The Questions That Election 2019 Leaves Us With
All through this election season, I have refrained from speculating on what the results might be. Our nation is madly complex, and especially in these times, I have humility about the limits of my knowledge. For that reason, in this column I will not attempt the punditry of glib explanations but will ask some questions instead.
We know that Narendra Modi won a resounding victory – but what does it mean for our political landscape, for the Bharatiya Janata Party, and for the Congress? These are far from clear, though they will one day appear obvious in hindsight to future pundits, so let me lay out some questions to which I have no easy answers right now.
But first, let me state my bias. I oppose Modi and the majoritarianism of the BJP. Equally, I am aghast that at a time when we need a strong opposition more than ever, we have an ineffectual bunch of jokers in the arena. I am disappointed but not surprised at these results.
One: The Question Of Narratives
It is clear that the BJP won the battle of narratives in this elections. But what was their dominant narrative? The obvious answer is that it was a Hindutva narrative of polarisation, based on asserting Hindu identity and attacking the Other. After all, they fielded Pragya Thakur, didn’t they? But it is both simplistic and condescending to assume that all Modi voters were driven by bigotry alone.
There is enough reportage that indicates that the BJP did impact the lives of many people with their last-mile delivery of welfare schemes. Besides the welfare narrative, there is also the muscular foreign policy narrative, aided by Balakot. There is a macho nationalism narrative that is a step-brother of the Hindutva narrative. There is the aspirational narrative of what Modi himself represents, as the chaiwala made good. There is the personality cult narrative around Modi, the strong leader our tribal instincts draw us towards. And despite the disastrous economic management of the last five years, there is also a development narrative. Remember, a narrative need have no relation to reality.
Plus, there are local narratives. At least part of the BJP surge in Bengal came from people’s anger at Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress, and the decline of the Left as an alternative. The BJP did a masterful job in 2014 (and 2017 in Uttar Pradesh) of exploiting different intra-caste resentments across the country, such as among non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs in UP, and they took that further this time, in multiple different local ways. Some of it was certainly about subsuming narrow caste identities in the broader Hindutva identity – but that’s only part of the explanation.
Another factor that played some part is disgust at elite, sanctimonious liberals who glossed over their own mistakes of the past. Modi doesn’t go on and on about Lutyens Liberals because it’s a pet peeve of his. He does it because it strikes a chord. For what it’s worth, many of the above narratives are part of the common playbook for populists across the world. That is because they work – and they work for a reason.
The task of any opposition that emerges is to figure out those reasons and figure out counter-narratives. Remixing past tropes, like the Congress’s Garibi Hatao welfarism, will not work because voters can see through the sanctimony and hypocrisy behind them. It is the mis-governance of past governments that enabled the rise of Modi. Voters rejected that old vision for the new vision of Modi, however one defines it, and the opposition needs to offer a new new vision. This needs new blood and smart minds – which brings me to the next question.
Two: The Question Of The Congress
The Congress is close to dead, and the central questions here are these: Is this because of its inherent feudalism (the Gandhis) or in spite of it? If the Gandhis disappeared, would the party find a way to revive itself, or would it die faster?
I have been arguing for years that all those who support Rahul Gandhi enable Narendra Modi. There have been valiant efforts made to recast his image as someone who did not deserve the tag of ‘Pappu’, but I have not found those efforts convincing. He’s been trained in the kind of posturing that makes social media liberals clap, but go deeper and he flounders. He gets confused about numbers, and every time he speaks of economics or policy, he talks incoherent nonsense (such as here). Even his posturing is transparent and hypocritical, such as when he speaks of inner-party democracy, or much of the Congress manifesto. Much of what the manifesto promised – such as empowered mayors in cities – can be implemented by state governments. The Congress is in power in multiple states, and has done nothing on any of those issues. It’s just talk.
Gandhi’s intelligence or hypocrisy can be a matter of debate, but his incompetence is an objective fact, borne out by numbers. For two general elections in a row, he has led a party that used to be the dominant behemoth in Indian politics to less than a tenth of the seats in parliament. In no other democracy would the leader of a political party survive such debacles.
Friends in the Congress have offered me the odious TINA argument: where’s the alternative? There is sweet irony to this because it reflects the central planning mindset of the party – if we can’t see an alternative, there must not be one. But no vacuum remains unfilled in politics, and if the Gandhis stepped aside, leaders would surely emerge. Politics is the realm of unknown unknowns. To take an example from a country where parties elect their leaders, no one could have predicted in 2004 that the United States’ next president would be an African-American man whose surname sounded like ‘Osama’ and whose middle name was ‘Hussein’. If you give space for possibilities to play themselves out, options emerge.
The other argument I have heard is that the Congress has no grassroots organisation any more, and will crumble without the Gandhis, who apparently also control the purse strings. If that is true, then their staying makes no difference. Either way, Modi’s stated objective of a Congress-mukt India will be achieved because of Rahul Gandhi. Perhaps somewhere in Modi’s cabinet (clothes, not ministers), Modi has a pinstriped suit with Gandhi’s name written on it?
Three: The Question Of The BJP
Now that the BJP has obliterated its opponents, the contestations worth following will happen within the BJP. What does the party really stand for? And which way will it develop?
It’s interesting to note how each leader of the BJP (starting from its earlier avatar the Jana Sangh) was normalised and made to look like a statesman by his successor. Atal Bihari Vajpayee made Syama Prasad Mukherjee look good. LK Advani made Vajpayee look like a moderate giant. Modi made Advani seem reasonable. And it seemed at one horrible moment that Yogi Adityanath would make us like Modi more – and then Pragya Thakur came along.
Is this the inevitable direction of the BJP? Will we once remember Modi as a reasonable, moderate statesman? Is a Hindu Rashtra now inevitable?
After all, Modi won 2014 on the plank of development, and ignored it all together. When he has won 2019 on the basis of Hindutva, why should he bother with development?
The counterargument to this is that the lifeblood of any political party is not its professed ideology but its will to power. An effective political party is one that believes in nothing but power for its own sake, and its stated ideology is just the brand positioning it has chosen to get there. Surely no one understands this better than Amit Shah, whose achievements from 2014 to now make him, to my mind, the greatest political strategist in our history. What he has achieved in Bengal this time is jaw-dropping. Everything he has done to expand the BJP’s reach is filled with ruthless pragmatism: reaching out to Dalits, dumping sitting MPs to woo past enemies from other parties, and so on.
At the moment, the Hindu Rashtra agenda is compatible with the amoral lust for power that every successful politician must have. But will it always be this way? And if there are divergent paths, which route will the BJP take?
We are now in a place where that is an existential question that impacts not just the BJP, but all of India.
Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for a decade-and-a-half, and has won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism twice. He writes the blog India Uncut and hosts the podcast The Seen and the Unseen.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.