrants even as it assured citizenship to persecuted (Hindu) minorities in India’s neighbouring countries.
Is the (Hindu) electorate or at least a large part of it rewarding the BJP for championing such a politics? Have many Hindu voters become active stakeholders in a politics which has anti-Muslim rhetoric as one of its elements? Those are key questions that need to be answered. Like Gandhi himself writes in his letter, the conflict between a religion-based approach to politics and one which does not make religion the basis of exclusion is not new in India. India after all, has a history of being partitioned on religious lines. It was the Congress under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru after independence, which played a key role in ensuring that religion did not become a driving factor of the Indian state.
The concept of hegemony, developed by a 20th century Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci may be useful in understanding how the Congress achieved this despite significant heterogeneity within its ranks, which also included pro-Hindutva leadership. Gramsci describes hegemony as the cultural, moral and ideological leadership of a group over society. The Congress, especially under Jawaharlal Nehru, had a hegemonic influence over politics in the post-independence period, partly a result of its leadership in the freedom struggle.
This hegemony was weakened gradually, first at the regional level and later at the national level. A complex set of social, political and economic factors have contributed to this. That the Congress has not been able to secure a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha since 1984 underlines this fact. The BJP did not become the immediate beneficiary of the weakening of Congress hegemony. How could the BJP and its larger political project of giving primacy to Hindutva bounce back after such a long time?
Here too, Gramsci is useful. He makes a distinction between what he calls a political struggle and military war. Unlike in a military war, where “destruction of the enemy’s army and occupation of his territory” leads to peace, political struggle is “enormously more complex” and comparable to colonial wars where even after “the defeated army is disarmed and dispersed”, the “struggle continues on the terrain of politics and military preparation”. Interestingly, Gramsci cited the example of the Indian freedom struggle to describe three kinds of political struggles. Gandhiji’s passive resistance was described as a war of position; his agitations against the British government were a war of movement; and secret preparation of weapons and combat troops was described as underground warfare.
It is not very difficult to think of the successful evolution of Hindutva politics under the RSS-BJP in Gramscian terms. In the four-five decades after independence, when the RSS and its political arms, the BJP and its predecessor Jan Sangh, were in no state to challenge the dominant Congress, they relied on both war of position (such as holding regular shakhas to propagate their ideology) and war of movement (such as the Ram temple agitation, which culminated with the demolition of the Babri Masjid). If the bans imposed on the RSS in the past are any indications, one cannot rule out underground warfare as well. It is these struggles which have formed the basis of the political hegemony which the BJP and its ideological fellow travellers are beginning to enjoy in India.
What does the discussion so far tell us about the future of anti-BJP politics in India? Like Gramsci tells us, political struggle is permanent in nature. It is up to the Congress and other anti-BJP forces to decide whether and how they plan to intensify these struggles, especially against the BJP’s Hindu consolidation plank in the days to come. What is not going to work for sure is a hope that just waxing eloquent against the BJP’s Idea of India is going restore status quo ante.
“All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals,” Gramsci wrote. Unless Rahul Gandhi and his peers in the opposition plan a long drawn struggle against the hegemonic project of the RSS-BJP, which challenges the BJP’s strategy of consolidating Hindus, and wage not just a war of position but also a war of movement, their assertions of the BJP’s Idea of India being at odds with Indians are bound to remain just assertions.