General Election 2019

Right on top

Print edition : June 07, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being felicitated by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and BJP president Amit Shah in Varanasi on May 27 . Photo: ANI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah offering prayers at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple during a visit to Modi’s parliamentary constituency of Varanasi on May 27. Photo: PTI

Modi pays tribute to V.D. Savarkar on his birth anniversary, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

Pragya Singh Thakur, the newly-elected BJP MP from Bhopal, in Parliament House on May 25. Photo: PTI

Congress president Rahul Gandhi during the CWC meeting in New Delhi on May 25. Photo: AP

Narendra Modi once again trounces the weak and hopelessly divided opposition parties, and there are already signs that India is moving faster than ever before towards the goal of Hindu Rashtra.

A watershed electoral verdict with grave and far-reaching implications for India’s polity and society as a whole. At its core, the result of the 17th general election of India could be summed up thus. In its details, the result has manifold, nuanced features and every one of them underscores its momentous import. These details range from the return of an incumbent government with an enhanced majority, the unique voting patterns it unravelled, the social churning ingrained in these patterns, the domination of a personality cult on the campaign scene, the manner in which the election was conducted by the “autonomous” Election Commission of India (ECI) and the tangible limitations of and deficiencies among the opposition forces, especially the principal opposition party, the Congress, to expose and highlight the multitudinous shortfalls and failures of the government and their impact on the economy and the people. Collectively, all these important and relevant details also point to the essence of the result and to the short-, medium- and long-term implications they have for the polity and society.

In a sense, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had pointed to the unique status of the current election in the country’s history and had exhorted journalists and political analysts to make it a point of focussed and sustained study. He made this call, incidentally, on the evening of May 19, the last day of polling in the seven-phased election, when he held what has been widely termed as a “non-press conference” along with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah. Although he did not take any questions from the media in the “non-press conference”, Modi dwelt at length on different aspects of the current election. During the course of this declamation, he said that though the result was not yet formally announced the BJP was sure of coming back with a full majority, possibly crossing 300 seats. This result, he said, should be studied in detail to understand how a ruling party could achieve this historic feat.

The Prime Minister’s projections proved prophetic four days later when the result came out. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government became the only non-Congress government in Indian political history to return to power. As far as Prime Ministers go, Modi matched the track record of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and became the third leader to retain power for a second term with a full majority for his own party in the Lok Sabha. The NDA’s final tally is 354 seats out of 543, with the BJP itself winning 303 seats and improving on its 2014 score of 282. In terms of vote share too, the BJP improved on its 2014 position. It got 37.4 per cent of the votes this time compared with the 31.4 per cent it got five years ago. The BJP and its allies in the NDA touched approximately a 45 per cent vote share. Altogether, the seat and vote gains mark a new high in the history of saffron politics in India. Never before had a political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, which existed in earlier forms such as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and as the BJP since 1980, touched this high a seat and vote share in a general election.

Given the significant increase in the vote share and seats, and the manner in which the Prime Minister led the BJP-NDA campaign from the front, leaders and activists of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar as well as sections of the media have characterised the electoral sweep as the result of a “Modi wave”. “The 2014 triumph was also termed in the same way by the Sangh Parivar constituents and sections of the media. However, both in terms of seat share and vote share, the 2019 BJP victory does not match up to the earlier elections denoted as the product of a wave. The two comprehensive wave elections in Indian history were won by the Congress: in 1971 when Indira Gandhi returned to power on the “Garibi Hatao” slogan, and in 1984 when elections were held in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, leading to the ascent of her son, Rajiv Gandhi. In 1971, the Congress won 352 seats in a 518-member Lok Sabha with vote share of 43.68 per cent. In the “sympathy wave” election of 1984, the grand old party improved this score to garner 404 seats in a 514-member Lok Sabha with a vote share of 49.10 per cent. Equally significantly, both these Congress victories were marked by victories from all major regions of the country, unlike the two “Modi waves”, which failed to make an impact in vast tracts of the country.

Unable to get good results in south

As in 2014, the BJP and other NDA constituents were unable to fetch good results from all regions. This deficit was conspicuous in the majority of States in southern India. It failed to win a single seat in three southern States, namely Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, and the Union Territory of Puducherry. However, it improved upon its position in Karnataka and Telangana, raising its tally from 17 and zero respectively to 25 and four. The BJP made significant inroads into eastern States such as West Bengal and Odisha. Throwing a stiff challenge to the ruling parties of West Bengal and Odisha—the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal respectively—it won 18 and eight seats respectively. The party also swept through its traditional strongholds of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana and thwarted the challenge thrown by two “mahagathbandhans” in two crucial north Indian States, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In Uttar Pradesh, the mahagathbandhan of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal was at least able to bring down the BJP’s seat share from 71 to 62, but the Bihar mahagathbandhan of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Congress, the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and the Vikassheel Insan Party failed miserably before the NDA onslaught and surrendered as many as 39 of the 40 seats. The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance in Maharashtra also managed only five of the 48 seats in the State against the BJP and the Shiv Sena, which shared 41 seats, 23 and 18 respectively. In as many as 14 States and Union Territories, the NDA scored more than 50 per cent of the votes polled, with the BJP single-handedly performing this statistical wonder in as many as 12 of them. On the other side, the principal opposition, the Congress, could not open its account in as many as 17 States and Union Territories.

All these statistics are highlighted to assert the prevalence of the “Modi wave”. The Kanpur-based senior BJP leader Shyam Bihari Mishra told Frontline that these statistics and related factors were evidence of how the electorate wanted to give the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi an absolutely clear mandate. “In constituency after constituency, Modi told the voters that the vote was for him and not for the local candidate. The campaign carried so much weight that even third-rate candidates won by margins as huge as two lakh or more. This had a particularly striking effect in States like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka where the BJP had lost the Assembly elections held over the past 12 months. There is no other explanation for the phenomenal turnaround in all these States, with all of them registering a vote share of more than 50 per cent for the BJP. Of course, all sections of the population from farmers to traders to agricultural and industrial workers and the middle class all had faced varying degrees of economic hardship during the five years of the Modi regime, but as a people they were all ready to give another chance to the Prime Minister because they felt he was honest and hard-working, with the sole aim of uplifting India. Modi is again the sole reason why OBC-Dalit caste-based identity politics did not work as effectively as imagined in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,” he said. Mishra’s view gets echoed across the echelons of the BJP, political observers and the media.

However, a closer inspection of the result and the campaign trends that preceded it brings out the other nuances and factors embedded in this massive success. While there is little doubt that the TINA (there is no alternative) factor around Modi played a part in the big gains scored across north, west and east India, it is also clear that this was built up essentially around the core sectarian Hindutva agenda of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. The way this was done was diverse and had many different facets in different States and regions. The thrust of the BJP-Sangh Parivar campaigns in each of these States is testimony to this well-thought-out and formulated electoral plank aimed at fomenting and aggravating communal polarisation. These operations had both overt and blatant elements as well as covert and whisper campaign modes. The overt manoeuvres included ones such as the candidature of Pragya Singh Thakur from Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal and the rampant communal campaign that was unleashed not only in the State but across northern and western India with a special focus on Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah too contributed to the overt campaigns by referring to Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in Wayanad in Kerala as a retreat to a safe haven dominated by minorities. In States such as West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was unleashed to make vitriolic speeches on Muslim appeasement by employing arguments such as the discrimination against Durga Puja compared with the special facilities accorded for Muharram.

Over and above all this, there was this whisper campaign on the ground that was obvious across north India on how the five years of the Modi regime had shown the minorities, particularly Muslims, their inferior place in society, emphasising the need to perpetuate the regime and the marginalisation. Frontline itself came across these subterranean manoeuvres among the traders of Agra in Uttar Pradesh, the Bhumihars and Brahmins of Begusarai in Bihar, large sections of the Thakur community in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and several OBC-MBC communities of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. The points taken up in favour of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar in these “below the radar” campaigns included the series of lynchings of Muslims in the name of trade, transport and slaughter of cows and other operations such as “love jehad”and “ghar wapsi”. It was repeatedly pointed out that these ploys had gained momentum during the five years of Modi.

An important element in the successful enforcement of these multidimensional communal polarisation games was undoubtedly the superior, well-oiled organisational machinery of the BJP and other Sangh Parivar constituents. As a senior RSS activist based in Ranchi told Frontline during the campaign, the anti-minority manoeuvres of the Sangh Parivar are a 24x7, 365-day activity that acquires new forms and hues with changing times. “In the election period, we only seek to reap the benefits of this sustained campaign. The financial power of the BJP is at its zenith now, after five years of the Modi government, and this too is helping us in advancing our mission effectively.”

Evidently, the TINA factor around Modi’s personality was supplemented by the communal polarisation campaign, and it worked to the great advantage of the BJP and its associates where decades of Sangh Parivar activity had already created a latent Hindu-Muslim or Hindu-minority division. Where this was absent, the gains for the BJP and its associates were not as striking. A clear case in point is Punjab, where despite potential anti-incumbency sentiment against the Captain Amarinder Singh-led State government and multifarious factional dissensions in its State unit, the Congress checked the “Modi wave”, winning eight of the 13 seats and reducing the BJP and its ally the Shiromani Akali Dal to two seats each.

However, the Congress’ political and organisational machinery in other States, including the ones it rules, such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Karnataka, was not able to counter the combination of the TINA factor and communal polarisation. The very same organisational deficiencies and the below-par guidance and leadership provided by the top rung, including party president Rahul Gandhi, stood in the way of the Congress building up an alternative political plank highlighting the social and economic hardships faced by the people over the past five years on account of factors ranging from the Modi government’s mismanagement of the agrarian crisis, misadventures in economic affairs through demonetisation and faulty implementation of goods and services tax and the rampant pursuit of crony capitalist interests. The Congress’ campaign seemed to have got carried away by the “Chowkidar chor hai” slogan it raised around the Rafale aircraft scam; it could not even take up the issue of unemployment, which is at its highest rate in 45 years. The party was not able to build up a sound campaign on social and economic issues, including the challenges faced by the agrarian sector.

Over and above this, the principal opposition also failed to confront head-on the Hindutva sectarianism of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, especially its manifestations on the campaign front, and instead opted for a soft Hindutva strategy which even went to the extent of depicting Rahul Gandhi as a janeyudhari (sacred thread-wearing) Brahmin. Obviously, there was no way soft Hindutva was going to work in front of hardcore Hindutva with its multifaceted forms and expressions.

The success in Tamil Nadu of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led opposition front—in which the Congress was a part along with the Left parties (the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi—is a pointer to how the opposition as a whole and the grand old party in particular could have confronted the tactics and manoeuvres of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. The BJP’s central leadership had sought to make inroads into the State by rustling up a mixture of its own Hindutva politics and multiple streams of regional and Dravidian politics represented by parties such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which heads the State government; the Pattali Makkal Katchi; the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam; and Puthiya Thamilagam.

But the DMK front, under the leadership of M.K. Stalin, steadfastly pursued an all-out attack against the forces in the BJP grouping, equating the BJP, the Sangh Parivar and the Modi style of leadership with fascism without mincing words. There was no wavering in the attestation that the Sangh Parivar and its Hindutva politics posed the biggest fascist threat to the country. This was followed up organisationally through the formulation of an inclusive rainbow coalition that included the Congress and the Left parties and representatives of Dalit assertion and Muslim minority interests. Struggles by various groups focussing on livelihood and environment issues over the last five years prepared the ground for the success of this tactic.

The cumulative effect of all this was the generation of a political energy that imparted a new spirit to the traditional Dravidian political orientation of Tamil Nadu. Ultimately, this “Tamil Nadu model” of resistance to the Sangh Parivar, rated by sections of the political class and observers as an ideal political-organisational alternative in contemporary times, put paid to the hopes of the BJP in the southern State. The counter of the opposition, including the non-Congress regional outfits and the CPI(M)-led Left parties, to the BJP’s TINA plus communal polarisation combo was thwarted time and again by the ECI through its blatantly partisan position favouring the BJP in general and the Modi-Shah duo in particular. The duo were let off repeatedly on serious charges, resulting in division and dissent within the ECI. So much so that Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa was compelled to openly state his opposition to the functioning of the other members of the ECI, including Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora. The situation in the ECI in the midst of the elections reflected the efforts made at the subversion of other institutions such as the judiciary in the past five years. This factor did come up intermittently in the opposition campaign. Controversies over the strange appearances and disappearances of electronic voting machines (EVMs) also came up in this context towards the fag end of the elections. Public figures, including former President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and former CEC O.P. Rawat, expressed concern over the management of the EVMs and pointed out that the ECI had the responsibility of maintaining its credibility. But all these did not make any change to the overall campaign or the election atmosphere.

No Muslim MPS on BJP ticket

A telling sign of this is on the list of winning MPs of the BJP. As in 2014, there is not a single Muslim MP elected to the Lok Sabha on the ruling party’s ticket. Its ally in Bihar, the Lok Janshakti Party led by Ram Vilas Paswan, has one Muslim MP. This figure is also a stark affirmation of the communal polarisation games that boosted the TINA factor around Modi. In the climate of the uniquely crafted sectarian politics advanced by the BJP-Sangh Parivar, even the opposition parties have registered a meagre increase in the number of Muslim MPs, from 23 in 2014 to 26 this time.

Thus, the return of the Modi government with an enhanced majority, seen in conjunction with the strategy, tactics and stratagems employed to achieve it, essentially promises to be more of what it has shown itself to be in the past five years: in fact, a potentially magnified version of the political, social and economic parameters and track record of the past five years, which means more of suppression of minorities, more of marginalisation of Dalits, more of neoliberal economic pursuits, more of promotion of crony capitalism, more of subversion of national institutions.

Just as in the early days of his governance in 2014, Modi has begun his second term too with a surfeit of seemingly platitudinous pronouncements, which are actually pregnant with further advancement of the Hindutva agenda. These have come in a spree in post-victory celebratory gatherings and seem to be emphasising the need to build an inclusive society. One of them talks about how the minorities have been deceived and made to live in fear by those who believed in vote-bank politics. “In 2019”, he urged fellow NDA MPs and leaders, “we have to end this deception, we have to win their trust.” He also added that from now on the slogan of the NDA would be “Sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” (with everybody, for everybody’s development and winning everybody’s trust). He also sought to redefine caste, saying that this election had left India with only two castes. “One will be those who are poor and second those who will work to eradicate poverty.”

Even as these homilies were being trotted out, renewed attacks on minorities and Dalits were being reported from different parts of the country. In Madhya Pradesh’s Seoni, gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) affiliated to various Sangh Parivar outfits thrashed three persons, including a couple, accusing them of carrying beef. A video recording of the attack that surfaced on social media showed a group of gau rakshaks thrashing them one by one, with a crowd looking on. The video also showed the attackers forcing one of the victims to beat up a woman accompanying them with chappals. The victims said that they were forced to shout “Jai Shri Ram”. Closer to the national capital, in Gurugram in Haryana, a young Muslim boy was attacked for wearing the skullcap. In Bihar’s Begusarai, the attack on a Muslim youth was followed by taunts telling him to go to Pakistan. In Jharkhand, Professor Jeetrai Hansda, a tribal person working at the Government School and College for Women, Sakchi, Jamshedpur, was arrested on the basis of a 2017 Facebook post, in which he had written that animal sacrifice and eating beef were part of the tribal festival of Joher Dangri Maidan and that it was a cultural right of Adivasis. The Facebook post had also raised arguments against the laws prohibiting bovine slaughter and asked why tribal people had to “live like Hindus”.

These new developments fit into the very pattern that one saw in the days immediately following May 2014. As Prime Minister, Modi kept parading his so-called vision of harmony and peace even as Muslims and other minorities were getting attacked and murdered. The attacks disprove Modi’s claim that the minorities living in fear was just a perception created by those pursuing vote-bank politics. Every one of these incidents has been engineered by Sangh Parivar activists and Modi bhakts.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar propounded the theory of Hindutva in 1922. The huge victory of the BJP in this election and the way it was achieved create a sense of foreboding that the treatise might achieve its goal in its centenary year.