Time to pause, think and reflect – A lot has changed in Indian Politics
Whew! The last six to eight months have been perhaps one of most happening periods in recent times. Never a dull moment there was; instead there was plenty of action and drama. From the Balakot strike, the rumble and tumble of elections, the landslide victory of Modi and BJP, the unraveling of the opposition and the Congress leadership fiasco, passage of god knows how many bills in Parliament including the abolition of triple talaq, the loss of two BJP stalwarts, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, the ongoing Chidambaram saga, and then the abrogation of article 370 followed by round-the-clock diplomacy, UNHCR and UNGA. Whew!
Time to pause, gather our thoughts and reflect. That is for everyone – either this side of the fence or the other. Why did Modi win so big? What that means for Indian democracy? Whither the opposition? What does it portend for foreign, economic and social policy?
Modi’s Big Win
There are a multitude of factors that contributed to Modi’s and BJP’s thumping victory at the hustings. Although the numbers were amplified by Amit Shah’s electoral strategy and engineering, the rise of the BJP is rooted in Modi’s grasp of, and shaping of, Indian politics and its dominant narrative. There are five aspects to consider.
The`Dhoni’isation’ of Indian society
First, no one better than Modi has understood the`Dhoni’isation’ of Indian society and its political and socio-economic implications. Over the last two decades, Indian society has undergone a remarkable transformation. Three key developments contributed to this structural change. First, the implementation of Mandal Commission report completely upended the then prevalent social structures and gave immense agency to the emergence of the backward classes as a force in politics and subsequently in socio-economic terms.
Secondly, liberalisation removed the shackles from Nehruvian socialism and ushered India into the unchartered waters of liberal yet crony capitalism. Growth boomed, some of it trickled down; but the economic forces it propelled opened new vistas of economic opportunities.
The third development was social media which virtually broke the digital divide between the English-speaking elite and the vernacular-speaking masses, thereby leveling the field of opinion-making and communication. So, from an elitist and socialistic socio-economic set-up, the country has gravitated towards a more egalitarian but chaotic and contested system.
This`Dhoni’isation of India’s society has come to represent the aspirations and ambitions of a youthful rurban India straining at the lease to speak their mind and to grab opportunities. Modi has continuously engaged with this young, aspirational and, perhaps, irreverent segment and has won them over, breaking through class and caste barriers.
The majoritarian angst against appeasement politics
Second, Modi also tapped into the simmering undercurrent of majoritarian angst against appeasement politics. The majoritarian impulses which are evident in India today did not come to be overnight. A lot of political analysts, rather disingenuously and perhaps intentionally, associate the majoritarianism playing out today with Modi and his politics. The simmering discontent in the majority community had been festering for long, ever since Rajiv Gandhi overturned the Shah Bano verdict to appease Muslims and then opened the gates of the Ram Lalla in Ayodhya to make assuage Hindu sentiments. Every subsequent event – a riot or a terror incident – has served to further widen the communal divide, not without help from political parties of all hues. This was exacerbated further by the appeasement politics of many national and regional parties in the garb of secularism.
The more the mention of saffron terror, or appeals to the Imam Bukharis for the Muslim vote, or that minorities have a first right on development resources, the more the angst solidified. And if Mamata’s Bengal is secular, then god save our souls. This is the reason why secularism has become a cursed word in Indian politics. Modi and his BJP changed the rules of the game and channelled this majoritarian impulse to reap the political dividends. If earlier the Congress and regional parties divided the Hindu vote on caste lines and consolidated the Muslim vote through appeasement, Modi and the BJP have now consolidated the Hindu vote and are seeking to divide the Muslim vote. Secularism, as practised by the Congress and its clones, is now equated with appeasement. No wonder Rahul’s recent temple run to course correct looked utterly butterly comical and hypocritical. And Mamata, the less said the better!
Hard State and National Security
Third, and perhaps the most distinct feature of the Modi government, has been the uncompromised stance on national security. India until 2014 was always perceived as a soft state. We let off the Kandahar hijackers easily, we did not cross the LOC after the Parliament attack or after Kargil, and we did not have a military response after 26/11. Infiltration in the North-East compromised security and demography and we hardly batted an eyelid in providing voter ID cards to the ineligible. The Maoist insurgency problem fettered, ably supported and encouraged by leftist activists. Modi saw the opportunity in providing a strong counter-narrative that resembled a hard state. And with discernible actions. It used a gamut of instruments to capture the national security space including diplomacy, policy reforms, modernisation of the armed forces and surgical strikes. The action in Kashmir with the abrogation of article 370 was the icing on the cake. These actions have suitably fed into the over-arching nationalism narrative that BJP revels in, and which the opposition is not comfortable with. Majority of the Indian public have lapped up these developments and as a result Modi’s BJP is now synonymous with National Interest.
Fight against Corruption
Fourth, a key differentiator for Modi’s BJP against the opposition has been action against corruption. The NDA government, by and large, is perceived to be much less corrupt when compared to the previous Congress regime. No major scam has been unearthed – and Rafale deal was a dead issue in the absence of solid evidence. Demonitisation struck a positive cord, particularly among the poor, even though it hit economic activity adversely. Though the promised billions did not materialise, the optics of actions on Vijay Mallya or Christian Michel or P. Chidambaram resonate among the general masses strongly. The Congress and the opposition were anyway on a weak footing on corruption; at the same time Modi has successfully restrained his Ministers, taken some tangible actions to retain public confidence. And with hundreds of skeletons in the opposition cupboard – National Herald, Augusta Westland, INX Media, Air India, Coal scam, 2G, etc. – it is a bonanza for Modi to selectively pursue his opponents. Which he most certainly will.
Socialism Still Works. And Handsomely.
Fifth, Modi smartly avoided the trap that the Vajpayee-led NDA couldn’t. A swathe of right-wing intellectuals and the business community were waiting for the grand economic reforms from the Modi administration. Waiting in the wings was the Congress, the wider opposition and the left-liberal lobby eager to pounce on anything that distracted from their pet theme – povertarianism. But Modi put paid to their hopes. The Swachh Bharat campaign, the JAM initiative, the Ujjwala Yojana, the Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme, the PM Kisan Scheme, the PM Awas Yojana and more – not that these schemes were just in name, but the actual delivery of most schemes was much more efficient than that in previous governments. This enabled the government to not only maintain a pro-poor image, but also to checkmate the opposition in its own game. In the BJP’s calculation, major economic reforms could wait for the next term which it has anyway got now.
Party Mechanics and Electoral Strategies
I don’t discount the organisational work that Amit Shah was instrumental in. His sharp political intellect, superb political engineering, understanding of macro and micro dynamics and overall organisational management were unmatched. While these went a step further to consolidate BJP gains, they would have been sub-optimal without the larger structural issues that I have alluded to. Amit Shah made Modi more effective; but he did not create the essence of Modi.
Foreign, Economic and Social Policy
The results of the general elections have had a significant influence on policies. The clear mandate that Modi got enabled him to get legislative backing to the Triple Talaq Bill and for the abrogation of article 370. More are in the offing for sure.
Foreign policy will be more forthright. With the world obsessed about the US-China trade war, human rights abuses in China and Yemen, threat of conflict in the Middle East, Kashmir is a no-brainer. India has got time to sort it out. With Pakistan stuck with a selected PM, its economy in a mess, ethnic conflicts raging and a possible FATF blacklist, it has few options. The sooner India stabilises the situation in Kashmir, the better. For the wider world, the renewed mandate to Modi has given him a significant boost – which can only be sustained if the economy does well.
But economic policy is its Achilles’ heel. The NPA crisis and the global headwinds combined with ill-advised policy reforms like the tax on the super-rich and weaknesses in the GST implementation along with the remnants of Demo, have all come together to put the Modi government in a quandary. It needs to do some serious soul-searching on why things have become so dire, and why certain policy decisions were taken and on whose advice. This is the foremost test for the government and one that will need utmost skill and resolve to overcome.
Socio-political issues are largely favourable for the present regime, regardless of the noise of the left-liberal caucus. The upcoming Ayodhya verdict is likely to be a shot in the arm of the Hindu right; a mediated solution before that could be the best solution. Whichever way it goes, the net beneficiary will be Modi and BJP. The next ace up its sleeve will be the uniform civil code and which the BJP will unleash, but not in a hurry. It has still 4 years to go and it will bide its time to muddy the waters before the next general elections.
Whither the Opposition
Well, in Bangkok! Bad joke, but one that aptly sums it up. The opposition is not in the game now. It has been busted and defanged. Democratically. The silence of the so-called left liberal lambs in the aftermath of the election results said it all. They did not understand India, but India understood them and their likes. Yet, a person of the stature of Amartya Sen still opines that more than 60% of India is not with Modi! I remember the same pseudo-lefties said it was 70% in 2014! Politics 101 for the respectable Nobel laureate and his ilk will be helpful.
There are strong discordant chords emerging within parties, and along with the desertion of party members into the BJP camp it will further weaken the opposition. Its narrative on many issues has been contradictory such as on the abrogation of article 370. It needs to rediscover a seamless narrative that can take on a dominant BJP, but instead it is bursting at its seams. The outcome of the upcoming elections in Maharasthra and Haryana are almost foretold. And in Delhi. And probably in Bengal, where the TMC variety secularism continues its bloodbath. And then the left-liberals continue to ponder why it happened what happened. It will continue to happen. No surprises there.
Political parties and their left-liberal stooges must realise four fundamental facets. A. The political rules of the game have changed – the narrow confines of caste-communal vote bank politics cannot win anymore – you need to widen the voter base, and that means reaching out to wider population segments. B. Appeasement of minorities now provides diminishing returns in politics. Playing this kind of secularism game actually marginalises parties rather than catapulting them to power. C. Liberal politics needs honest brokers, not hypocritical ones. You cannot denounce the triple talaq bill on the ground that it will help BJP garner votes, and yet call yourself liberal. D. The basis of opposition should be on principles rather than on personalities. That the politics of anti-Modi was soundly defeated is testament to this fact.
• Democracy: It is alive and kicking in India. Just ask Naveen, KCR or Jagan.
• Pluralism: This is the basic essence of India, which should not be undermined.
• Nationalism: Anything that is in the national interest is Nationalism.
• Politics: The rules of the game have changed. Adapt to survive.
• Economics: Not determined by the box office or uber rides – wake up and smell the coffee.
• Social Reforms: The only way civilisations progress.
• Article 370: From `them’ and `us’ – to `We’.
• Humour: Makes life worthwhile. Smileys to all.