Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the BJP to a landslide victory, winning 303 of the 543 parliamentary seats, while the Congress has been reduced to 52 seats, not even enough to claim the post of the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. This is an impressive achievement, but how has Modi been able to do it? In attempting to answer this question, we need to consider the structural and political reasons that account for this dramatic result.
It’s important to note three dimensions of the structural landscape which have contributed to an unlevelled playing field. This includes the government’s misuse of instruments of State power, its mind-boggling money power and the corporate-owned media building up the Modi cult. The Election Commission (EC) also had a critical role to play in this election. Never before has the EC functioned in the way it has this time.
The Modi cult has been built over the past five years by the RSS political machine amplified by building up the Modi persona using multiple tools. These included the effective use of technology and its instruments of messaging to the people, backed by big data analytics and micro level social engineering.
Modi has also poured money into electoral spending which was many times more than the Congress and all the other political parties. Electoral bonds contributed to the accumulation of money by the ruling party. The BJP government introduced non-transparent electoral bonds in 2017; it collected 95% of the funds through this instrument. With the exception of the Left, the opposition did not raise any serious objections to this shockingly flawed scheme.
BJP successfully managed to shift the popular narrative from jobs and livelihood issues to national security — Pulwama and Balakot — around Modi. The real gains for the opposition and the Congress would have come if people had voted in their own interests owing to the discontent with the government’s economic failures which was widely reported by the media in the run-up to the election, but this did not happen.
The economic disappointment alone should have cost the BJP votes but somehow people did not blame the BJP for their economic hardships.
The economic disappointment alone should have cost the BJP votes but somehow people did not blame the BJP for their economic hardships because the BJP shrewdly side-stepped its economic record by diverting to a one point campaign on national security after the Pulwama attack.
The surge of nationalism after Modi ordered airstrikes inside Pakistan following the Pulwama attack transformed the 2019 election into a khaki election. After the Balakot airstrikes, the BJP shifted the narrative to nationalism and national security, which completely derailed the opposition. The economic downturn and shrinking employment opportunities did not matter in this election. The focus shifted from Modi’s track record to teaching Pakistan a lesson. The opposition failed to counter this narrative.
There is no doubt that Modi is a skilful and charismatic political leader. After the Pulwama attack, the prime minister decided to make it a referendum on himself; it was all about his political leadership and what he symbolised as this strong man versus numerous party fragments. The presidential style campaign suited Modi because a Modi cult has been assiduously built up in five years.
The opposition and the Congress made a strategic mistake when it decided to focus its attack entirely on Modi. Rahul Gandhi persisted with his slogan ‘chowkidar chor hai’ to dent Modi’s image as a scrupulously honest leader. It did not excite people and hence failed to translate into votes. Government advertisements attributed every act of welfare and development to the prime minister. The message that these were Modi’s personal gifts to them was carried by BJP workers to voters.
Previous governments — those of the BJP and the Congress — had designed and implemented dozens of welfare schemes in the past, NREGA is a prominent example, but it was never seen as a gift of Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi. To claim that every act of social welfare, which, in the present case, principally, includes a single gas cylinder, and loans for toilet sand houses, was seen as the gift or handiwork of a single individual — Modi.
This was unusual but very effective in building the cult of personality. So, a major part of the explanation is the role of Modi and his aggressive leadership in the astonishing growth of his party.
Most election results are shaped by multiple factors but this election stands out because Modi has been re-elected despite economic failures, social disharmony, social conflicts and widespread social insecurity. BJP’s spectacular victory is based on its ability to construct a Hindu vote or Hindu consolidation. The BJP strategy, of divide and rule, helped to increase its seat share from 282 to 303 and its vote share from 31 to 37 per cent, but 63 per cent people have not voted for them.
Last five years have seen mob-lynchings, intimidation of dissenting voices, a struggling economy, unemployment, agrarian crises — social peace was compromised
Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Telangana, Odisha and West Bengal are still outliers, although the BJP has made major gains in the latter three states. The first past the post electoral system contributes to large majorities when a dominant party is arraigned against numerous regional parties in a presidential style election.
For the first time in India’s electoral history, large numbers could unite behind a political party. In the past, the focus was on what Arjun Appadorai described as the power or fear of small numbers, which Modi and Shah saw as an attempt to split the Hindu vote. Their solution, first seen in the 2014 parliamentary polls, and mastered in the 2017 UP assembly elections, was to unite Hindu lower castes microscopically, while painting Muslims as the ‘other’. They believed that the route to Hindu power is through elections and Hindu unity is necessary for winning elections.
Eighty per cent of Indians must think as unified Hindus. In effect, democracy means that majority rule is sanctified through the process of elections. For example, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has played a key part in polarising the electorate in this key state of UP by openly speaking about the 80-20 equation (20 per cent being Muslims).
The Modi landslide is not based on any pretence of development, but on the readiness to make political use of hate and divisiveness to marshal the Hindu vote. This strategy succeeded in securing an unprecedented endorsement for Hindu nationalism as large numbers of people voted for the BJP as the party that best represents, protects and propagates Hindu interests. In brief, Hindu consolidation constitutes the basis of the BJP’s second successive win.
So what are the implications for India’s democracy?
There are four conclusions we can draw from this election:
(1) The BJP is today India’s sole national party, with a major presence in a majority of the states of India. This signals a political shift to the Right and the BJP’s overarching dominance of the political system — that is why the Congress’s spectacular defeat in this election is far more consequential than it was in 2014.
(2) A large section of the electorate has become captivated by a cult of personality; they see Modi as a messiah who can solve India’s numerous problems. This is in conformity with survey findings which show the highest support for autocracy in India.
(3) In 2019, the BJP chose to foreground the fact that they are a Hindu-first party. Voters chose Modi because they felt he would put Muslims in their place. This was manifest in rhetoric used by its party president against Muslims and the prime minster castigating Rahul Gandhi for running away to Wayanad because minorities were a majority there, as though minorities are not equal citizens of India, the choice of a terror accused like Pragya Thakur who has won by a record margin against an experienced politician and two-time chief minister, Digvijay Singh from Bhopal, the prime minister’s own flaunting of his Hindu identity throughout the last five years. and his highly publicised visit to the Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines before May 23.
(4) BJP’s hegemonic position will speed up the ideological project of a Hindu State. Last five years have seen mob-lynchings, intimidation of dissenting voices, a struggling economy, unemployment, agrarian crises — social peace was compromised. Given the BJP’s track record, there is every reason to think that they will be encouraged to do more of the same, or even worse. The traditions of pluralism and secularism weakened by the previous BJP government and the Congress, in particular, will become more fragile.
People see Modi as a messiah who can solve India’s numerous problems. This is in conformity with survey findings which show the highest support for autocracy in India
This election has endorsed the project of Hindu nationalism — namely, the creation of a Hindu majoritarian State and polity. This is being achieved through the creation of a Hindu vote bank by a party obsessed with elections backed by the political machine of the RSS which no opposition party can compete with in its reach and penetration of state and society.
The politics of hate and loathing unleashed during the five years of the Modi government and further intensified during the election campaign will contribute to the erosion of pluralism and accommodation of diversity which has been the hallmark of India’s democracy.
Written by Zoya Hasan
The writer is an eminent academic, commentator and author. She was former professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi.