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Print edition : March 31, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi on March 12 to celebrate the party's grand showing in the Assembly elections. Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Modi greets BJP president Amit Shah at the party's parliamentary board meeting in New Delhi on March 12. Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi at a rally at Jaunpur ahead of the March 8 voting in the last phase of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. Photo: PTI

The Narendra Modi-led Indian Right’s march continues with major victories in the latest Assembly elections, presenting a host of challenges before other players in national politics.

“THIS will usher in a change in India’s polity.” This was how Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah prefaced his interaction with the media even as the results were being declared for the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur and they signified major gains for the BJP in three of these States. Shah, who is referred to as “action man” in the echelons of the BJP, is not really known to be a political theorist. So, he did not elaborate on the “change” that was being “ushered in” or its characteristics and import. However, he said “this is a win for the people, for their determination” and “a win for [Prime Minister] Modiji’s leadership” and “a win for the hard work and efforts of our party workers”.

Obviously, the reference was to the phenomenal triumph the ruling party at the Centre registered in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous State in the country, crushing all political adversaries, and the remarkable victory in the hill State of Uttarakhand. Shah did refer also to the defeat suffered by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP alliance in Punjab but went on to claim that the performance there too was creditable. Then he contended that the BJP would form governments in Manipur and Goa, too, though the elections had thrown up hung Assemblies in both States and the BJP was not the single largest party in either of them. Shah did not explain whether these results cumulatively were bringing in the change in the polity or whether some aspects were pushing it or whether there were other ingrained dimensions that denoted the change.

Change and constancy

A closer, and objective, assessment of the results of the 2017 round of Assembly elections reveals multidimensional outcomes that signify both change and constancy. In totality, they present a complex sociopolitical picture that does not fit into any binary logic, including concepts of change and continuity. Some of these outcomes are reflected in all the five States and could be termed common factors. Some others are unique to certain States or regions within them and are guided by nuance.

Common to verdicts in all five States was the prevalence of the anti-incumbency factor, albeit in varying degrees. All parties that were in power in the five States suffered reverses, though not on the same scale. The verdict against the ruling party was manifest most strikingly in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand, all big States, and on a relatively lesser scale in Manipur and Goa. In Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which aligned itself with the Congress, was routed by the BJP, while in Uttarakhand, the Congress government led by Harish Rawat suffered a similar result, again at the hands of the BJP. The ruling SAD-BJP alliance in Punjab was handed a resounding defeat by the Congress. In Manipur, the ruling Congress fell from full majority to the status of single largest party, tantalisingly short of a majority. In Goa, the ruling BJP slipped to the second position, behind the Congress. Interestingly, in the run-up to the results, the dominant perception in the media, among political observers and even among sections of the population that were interviewed as part of opinion polls was that the anti-incumbency factor in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand was relatively low. The electoral verdicts, however, disproved this view.

The interplay of constancy and change is also visible in a broader assessment that goes beyond the results of this round of Assembly elections. Since the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, which witnessed the ascent of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government with a massive majority, Assembly elections, including the present round, have been held in 16 States. Taken together, the dominant common trend of these Assembly elections has been the emergence of the BJP and the NDA as the central pole of the national polity. The BJP won elections in six States, including an unprecedented victory in Assam in the north-eastern region, before the present round. By winning Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the party’s victory tally has gone up to eight since 2014. Its creditable, though second-placed, performance in Manipur helps underscore the BJP’s pole position.

However, two other trends that reflected strikingly in the Assembly elections in 11 States between May 2014 and May 2016 have undergone a nuanced change. In that period, regional political forces challenged the dominance of the BJP and its allies, while the Congress, the grand old mainstream party of India, repeatedly suffered reverses. Thus, in early 2015, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) routed the BJP in Delhi and later that year the Grand Alliance in Bihar, consisting of the Janata Dal (United), or JD (U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and the Congress, inflicted a resounding defeat on the BJP-led NDA. In May 2016, the trend was repeated when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal returned to power with massive victories. The Left parties also registered a win in Kerala, imparting a different dimension to the resistance of non-Congress parties. But this time around, regional parties have not been able to assert their position, either in opposition to the BJP or even as its allies, though some of them may turn out to be crucial, yet marginal, players in the hung Assemblies of Manipur and Goa. All major regional forces—the S.P. and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh and the SAD and the AAP in Punjab—failed to live up to expectations. On the other hand, the Congress emerged the winner against the SAD-BJP combine in Punjab, made a return in Goa as the single largest party and retained the number one position in Manipur too.

Along with the reversals that regional political forces have suffered, the practitioners of “new politics”, such as the AAP, too have been forced back. The party, which rules the State of Delhi, was expected to register a big win in Punjab. Until about three months ago, the expectation was that the party would sweep the border State. However, it has been relegated to the second spot by the Congress. A large number of former party activists and observers blamed the party’s failure to stick to its original principles of alternative politics and internal democracy for the reverse. The rise of a personality cult around the AAP’s most prominent leader, Arvind Kejriwal, has imparted to the party the attributes of just another traditional party, allege its former leaders such as Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan. Clearly, this setback is bound to put the brakes on the party's national expansion plans.

At the qualitative level, beyond incumbency-related issues and their consequences and the reverses to regional and new politics, the results of this round of Assembly elections mark the continued ascent of right-wing forces, in keeping with the trend visible since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This round also marks the addition of some unique shifts and nuances to the right-wing political practice spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. One striking nuance is in the assimilation of right-wing political practice as witnessed recently in international politics in the manoeuvres of President Donald Trump of the United States. At its core, this involves the so-called championing of the concerns of the underprivileged and the marginalised even while advancing rabidly sectarian sociopolitical propositions along with neoliberal economic policies that ultimately work against the deprived sections of society.

The three strands

This right-wing practice was on grandstand play in the campaign of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and to a lesser extent in Uttarakhand. There were many streams to this political display, but three strands stood out. First, the rampant efforts at creating a sectarian divide between Hindus and Muslims through communal polarisation. Second, the building of a social coalition comprising the poor and the marginalised in sections of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) and Dalits, that too on the basis of a sectarian political campaign against the OBC Yadav community, the Dalit Jatav community and the Muslim minorities. Three, the forceful presentation and propagation of the recent demonetisation drive as a measure for establishing an equitable society. While the first two have been long-standing projects of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, the third is a recent, nuanced addition. All three planks boosted the BJP’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh ( see separate story).

The propaganda on these three strands were supplemented by a campaign on the welfare schemes of the Central government, such as the initiation of 52 lakh gas connections through a special programme targeted at Uttar Pradesh women as well as the disbursal of Rs.20,000 crore as loans through the Mudra bank and the opening of three crore Jan Dhan accounts. In short, the idea was sold to the electorate most forcefully and effectively.

The welfare schemes and the shift they have caused mark the appropriation of the social justice plank and its juxtaposition with the Hindutva ideology as also with the traditional support of the elite upper class. This is in marked contrast with the situation in neighbouring Bihar, the State credited with pioneering struggles of the socially marginalised for social justice. In Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the JD(U) advanced in parallel the social justice and empowerment themes among different sections of the OBC, MBC and Dalit communities. These two streams joined hands in a political coalition in 2015 putting paid to the BJP’s attempts to carve out its own OBC-MBC-Dalit combination along with the elite upper castes.

As the American anthropologist Jeffrey Witsoe observed in his seminal book Democracy Against Development: Lower-Caste Politics and Political Modernity in Postcolonial India (University of Chicago Press, 2013), one of the consequences of the enhanced participation of the lower castes in the democratic process was that “it radically threatened the postcolonial patronage system”. The success of the BJP’s project in Uttar Pradesh raises the question whether such a radical threatening of the patronage system would continue in the State.

The rise of this nuanced right-wing politics also reflects in the personality-oriented politics of the country. With these results, particularly the massive Uttar Pradesh verdict, Narendra Modi has become the most dominant political personality in the country's recent political history. The manner in which he led the nuanced right-wing politics from the front in Uttar Pradesh has added to his strength and domination. At the level of the Union government as well as the party structure, too, this verdict has imparted unbridled powers to him and his close associate Amit Shah. Between them, they have total control of all aspects of the party, including on Chief Ministers and veteran leaders and Ministers. Even the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh top brass would think twice before questioning him now.

This sense of paramountcy has already found expression in extraconstitutional manipulations aimed at subverting electoral mandates. In both Manipur and Goa, the BJP was not the single largest party in the hung Assemblies. However, at the time of writing this, the BJP has staked its claim to form the government in both States, claiming support from smaller regional parties. By all indications, the smaller parties are getting arm twisted to support the supreme leader and his party.

The rise of Modi’s political personality and a nuanced right-wing politics raises questions for other players in national politics. The most pressing question would be on Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi on account of the massive loss the party suffered in Uttar Pradesh, where he campaigned extensively. Attempts are being made by some Congress sycophants to place the credit for the Punjab victory on Rahul Gandhi, but this is not bound to get acceptance among the people. For it is common knowledge that the Punjab victory was crafted by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. Indeed, it is time for him and the party to take some radical steps, including finding a replacement at the top.

Two other personalities who played a significant role in these elections but ended up on the losing side are Akhilesh Yadav and Delhi Chief Minister Kejriwal. Both of them are in control of parties that have some influence and acceptance though they have lost. Age is also on their side. But their efficacy and emergence as alternatives to the BJP-Sangh Parivar’s right-wing politics and the new nuances that are getting incorporated into it will depend on how well they make a course correction and relaunch their politics. That, however, will require not merely an organisational and structural course correction but also the evolution of a theme-based and programme-oriented political alternative that counters the appropriation of the empowerment agenda by new right-wing political initiatives and puts up a principled and concerted resistance to neoliberal economic pursuits and the Hindutva communal aggression in society.

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