What June 4 will tell us about India - Hindustan Times
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What June 4 will tell us about India

May 28, 2024 09:33 PM IST

The verdict will reveal what voters think of Narendra Modi, the depth of a Hindu political identity, and the nature of economic sentiment

On June 4, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may win over 303 seats. It may win between 272 and 303 seats. Or it may dip below the majority mark. No one knows. But examine any of those outcomes with an eye on what Indian voters are telling us about leadership, identity and economy.

Voters queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the sixth phase of voting in India's general election in New Delhi on May 25, 2024. India is voting in seven phases over six weeks to ease the immense logistical burden of staging an election in the world's most populous country. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)(AFP)
Voters queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the sixth phase of voting in India's general election in New Delhi on May 25, 2024. India is voting in seven phases over six weeks to ease the immense logistical burden of staging an election in the world's most populous country. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)(AFP)

Here is an obvious first hypothesis about the past decade. Narendra Modi has redefined politics. Every election is a balance of the local and national, but Modi’s popularity was enough to offset the disadvantages that BJP candidates confronted in India’s most populous parts in 2014 and 2019. Since then, Modi has continued to connect the national and local through last-mile delivery of welfare schemes and deepened the sense of an “imagined community” through the relentless projection of a national message. Voters too have prioritised who runs the Union government in Delhi, the executive function, over who represents their particular constituency in Delhi, the legislative function.

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The 2024 verdict will answer the following questions. Does Modi still attract more voters to the BJP’s core base, both in areas where the party is dominant and in newer geographies, or has his appeal peaked or even shrunk? Is Modi’s image adequate to offset local weaknesses that stem from either the nature of the BJP candidate or caste configuration or economic anxiety? Do voters want a single strong leader at the helm of the Indian State or do they wish to return to a more fragmented 1989-2014 type arrangement with stronger checks?

The second hypothesis is about an increasing sense of a Hindu religious-political identity. The BJP has consciously nurtured this. There is State support for the political assertion of Hindu religious identity. There is a conscious othering of Muslims through the aggregation and articulation of real, perceived and fabricated grievances. There is the construction of an inclusive Hindu identity by giving a sense of cultural and political representation to backward and Dalit sub-groups. There is the “correction” of perceived historical injustices, be it in Ayodhya or Kashmir or at Partition. And there is an electoral model to show Hindus that, if united, they can effectively make the Muslim vote irrelevant and Muslim representation negligible.

To challenge this politico-religious identity, the Congress — stung by the social depth of Hindutva across castes, the absence of resonance of the idea and politics of “secularism”, and crippled by the absence of support among Other Backward Classes (OBCs) — has promised a caste census, more reservations and proportionate representation of all caste groups in all spheres. This is a historic break. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress conceived the nation not as a sum of caste groups, religions and ethnicities but as a bigger whole comprising individual citizens with rights. It also believed in gradualist change that balanced social interests rather than radical identity-based policy breaks. In both these respects, Rahul Gandhi has reoriented Nehru’s party towards the socialist stream of Indian politics — and fused it with a strong anti-capital strain borrowed from the Communist stream.

This explains why the 2024 campaign was fought on the basis of two industrial-scale overstatements. To break the Hindu umbrella coalition, the Opposition framed the elections as an 85% versus 15% battle where the 15% were the “other” — upper castes represented by the BJP. It then falsely claimed that the BJP intended to scrap reservations for Dalits, OBCs and tribals. To sustain its own Hindu social coalition, the BJP framed the elections as an 85% versus 15% battle where the 15% were the “other” — Muslims represented by the INDIA bloc. It then resorted to the worst stereotypes and falsely alleged that the Congress intended to scrap reservations for marginalised Hindus and give them to Muslims and redistribute wealth to Muslims.

This verdict will answer a related set of questions. Has the idea of a unified Hindu political identity sustained and expanded geographically (including in the south) and deepened socially (among Dalits, tribals and backwards) and fused with a sense of national Indian identity? Is the BJP able to still balance its older dominant caste base with newer backward and Dalit entrants, leverage contradictions among backwards, and place it all within a unified religious umbrella and frame it as opposed to Muslims? Or has the caste fault line within the Hindu identity returned as the fundamental marker of political choice, have identities disaggregated in political decision-making, and is the old “secular” politics of marrying some Hindu caste groups with Muslims into an electoral alliance working? Is the main political divide on the Hindu-Muslim axis or the upper caste-backwards/Dalit axis or neither? To what extent will the verdict pressure parties into expanding the reservation architecture even further?

The third hypothesis is about political economy. Modi’s model relies on increasing manufacturing and investing in infrastructure; using digital public infrastructure to push private entrepreneurship; deepening financial markets; easing credit; formalising the economy; leveraging India’s strength in services; and creating a welfare net that includes cash, homes, water, food, electricity, cooking gas for the hundreds of millions left behind. Welfare has both created a class of beneficiaries and helped him win the support of women voters across identities and regions, but it is clear that there is growing anger and distress over the lack of formal jobs. The Opposition has promised more welfare, including major cash transfers, public sector employment, a one-year apprenticeship plan, and critiqued the (alleged) crony capitalism and (real) increase in inequality in recent times.

This election will thus answer the following questions. Is the Modi economic-welfare model enough to satisfy enough Indians that the current regime has done its best and can be trusted to improve incomes and get them jobs in the future? Has welfare energised voters, particularly women, to stick to the status quo or are the political benefits of it saturated? Is there public anger against politics-capital networks? Has the post-pandemic K-shaped recovery, the acute but unmet desire for organised sector employment of millions of young people, inflation, and the distress that the promise of more free ration represents, led to a desire for change?

Next week, voters will declare how they want to be led, how they want to be defined, and who they trust with their economic future. That’s the real story of 2024.

The views expressed are personal

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