Beware the pundits who claim they foresaw Narendra Modi’s crushing victory in India’s just-concluded national election.
His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won 303 of the 543 directly elected seats in India’s Parliament. Nobody, no matter what they say now, saw this coming.
As India gropes for an answer, one hears two most common theories in media commentaries. They are: it was a vote against dynasticism; and two, it was a vote for a majoritarian Hindu polity as an expression of religious assertion. None of these sounds convincing.
Take dynasticism. The poor performance of the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi, scion of India’s most famous political dynasty, has got the tongue of even the most ardent follower of the Congress wagging. India’s oldest party has for decades been in a state of decline. In 2004, it unexpectedly sprang back to life. But Modi’s successful bid for power in 2014 sent it back to the wilderness.
This time, it had raised hopes again. Gandhi ran a smart campaign, presented concrete goals if elected, and with recent victories in key provincial elections, his party appeared energized. Even if beating the BJP was a long shot, the Congress was at least expected to give the BJP a run for its money. But at the end of the day, it only managed to raise its 2014 tally of a paltry 44 seats to a paltry 52. Gandhi himself lost from his old constituency.
Those upset by Congress’s performance lay the blame at Gandhi’s door, saying the party needs to find fresh political talent. Never mind if the same Congress, under the same dynast, seized three northern states from the BJP less than six months ago. The same people who now want him out were gushing at his new-found mojo then.
Many Indians find dynastic politics an abomination, and Modi, a self-made politician with humble origins, himself takes pains to stress his non-dynastic background. But the fact remains that dynasticism is part and parcel of India’s political life.
Modi conducted a terrific, multi-pronged constant campaign for five years, compared with the opposition’s two months. It is naïve to count one or two factors
Indian parties mostly run top-down, are woven around a personality, and generally don’t bother with internal elections. Hence mini-dynasties populate every level of the hierarchy in most parties, except the Leftist ones, from Parliament to village committees.
A fifth of the directly elected parliamentarians in 2014 were from political families. Some 24 percent of Modi’s own cabinet were dynasts, compared to the 36 percent in his predecessor Manmohan Singh’s ministry. And it is the dynasts who have put up some of the most dazzling performances in this election.
In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, the son of a late Congress strongman who branched out to form his own party, has stormed to power. Another dynast, by the name of Stalin, has steered his party back to the top in Tamil Nadu, also in the south. In the eastern state of Orissa, yet another local dynast has become the chief minister for the fifth time. You get the picture: dynasticism itself is not losing, individual dynasts may be.
Now, religious polarization. The BJP has expanded in provinces where it had negligible presence earlier. This is being cited as evidence of a deepening of Hindu nationalism across India. The most notable example is the eastern state of Bengal, where the right-wing BJP has had little influence.
This time the BJP’s tally there shot up from two seats to 18. But this is really more an expression of anger at the provincial incumbent, a regional party headed by a firebrand leader, than a Hindufication of the politics there. That is to say, all Bengalis are not necessarily seething with Hindu rage, but the BJP is netting all their anti-establishment votes by default as the Communists and the Congress have faded.
Rather than simple, knee-jerk explanations for Modi’s sweep, one has to look at the combination of factors that propelled him back to power, especially the precision-targeted campaigning. His self-projection as a muscular nationalist, backed by covert airstrikes on Pakistani soil just before the elections, boosted his popularity manifold. He managed to also easily persuade voters he was their only bet. A mostly pliant mainstream media and the party’s savvy social media cells helped in reinforcing the narrative.
Modi’s many welfare schemes, such as free homes, toilets, electricity, cooking gas connections and infrastructure development, also played a large role, amplified by the huge outreach budget to advertise them, and leveraged by Modi’s well-funded and well-oiled party machinery.
India is facing acute joblessness and an agrarian crisis. But in my travels to the hinterlands, I have often found people still expressing support for Modi. That is because joblessness or agrarian crises may not be new to them, but a toilet or a gas connection is. And even if they themselves have not directly benefited from these schemes, the hope of getting them one day kept them betting on Modi.
Modi conducted a terrific, multi-pronged constant campaign for five years, compared with the opposition’s two months. It is naïve to count one or two factors.
The author is a senior research fellow at the Sydney Democracy Network, The University of Sydney, currently researching in India.
HONG KONG NEWS