Ruchir Sharma, the banker and writer, said that India tends to disappoint both pessimists and optimists, meaning that its progress in the long term was not marked by the striking acceleration that defined the economic success of China and South Korea and Japan before it. It would remain as poor as its sisters in South Asia. However, India also disappoints those who conclude that it is a lost cause and doomed to failure. It can go all the way up to imminent default, but it pulls itself back.
The reality, Sharma says, is more banal. India staggers along but corrects itself before it reaches an extreme, whether that is success or failure, and comes around to the middle.
The narrative of New India
It appears that this thesis has carried over from the economy to India’s politics. The BJP is seen by its supporters as the unstoppable force that will transform the nation, and transform it radically (“New India”). The agent of that change is a leader, the Prime Minister, who is seen in messianic terms. He will bring something special because he is the sole possessor of it. We are now in year 10 of this dispensation and it is not that we are lacking in evidence or data on the side of the economy, or national security, or employment or any of the major objective things that would qualify as being radical change. But that does not seem to matter to the believers because bhakti does not require a demonstration from the object that is deified. The magic is produced in the believer and not from the believed. Their conviction is that India will be remade in the way that Narendra Modi wants it to be. They are the optimists of Hindutva.
From the opponents’ point of view, the manner in which this remaking is happening is clear. It is through the targeting of minorities in three ways. The first is exclusion, and the BJP, India’s most popular political party by far, has no Member of Parliament, whether in the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha, who is Muslim. That is just under 400 MPs, over 90 of whom are nominated and at least 100 from safe seats where anyone the party nominates will likely win. The party has no Muslim Minister for that reason in the Union government, something that has not happened ever in our history. Of the more than 1,000 MLAs nationwide, the BJP has zero Muslims. This is absolute exclusion, and will remind historians of India before 1947, when Muslim membership of the Congress was less than 3 per cent.
The second way is through laws and policy. Targeted legislation and regulations on the issue of possession of beef, marriage, citizenship, divorce, clothing, and forced ghettoisation after 2014 have divided our society further than it has been before. Evidence of this is all around us.
The third way is through rhetoric and action. The BJP is on the side of convicted rapists and murderers because their victims were Muslim. The party garlands those convicted of lynching Muslims. The message is not hidden or cryptic. It is direct.
This message was heard and responded to by many, if not most, Indians. The BJP remained the dominant force in Indian politics not only despite its injection of division but apparently because of it. This is where the pessimists of Hindutva may have convinced themselves that the entire country would succumb to it in time. The pessimists gave up on the people because of the assumption that the siren call of hatred and division was too irresistible.
- The BJP is seen by its supporters as the unstoppable force that will transform the nation, and transform it radically (“New India”) and the agent of that change is a leader, the Prime Minister.
- The Congress victory in the 2023 Karnataka Assembly election shows India is capable of stumbling its way back to the middle.
- The Congress victory shores up the confidence of India’s liberals and of the political oppsition to the BJP.
- The victory also gives a huge boost to the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, who will, with reason, link it to his Bharat Jodo Yatra.
What Karnataka shows
Karnataka shows us that India is capable of stumbling its way back to the middle. Is that too ambitious a thing to say about an election in just one State? Perhaps. Especially if we accept that the BJP is a force that is focussed on north India for the most part. It is seen as a Hindi heartland phenomenon, which is undeniable. And yet, here is a State in the south that it was governing. A State where attacks on churches and on Muslims made headline news for months on end. Here was the place the BJP sees as its gateway to the south, from where it seeks to expand further. And yet it contracted. Here was a campaign in which their star gave it his all. He spoke like no Prime Minister before him had, conflating the Bajrang Dal with Bajrang Bali and accusing the opposition of plans to secede from India. The Prime Minister held little back in terms of time and put his roadshows ahead of the catastrophe unfolding in Manipur. The reason for this can only be that he felt that a defeat here would be significant. It is.
The most important element of this defeat of the BJP is the restoration of belief and confidence in two sets of people. The “liberals”, however one wants to define them, but let us assume they are those who are opposed to majoritarianism, will exult. Many of them are not wedded to one party. You could be repelled by Hindutva and be a voter of the DMK, the NCP, the TMC, the CPI(M), the AIMIM or the PDP. If you are fond of majoritarianism, there is only one party for you. And so, the defeat of the BJP in Karnataka will warm the hearts of many who are not Congress votaries. For them, the defeat of the BJP and its ideology in any State, by any party, is a matter to rejoice. They felt a similar sentiment of relief if not joy when Mamata Banerjee wrestled down her opponent in a very tough fight in West Bengal and when Nitish Kumar once again broke away in Bihar.
The second set is of course the opposition itself. A defeat here would have been demoralising. The conditions that obtained in Karnataka are exactly the same as they do in the Union. Anti-incumbency, high household inflation, and high unemployment are not specific to Karnataka and are the inheritance of the BJP nationally. In this election, these became bigger issues to more people than the overwhelming appeals to religion and division.
The victory of the Congress validates the idea that there is a hard limit to the popularity of Hindutva and the messianic appeal of Modi. That limit is not insignificant, and it is in fact substantial. Consider that in an anti-incumbency situation, with a government accused by many of its own supporters of corruption, and a party that was substantially remade as an experiment just before the election, the BJP still managed to hold on to the vote share that it did. Also consider that the BJP does not approach anything as a lost cause and flings itself into the battle with enthusiasm.
Lastly, remember that the party spent three decades, the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, with single-digit vote shares nationally. It had no Chief Minister without a coalition until 1990. It is a party that is convinced about its mission, which is to produce more of what we see around us. And it recognises that for this it requires patience. And yet it is also true that the party believes that so long as it has Modi at the helm it will dominate the national space. The people of Karnataka have said that this is not the case for them.
No thrill like victory
Let us turn to the Congress. It was harassed and humiliated even in victory on the news channels, as might be expected. This has become the norm. Its leader will find himself more confident. That leader, of course, is Rahul Gandhi and not the man who won a small election to become Congress president. He will begin to believe that it is his efforts, his Bharat Jodo Yatra, and his actions that have produced, at least in substantial part, this win and perhaps that would be right. He has been given a torrid time by the Prime Minister, the media, and the State, but moments like these will be recompense. There is no thrill like that of victory, particularly against an opponent as powerful as Rahul Gandhi finds himself pitted against. The party has seen the result of a narrative that it thinks can carry the day in 2024. The win will mean that the party’s candidates will be encouraged to invest more in their campaigns, and more hopeful of winning marginal contests.
BJP and federalism
There are a couple of other things that require consideration. The south is responding differently to the BJP than the north is. And this is not limited to the issue of Hindutva. It extends to federalism, taxation, and the fears of impending delimitation. The BJP has always been suspicious of federalism, and its forefather, Deendayal Upadhyaya, in fact, wanted the States to be abolished in favour of one Central legislature. The fondness for an all-powerful Centre was also something Jawaharlal Nehru had, but this aim has reached its full extent under Modi, with no taxation power left with the States, no control over their revenues given the way GST is collected and distributed, and no autonomy on law and order, which the Centre through federal agencies has encroached on fully.
The battle in 2024 is likely to throw up more such issues, which will be to the detriment of the hard, monolithic nationalism preferred by Modi and the BJP.
The BJP will have to consider the option of coming to the middle, both on its ideology of Hindutva and its ideology of an all-powerful Centre. This will not be appealing to the Prime Minister, his devotees, and those who want to see a total break with India’s inclusive and centrist character. And yet, it seems to be the obvious thing to do for both party and nation. India does not thrive on the extremes; its natural position is in the middle.
Aakar Patel is a senior journalist and columnist. His most recent book is The Anarchist Cookbook: A Toolkit to Protest and Peaceful Resistance.