All the opinion polls are predicting a victory for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi. The polling started on April 7 and will run through up to May 12. On May 16, we will come to know if we will see Modi as the Prime Minister of India; the scenario looks likely unless the pollsters are way off the mark.
According to most opinion polls, a BJP-led political alliance will either reach close to or even cross the halfway mark of 272 seats in the Lok Sabha. However, as the actual seat count pans out, most observers feel that this election for the 16th Lok Sabha will be viewed as most transformative in recent years.
For one, that is mostly because the narrative coming out of India is that here we only have a single story, a Modi story, albeit with two sides to it. The voters have a choice — either vote for Modi or vote against him. The latter is also sometimes euphemistically articulated as “do not let the secular votes split”.
Modi is a controversial and polarising figure. He was denied a visa by the U.S. government in 2005 for his failure to stop the killings during the Gujarat riots. In 2002, rampaging mobs in the western Indian state killed over 1,000 people, a majority of which were Muslims. The Gujarat riots were the first major riots in India where the ugly dance of killing mobs took place in front of TV cameras, which brought the horrors of communal violence into the living rooms. For people in India and India-watchers in the West, the association of Modi with the riots had made him a symbol of a social antagonistic frontier dividing a pluralistic India from a reactionary Hindu India.
All these years, while a strong campaign was being run to prosecute Modi, he was building Gujarat up economically following the devastation caused by the earthquake in 2001 and then the riots in 2002. This is why it must not be surprising that he has won three elections in Gujarat since then. After each of his electoral victories, instead of taking a second look at why the allegations of Modi’s personal culpability have failed to resonate with the voters in Gujarat, we told ourselves that Gujarat is different. Now that he seems to be winning in the rest of India too, we must pause and ask how this could happen.
The BJP has doubled down and backed Modi. And now in the campaign’s populist articulation, Modi has emerged as a key signifier and embodiment of the idea and hope for his supporters, and yes fear for his detractors. This is not the first time that elections in India have become personality-centric. That said, what is new this time is that this election is being fought in a heavily media saturated environment, including highly boisterous news television. Moreover, this is also the most expensive national election in which huge amounts of money are being spent to saturate the media — print, radio, television, mobile and social media — with messages in support of Modi such as abki bar Modi sarkar (This time around, it is Modi government).
The BJP is going all out in out-spending all other parties combined. According to some estimates, the 2014 election is going to be perhaps the most expensive in history. The Centre for Media Studies, a nonprofit in New Delhi that tracks money spent by all registered political parties contesting in the elections, estimates that about $5 billion will be spent in this election, which is more than double the total amount spent in the last election. This election is going to be one of the biggest and fattest festivals of voting anywhere in the world.
In this Modi-centric election campaign and its media representation, the two starkly opposite narratives, also sometimes labelled as Modi-wave and Modi-hype, are dominating newsrooms, even though on the ground the reality may be grayer. The Modi-wave narrative seems to suggest that when Modi comes to power, he will make Gujarat out of the rest of India. To his supporters this stands for corruption-free governance, development and decisive leadership. To the proponents of Modi-hype/fear narrative, it will be a disaster for the idea of inclusive India.
When on the first day of polling the BJP rolled out its election manifesto, we saw two competing narratives jostling for attention in the news media, especially in the lively TV panel debates. Through its manifesto the BJP wants the people of India to trust the party and Modi. In the 42-page manifesto, the first 40 pages are exclusively devoted to economic issues, albeit the statements are nothing more than platitudes, including a section for modernising the traditional madrasa education system on which a large number of Muslims rely.
The BJP has been trying its best to make governance and development the election issues, but the one page tucked away at the end, which is euphemistically framed as cultural heritage, has not stopped Modi’s detractors (not necessarily that of the BJP’s), from drawing attention to the core of issues dear to the Hindu nationalists — Ram Temple in Ayodhya on the site of the demolished Babri Mosque, the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code that includes Muslims, and the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution that gives a special autonomous status to the Muslim-majority State of Jammu and Kashmir.
So why is the narrative, sponsored by the Modi campaign, appearing more compelling to a large plurality of voters? Why is the hope of better governance and development trumping both real and imagined fears of a reactionary and polarising future? Again a close reading of the situation suggests that a part of the success of the resurgent BJP campaign can be attributed to an actual paradigm shift in the party away from Hindutva towards governance and development, which in a fascinating way, Gujarat being exhibit A, is an eclectic mix of benign Hindu nationalism with market nationalism.
So the support for BJP, call it Modi-wave or Modi-hype, can be attributed to two things.
One, ironically, all the negative focus on Modi, in the last 12 years, has made the political discourse Modi-centric and has enabled him to claim victimhood. Two, large pluralities of voters across many States seem to have concluded that all the allegations about Modi’s personal culpability in the Gujarat riot are at best weak and at worst disingenuous. His supporters are asking — why single out Modi and the BJP? All political parties have contributed in making the idea of India bruised and bloody with blots such as Delhi in 1984, Meerut in 1987, Bhagalpur in 1989, Mumbai in 1993, Gujarat in 2002 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013.
This claim has been bolstered by the fact that the Special Investigation Team, constituted by the Supreme Court of India, concluded that even though there were lapses in swiftly stopping the killings in 2002, there was no evidence of Modi’s personal culpability; the report is, however, being challenged in the higher court.
Are we witnessing a paradigm shift in Indian democracy?
In terms of the total percentage of votes and seats, this will not be as big a victory as the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress party saw in 1984. In the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Congress party had won a super majority of 416 seats. But if all goes according to the BJP’s game plan (some would say Modi’s), this may end up being perhaps the biggest margin of victory since the 1990s. In a way this could be the third major disruption in the hold of the Indian National Congress and Gandhi family on New Delhi. Since the first national election that was held in 1952, with only four interruptions in Congress and the Gandhi family’s rule, the people of India have voted the party that led the anti-colonial struggle to power 11 times.
The first major disruption took place in 1977 when Indira Gandhi led the Congress party’s populist plank of garibi hatao (remove poverty) and took a beating from a more compelling populist slogan, Indira hatao (remove Indira). Then by rejecting Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian impulse, displayed in the 1975-76 Emergency days, the people of India had passed the most difficult test for a democracy — a test in which many postcolonial nations had failed. The 1977 election for the sixth Lok Sabha showed the maturing of Indian institutions and sophistication of Indian voters who were still largely illiterate, poor and lived in villages.
The Congress was voted back to power in 1980. Then after a decade the second disruption in Congress rule took place in the 1990s. Then the emergent BJP on the national stage, and the mushrooming regional parties in the states, dismantled the hegemonic hold of the Congress party on the polity. But the decline of Congress came at the cost of a fractured electorate and rapid growth in sectarian voting blocs, both real and imagined, constructed on the basis of caste and religion. The sectarian politics fostered new cycles of political violence and corruption, which brought the Congress party back to power, after a brief interruption, but political violence and corruption was here to stay.
Unlike previous disruptive moments, this time the empirical evidence buried in the polling data suggests that this may not be merely an interruption in the Congress rule. This could turn out to be an election that we might, in the years ahead, recall as the one that finally pushed the Gandhi family to the margins of Indian politics.
That said, all the polls could turn out be wrong — as it happened in 2004 election. Call it wishful thinking, but there are a few undercurrents that could upset the party. The middle classes, who are the traditional BJP supporters, could vote in significant enough numbers for the Aam Admi Party (AAP) making it a bit difficult for the BJP. The AAP is a fledgling political party that emerged from the anti-corruption movement in 2012. We cannot ignore that the AAP did come in as a strong second in the Delhi State Assembly election that was held in December 2013.
In the coming days, the BJP and Modi, its chief campaigner, could get off-message and lose the plot that rests on the relative universalism reflected in the agenda of governance and development, and return to the old differential and polarising themes.
We saw some of the above in the campaign in western Uttar Pradesh that witnessed sectarian violence in Muzaffarnagar last year. The ‘dog-whistle’ campaign on all sides, especially in U.P. and Bihar, has been appealing to sectarian sentiments. Although the competition among opponents of the BJP to court the Muslim vote appears to have also fostered a consolidation of the Hindu vote, which otherwise is fragmented along caste lines in U.P. and Bihar.
The two large States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar account for 120 seats in the Lok Sabha. In these States, it is more likely that a significant bloc of Muslims will vote for the strongest candidate running against the BJP and many liberals are hoping for that to happen. It is ironical that in spite of knowing better that Muslims are not one homogenous group we would like them to vote like a bloc. In a way this fallback position of liberals has been the Achilles’ heel of Indian democracy. Unfortunately, instead of countering BJP’s Hindutva with inclusive nationalism, liberals have counted on minorities and historically suppressed castes to vote in herds to stop nationalist parties, which the evidence suggests has only strengthened BJP.
Yet, the critics of Modi must not feel that they have failed. The persistent attacks on him have highlighted his acts of omissions and commissions in 2002. The adversarial role played by Indian institutions has softened Hindu nationalism of BJP.
The paradigm shift in the BJP’s ideology from reactionary Hindutva to inclusive growth — sabka saath, sabka vikas (everyone’s support, everyone’s development), the slogan of the election manifesto — gives a hope that the BJP has realised it will not succeed in transforming the idea of inclusive India. Rather, the resilience of the idea will decidedly either transform the BJP government or it will not last.
There is still some evidence of subliminal messaging on the margins of the dominant narrative of governance and development, which warrants us to accept the democratic outcome, yet retain our healthy skepticism about Narendra Modi and BJP.
Finally, we should not overlook that the highly connected and engaged youth, who at the moment seem to be backing Modi, will not hold back from occupying the public spaces if they see him faltering from the agenda of good governance and development.