By Sekhar Bandyopadhyay
In the 2019 election to the 17th Lok Sabha lower house of the Indian parliament, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by its controversial but charismatic leader Narendra Damodardas Modi, has come back to power with a thumping majority for another term of five years.
Out of the 542 available seats, the NDA won 351 seats, the BJP alone getting 303, becoming a single majority party for the second time in a row. Its vote share, according to last available report, increased by 6.35% to 45.06%. On the other hand, its main opposition, the Congress Party and its allies, got 92 seats, with Congress getting only 52 seats. Other assorted opposition parties from the regions got 99 seats. Indian voters have given a clear mandate: they have overwhelmingly chosen the NDA government and Narendra Modi – indicating unmistakably a shift in Indian politics to the right.
For Indian voters, it seemed to be a very straightforward choice. On the one hand, they had the ruling BJP and its allies promising a strong and stable government, security against their traditional enemies (Pakistan and ‘Islamic terrorism’), and ensuring the dominance of the Hindu majority, putting minorities – the Muslims and the Dalit – in their proper place. On the other side, there was a plethora of opposition parties: a Congress Party, already tainted by corruption charges during a previous term, and under an inexperienced leader Rahul Gandhi, representing a powerful political family; and a variety of regional parties with ambitious leaders, some of them being associated with past corruption scandals. There was no national pre-poll alliance among these parties, except in some states like Uttar Pradesh. Congress in most states decided to go alone, although it was clear that it did not have the capacity to challenge BJP on its own. In the absence of adjustment of seats, opposition votes were divided, giving an undoubted advantage to BJP in a first-past-the-post system. What the opposition parties offered to Indian voters was a hung parliament and a weak coalition. At the end of the day the Indian voters chose a strong and stable government over a disunited and corrupt opposition. A very sensible choice it appears.
But the choice was not that simple to begin with: it was the extraordinary BJP election campaign, funded by enormous amounts of money and aided by a partisan media that made it appear so.
In 2014, the BJP won the election on a promise of development for all. But many of its development projects had questionable success. The economy is not functioning that well. The government stopped its own agency from releasing unemployment data before the election, but a leaked paper revealed that it was at its highest point in 45 years – later confirmed by a university research centre publication. India’s high GDP growth rate was being questioned by renowned economists from across the world, particularly after the government changed the methodology of calculating it. And most recently, the government’s own Statistical Sample Survey Office revealed that 36% of the companies listed in 2016-17 and used for calculating GDP were either untraceable or were wrongly classified. Many economists think that the demonetisation decision by the last government, which caused hardship to many ordinary people, failed to bring out concealed unauthorised money, but adversely affected thousands of middle and small businesses and caused 10 to 12 million job losses. The agricultural economy also seems to be in crisis, indicated by farmer suicides. And the hurriedly-introduced goods and services tax made life difficult for small businesses. In other words, the previous NDA government could not adequately deliver on development.
But on the other hand, the last five years witnessed an alarming rise in aggressive Hindu nationalism or Hindutva ideology, and saw an increasing rate of attacks on minorities like Muslims and Dalit (often called ‘untouchables’ in the West) and an unnerving number of lynching deaths. There has been a frightening rise in intolerance of dissent and critical voices, leading to incarceration of academics and human rights activists and killing of journalists and rationalists. There was also widespread civil society protests against this environment of fear and hatred. At the beginning of the election campaign, therefore, many commentators thought that it would be a difficult election for the BJP, a potential repeat of 2004 election, which saw the dramatic defeat of an earlier NDA government under the BJP.
But then a lifeline was thrown by a terrorist attack on February 14 in Pulwama district of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, resulting in the death of 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel and of the terrorist bomber. This was followed by an Indian airstrike on February 26 on a terrorist training camp in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan territory. The BJP thereafter pitched the election campaign almost exclusively on security concerns, hyper-nationalism, militarism (for the first time using the army for a political campaign), anti-Pakistan rhetoric, and of course, an anti-Muslim agenda of deporting all Muslims who were allegedly non-citizens of the Republic. Modi, in a presidential-style campaign, presented himself as the strong man who could save the nation from foreign aggression and terrorist attacks.
The BJP managed to shift the grounds for the election campaign so much that development issues were rarely mentioned or discussed. Security, nationalism, and Hindutva now took centre stage in such a way that even the opposition leaders had to show how devout Hindu and nationalist they were. The Congress had a comprehensive manifesto with an economic development plan that could benefit millions of poor Indians. But it was rarely mentioned in the election campaign or discussed in the media.
The election campaign of 2019 and the subsequent result clearly indicate that at least for a large number of Hindu Indians the old notion of secularism, enshrined in the Indian Constitution, is probably already dead. Many of those who voted for Modi – by no means I am suggesting all of them – seem to feel comfortable with the idea of a strong Hindu majoritarian state. A new India is surely emerging; it remains to be seen what its contours will be.
So, what are the future implications for the third NDA government under the BJP? There is no question that the nation is now very polarised. The amount of violence – both verbal abuse and physical attacks – that was unleashed from both sides during the election campaign was simply uncivil and unprecedented. So the question is, will the new government be able to build bridges and usher in an inclusive government?
All available indications suggest that there will certainly be an ascendancy of the Hindutva ideology and growing intolerance of its critics. This might mean hard times for the minorities like the Muslims and the Dalit, and the dissenters like the fast-vanishing tribe of critical journalists and academics. The renowned French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has commented in a recent interview that India is becoming an ‘ethnic democracy’, where the majority community would enjoy more rights and the minorities would be marginalised.
Whether that reading of the political situation is correct or not, only time will tell. In the meantime, the world should keep an eye on India’s economic development. Modi will have to quickly generate sufficient employment. Otherwise, it will be difficult for him to keep his young followers happy for a very long time.
Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is a Professor of History at Victoria University of Wellington, and Director of the New Zealand India Research Institute. He is an expert in the social and political history of South Asia.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the participants and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.