Warning: Long Blog
After several weeks of voting, on March 11th the election results in five Indian states for each state’s assembly have been released. Besides determining which individuals and parties hold power in each of these states, these results are a harbinger of the 2019 India-wide election for the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament. The Lok Sabha is extremely important because its members elect the Prime Minister. For this current election, the main prize is Uttar Pradesh which is India’s largest state with 200 million people, almost 16% of Indian’s total eligible voters. It is often the “bell-weather” state of Indian politics. Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister and India’s 14th since Independence, has been in power three years. While these elections have local state ramifications, the elections are a test of Modi’s past three years and a referendum on his future years. He passed with flying colors.
Modi is an intriguing person. As the son of a chai stall owner and as a young chai stall owner himself, Narendra Modi joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at the age of eight. With the fervor of a Young Republicans or Young Democrats organization, the RSS, the RSS organization, whose name is sometimes translated as the “National Patriotic Organization” is a right-wing, Hindu nationalist group. After his basic schooling, Modi traveled throughout India visiting numerous religious centers for two years. Eventually he became a fulltime worker for the RSS. Modi was forced to go into hiding during Indira Gandhi’s 1975 state of emergency. After the emergency status was lifted, he returned to public life and rose through the ranks of the RSS’s affiliate political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As the appointed chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots has led to controversy. These communal riots between Hindus and Muslims were initiated by a train burning which led to the deaths of approximately 60 Hindu pilgrims. Because Modi accused “local terrorists” as the cause of the deaths, Hindus and Muslims clashed with an additional 1000-2000 individuals dying. Nevertheless, during his tenure as Chief Minister, Modi pushed numerous pro-development changes through the Gujarat Assembly. Modi remained Gujarat’s Chief Minister until his election as India’s Prime Minister.
Modi’s career has been controversial. Ideologically, he has endorsed the BJP’s nationalistic agenda. Yet, he is no cardboard populist figure. In a January edition, the editors of India Today named him the “2016 Man of the Year.” As a charismatic leader, Modi earned their praise because of his vision and practical achievements. In just three years, he has begun to fulfill his vision of modernizing India. Modi reports that his government has helped the village poor build 3 crore toilets (30 million) in 1.3 lakh (130,000) villages, completed 2.1 million small business loans, provided electricity to 11,400 of the 18,452 non-electrified villages, built 4.9 million homes, and vaccinated 2.1 million at-risk children and 5.6 million pregnant women against preventable diseases. For the India Today editors, these statistics demonstrates his effective support for India’s poor.
The editors of India Today also recognized his persuasive abilities. In an era of elevator speeches and multi-word slogans, Modi is a master. As a slap at India’s tedious and corrupt bureaucracy, Modi declares that India should be known “Not for Red Tape, but for the Red Carpet.” To promote national and international development, Modi stresses the “5 T’s: Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade, and Technology.” He says “If India has to compete with China, the focus should be on “Brand India” and the strength of the 5 T’s.” Inviting foreign investment, he uses another catchy slogan, the “3 D’s: Democracy, Demography, and Demand.” In the same vein, Modi stresses the “3 S’s: Skill, Scale, and Speed.” All of this is motivated by Modi’s vision for India. “I want an India where the farmer is happy, trade is prosperous, every woman is empowered, and the youth get fully employed. An India where every family has a house, and every household has access to electricity, water, and a toilet (India Today, 24) Modi has a sure handle on the Indian version of the American Dream!
Against this backdrop, the March 11th election results are viewed as crucial. The newspaper headlines make the results clear:
“BJP Tsunami Decimates Rivals” The Tribune, March 11th edition.
“NaMo Unstoppable” Lokmat Times of Aurangabad, March 12th edition.
The pundits now must answer the questions: What contributed to Modi’s and the BJP’s success? What does the election mean for India’s future?
Pavan K. Varma blames all the opposition parties for failing to challenge Modi in his article “It is Time for All Political Parties to Learn Lessons.” While a “formidable political adversary,” Modi won due to a divided opposition. “Unless the Opposition comes up with a credible narrative, and makes a sustained attempt at unity, based not upon hurriedly cobbled up and incomplete last minute alliances, but organizational rigour, its impact will be sporadic.” Not mincing any words, Varma continues his scathing criticism: “The problem with the Opposition in general is that it habitually tends to live in denial.” For Varma, Modi won not because of his abilities but because of the failure of the opposition. All the opposition failed!
Amulya Ganguli, a political analyst, writes in a similar spirit about the various opposition parties in his article “Nao Regains His Mojo.” He criticizes the Congress Party: “… it is clear that the 132-year-old grand old party of yore hardly has any committed supporters in a state [Uttar Pradesh] which once gave the country four Prime Ministers.” He writes about another opposition party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Voters view it as a party only for dalits [untouchables. Voters also consider the BSP to be critical of Indian society without offering any convincing plans for India’s improvement. For Ganguli, an opposition party that feels that it is entitled to govern (the Congress Party) and a party based purely on identity politics (the BSP Party) clearly failed to convince voters of the relevancy of their programs.
M.J. Akbar, a minister in Modi’s government, writes in “The Poor Have Embraced Modi, and the Vote-Merchants Still Don’t Get It” the following: “The poor have finally found a leader who is doing something about their hopes: Narendra Modi.” Rather than simply being an election about nationalism and religion, the election has been about poverty. Akbar writes: “Two quotations define his [Modi’s] vision of government. In his very first speech to Parliament, he marked the horizon. The era of poverty alleviation was over, he said, and the age of poverty elimination had begun. The second message, articulated in moving language during his first address from the Red Fort, was that governance was nothing if it was not about improving the quality of life for the poor every day.” From my outsider’s perspective, I wonder how Akbar explains the fact that Modi and the BJP did not include a single Muslim candidate in the 400+ Uttar Pradesh Assembly seats! In dismissing religion, Akbar is simply ignoring Modi’s and the BJP’s strategy of ignoring Muslims. By ignoring this religious block, Modi and the BJP have deeply involved religion in the election.
Dipankar Gupta, with no acknowledged party affiliation, analyzes the election in “Lesson of 2017: Decisive Leadership Wins Elections.” He writes: “In the past, conventional wisdom believed that the majority community would be equally divided and hence the trick was to win the minorities to tip the scales.” Each major party had to engage in “minority fine-tuning” as it sought to appeal to minorities such as the Muslims, Dalits, or tribal groups. In the present, the traditional main party’s tasks are to consolidate themselves given the issues India faces. He writes: “There are greater similarities between religions and caste than what we are accustomed to believe. Urbanization, migration, and the breakdown of agricultural economic relations, have made many of the earlier caste/community distinctions irrelevant.” For Gupta, Modi has an uncanny sense of the Indian electorate. Possibly like other populist elected leaders, Modi has an awareness that Indians want more than a repeat of past political alliances. Those alliances failed to address India’s real problems. Instead, the Indian voters are willing to break with past party identification and forge new party affiliations. If a leader shows vision and skill at addressing those problems, the voters will respond . For Gupta, the Indian voters like Modi’s three years as a leader and trust him as their future leader.
Modi is perceived as tackling corruption through his demonetization efforts. Gupta writes: “In the context of recent debates it is clear that demonetization [the governmental removal of 500 and 1000 rupees from the Indian economy] has worked in favor of the BJP…It has been said, time and again, over the years, by different parties and intellectuals, that black money [unreported and untaxed money that circulates in the Indian economy] is the cause of our economic misery. On this there was consensus and nobody questioned the validity of the black money syndrome. Yet, nothing was done till Modi came along. This made Modi seem a champion of the poor, over and above bring a decisive leader. This combination is hard to beat.” Modi is not just talk, he acts.
Arai R. Jerath in “Modi Wave Defines Election” looks at the implications of Modi’s success. Like other writers, she declares that Modi presents himself as a modern-day Robin Hood. Regarding Modi’s defeat of the Congress Party she writes: “Modi has swept the carpet from under Congress by taking away two of its key planks: pro-poor and secularism. His demonetization narrative has made him the sole claimant of the pro-poor plank. The Congress Party’s failure to frame a counter-narrative landed it on the wrong side of the fence as a ‘defender’ of the corrupt and rich.” She claims that the secularism issue is more serious. As I mentioned, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate for its 400+ seats even though Muslims comprise 19% of the state’s population. Jerath views inclusiveness as a key future issue in the actual governance of Uttar Pradesh and the nation.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a contributing editor to The Indian Express, writes the following in his article “Victor and the Vanquished.” “…the ideological narrative is harder to pin down. Is it nationalism, the civic aura that demonetization created, the undercurrent of majoritarian consolidation, or just the sense many still have that Modi is at least trying to do something?” Mehta is less willing to declare one narrative which led to Modi’s winning message. Aware of his own lack of understanding about India’s current political landscape, he writes with some welcome intellectual humility: “There has been, since 2014, a new political language and aspiration in the making whose full contours we do not quite grasp. It has elements of populism, but not of a conventional kind that merely panders to popular comfort zones–after all, this prime minister asked the people to bear with him while he inflicted hardship on them. And they responded. It has elements of nationalism and majoritarianism. But it also fuses these with elements of progressive hope that makes it more than reactionary.” Mehta avoids quick analysis. He is aware that Modi exhibits something new. I will find other writings by this editor and commentator!
As people in the UK voted for Brexit and people in the USA voted for Trump, people in India have overwhelmingly voted for Modi. Just as pollsters and commentators in the UK and the USA were confounded by the Brexit and Trump victories, those in India are perplexed by the extent of Modi’s success. As a man who is a gifted political orator, a man who developed a program for both the poor and development, a man willing to take gigantic political risks, a man who projects a newer and larger vision of India, Modi is a serious force in India today. Will he “deliver the goods” for all Indians as he consolidates and builds his power? Will he create a “New India” that many Indians want? We all must wait and watch.