(This article was first published in Seminar journal)
The Indian general elections of 2014 spelled a resounding shift in the power dynamics of the country with a decisive win for the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled his vision and party’s mission for a New India over those five years. The BJP, with a confident leader and successful track record, went to the 2019 elections for continuity of this vision and mission. The election of 2019 was a battle of two ideas of India – one championed by Modi and the BJP, and the other by Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. Various facets of these two narratives and the reasons why voters had invested heavily in one while rejecting the other, makes an interesting lens to look through to understand India’s current political landscape.
In the run-up to the 2019 elections, two clear narratives had emerged. On one side was the Congress-led coalition of forces who opposed Modi on all counts, claiming that he was inimical to the democratic ethos of the country. On the other hand, the BJP supporters campaigned on the strength of Modi’s personal integrity that had remained untarnished, and that he had succeeded in pushing the growth agenda while constantly identifying with the masses.
While releasing the BJP’s manifesto titled ‘Sankalp Patra’, Modi presented a grand vision of a developed and prosperous India by 2047 and stressed that the foundation of this vision will be laid during 2019-2024. The BJP stepped into the elections with nationalism as its inspiration, antyoday as its philosophy and good governance as its motto. The Sankalp Patra promised the possibility of achieving a ‘great Indian dream’ presenting 75 ‘resolves’ that were visionary, inclusive and pragmatic. The manifesto talked about gaon (village), garib (poor), kisan (farmer), yuva (youth), as well as the middle class and neo-middle class. Thus, it reflected collective as well as individual aspirations of the nation’s diverse electorate, making the primordial identities of caste and religion irrelevant. Further, the manifesto laid stress on inclusive growth and had a nationalist vision offering a new security doctrine of ‘offensive defence’. For Indians, the BJP manifesto was attractive because it did not offer sops, but promised to make the citizens resource creators.
From the point of view of the BJP and its supporters, Modi had used his first term to push forward a difficult development agenda. Supporters believed that he had shown grit to implement many new schemes and programmes that previous governments had been shying away from due to expected short-term ramifications. He pushed targets like cleanliness, electrification, health, entrepreneurship and the revival of farming while keeping in mind the requirement of other segments like the youth, women, the marginalized, differently-abled and the elderly. His approach, from sports to education, health to housing and business to external affairs, encompassed a decisive policy shift in terms of deliverables, timelines and responsiveness. His robust approach to defence, and fearless handling of Pakistan-infused troubles, was a corollary to this style of functioning.
In the first term of the Modi government, 34 crore bank accounts were opened under Jan Dhan, seven crore gas cylinders were distributed under Ujjwala, eight crore toilets were built under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, millions of farmers received two instalments of Rs 4,000 in their bank accounts under PM-Kisan, lakhs of people received benefits of up to five lakh rupees for medical care under Ayushman Bharat. On the internal security front, with the exception of J&K and Pathankot, no terror attack took place in any part of the country, The North East was peaceful and no major communal riot was witnessed.
Importantly, these five years under Modi had also seen a surge of the idea of cultural nationalism. With Narendra Modi leading International Yoga Day, visiting cultural sites with foreign heads of states, promoting brand India with campaigns like ‘Make in India’, and alluding to an array of forgotten Indian heroes, from Rani Gaidiliu to Sant Ravidas, the pride in the country’s centuries old cultural heritage received a fillip. Belying the ‘conservative’ fears persistently raised by the opposition, it was during the Modi government that homosexuality was decriminalized, death penalty in rape cases was passed and the bill to outlaw triple talaq was introduced.
This could be the reason that the NDA led by BJP won 60% seats from 115 of the most poor districts of India. Opposition parties which themselves had tried their hand at ‘soft Hindutva’, projected BJP’s idea of cultural nationalism as hyper nationalism, Hindu nationalism or jingoism. Questions were asked by Congress and other opposition leaders, TV journalists and many ‘progressive’ public intellectuals sitting in Delhi, about BJP making nationalism a poll plank in the 2019 general election. It would not be wrong to say that in this election, voters of the country embraced the BJP’s idea of cultural nationalism that also inspired millions of its karyakartas. In this election, voters chose BJP’s nationalism over the politics of casteism, regionalism and pseudo-secularism.
On the other hand, during this period, the opposition camp led by the Congress had come to be known for stalling parliamentary proceedings, indulging in gimmicks and mudslinging, creating an environment of fear, and standing against the Indian government at international fora. The opposition in the last five years, never presented before the country a constructive, positive and alternative agenda that could match Modi’s programme, policy and vision either in scale or in ingenuity.
The opposition used a consistent ‘shoot-and-scoot’ policy with campaigns like intolerance, award wapsi, not in my name, lynchistan, beef ban, Rohith Vemula and many others. Incidents were cherry-picked to flag key words like ‘anti-minority’, ‘anti-Dalit’ or ‘anti-women’. But the allegations didn’t stick as this was a government that had given adequate representation to diverse sections of society, had maximum numbers of MLAs and MPs from the SC, ST and OBC communities, cleared backlog entry for marginalized sections and made women the centre of all policy formulations. The opposition consistently raised one issue and moved on to the next – while this move was aimed at creating a sense of confusion among voters, it instead, gave the opposition an obstructionist image. In the eyes of most of the voters this was an opposition that was working simply for its own benefit.
As the 2019 elections drew to a close, the opposition focused on somehow denting the image of Modi by projecting the Rafale deal as a scam and coining the slogan ‘chowkidar chor hai’. They failed in their attempt and in turn, brought the focus of the election sharply on the incumbent prime minister whose personal stock among voters had become even higher after five years of being in government. Modi, in effect, became the agenda of the elections and representative of a narrative which came to be seen as antithetical to ideas of the opposition parties. He stood as a symbol of a clean, transparent and corruption-free government that delivered, did not compromise with national interests and those opposing this symbol naturally emerged as power hungry politicians fighting a battle for their own survival.
When the BJP won the elections in 2014 it was referred to as a crushing defeat for the Congress and a landslide victory for BJP. The result was seen in terms of numbers, seats, vote share and margins. When it came to ideology, it was described in highly tainted terms of hate, communalism and religious polarization. Clearly, though the BJP had delivered a massive political victory, it was not seen as an ideological win because a major section of the elite, English-speaking intelligentsia, saw the Modi government with a sense of ‘otherness’. They used their positions of privilege to paint the Modi government as regressive and inexperienced. They succeeded to a degree in creating misdirection and propaganda in the first half of Modi’s tenure.
In this background, 2019 became much more than a Lok Sabha election. By the second half of the Modi government’s tenure programmes, policies and schemes started taking shape and neared fruition. Towards the end of the tenure, for a major section of the society, Modi emerged as a champion of the narrative of governance, nationalism and security. He had led a corruption free, transparent government, executed pro-poor schemes and secured the borders with a masculine security doctrine, all this without ever compromising the deep-rooted cultural ethos of the country.
Against this stood Rahul Gandhi’s Congress which has become the hallmark of corruption, appeasement and promoter of dynastic politics. Over the years, Congress had tried to position itself as a champion of secular beliefs and rights, but the people were not convinced any more. To counter the growing tide of Modi, obfuscate the discourse, and confuse voters, the opposition parties led by the Congress, used words, numbers and names. To confuse the discerning public that was fast learning to distinguish between political propaganda and truth, ‘sympathetic’ academics and intellectuals were paraded, frequently under signature campaigns that gave the impression that the Modi government did not enjoy the confidence and approval of the learned and educated members of the society. All this was done to discredit the Modi government on all fronts.
At this stage the role of academics, intellectuals and thought leaders, who believed in Modi’s idea of a ‘New India’, became important. A section of opinion makers came together under the campaign #Academics4NaMo to counter the propaganda and create a positive environment and spread the word about the achievements of the Modi government. Campaign #Academics4NaMo believed that the battle of 2019 was a battle between two narratives. On one side was the gloom-and-doom, end-of-days narrative of the opposition, which led the country towards the politics of dynasts, corruption, instability and appeasement – and on the other side stood the narrative of a ‘new India’ of Narendra Modi where everyone was seen as a partner in growth.
It was claimed by the opposition parties and their extended allies in the media and among the academics, that the election of 2019 was for saving ‘the idea of India’. This was the India they had built in the last 70 years and the ideas they visualized for its future. Narendra Modi had also presented his idea of India over his tenure of five years as prime minister of the country. So, unlike the 2014 elections when Modi had fought for the majority mark, this election became a battle between two narratives – one given by Modi and the other propagated by Congress and its allies.
The idea behind #Academics 4NaMo campaign was that if academics and opinion makers had the moral authority to oppose a government, then it was also their responsibility to extend support to an establishment that they felt had done a good job. In fact, the opposition had often been caught using ‘neutral’ academics to peddle their propaganda as ‘expert opinion’ and ‘reliable views’. In this light, the #Academics4NaMo campaign, stepped in not only to give a new shape to the discourse but also to do justice to the debate.
Any long-lasting political victory stands on the foundation of an ideological movement having a long sustained journey. The Congress party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi carried the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, and many Gandhians were part of its politics in the post-Independence era. But decades of political splits and dissensions had denuded its foundations and by 2004, the advisory council led by Sonia Gandhi was already left-leaning.
After taking over the reins of the party, Rahul Gandhi followed this pattern and it was not surprising that many of his advisors were old communists, who propagated ideas that suited their ideology. It was a result of this that the then national vice president of the grand old party appeared at an university to protest the arrest of a student leader charged with raising anti-India slogans. Political wisdom dictates that when one raises issues of fringe organizations, one is likely to end up becoming one, and this is exactly what Rahul Gandhi’s Congress did in the last few years. At a time when the Lok Sabha elections were taking place against the backdrop of a major terror attack, the Congress party indulged in the ideological luxury of promising the abolition of Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the sedition law. As the 2019 elections unfolded, the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress, influenced by left-leaning organizations, had strayed too far from the value system that it represented half a century ago.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also invoked Rajiv Gandhi in the last two phases of the campaign when the Congress blamed him for a misuse of office. He evoked the memories of naval ship INS Virat which was allegedly used by Rajiv Gandhi and his family for a vacation. These two leaders represent two different narratives of Indian politics and to bring out the contrast, Modi used Rajiv Gandhi as a symbol in the campaign. Modi claimed that over the past five years, he had worked for development, nationalism and security. However, the Congress continued to function as a fiefdom of the Nehru-Gandhi family with its president, Rahul Gandhi, flaunting the legacy of his father, the late Rajiv Gandhi. To many, this represented the narrative of dynasty, appeasement and corruption and, without a doubt, Rajiv Gandhi had been the epitome of this brand of politics.
Rajiv Gandhi, who was implicated in the infamous Bofors scam, was the first prime minister to have been accused of major corruption – his own defence minister resigned after levelling charges against him. Rajiv Gandhi’s accession to the PM’s position was also a classic case of dynastic politics. This found an echo in Priyanka Gandhi’s sudden entry into politics in 2019, and her direct accession to the post of the party’s national general secretary.
Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the prime minister is also known for its appeasement politics – the ripples of which are still felt three decades later. First came the Shah Bano case, when the court ruled that the Constitution of the country was above Muslim Personal Law and ordered that Shah Bano, a divorced and poorly off Muslim woman, be paid maintenance. But to please fundamentalist mullahs, Rajiv Gandhi changed the law and diluted the court judgment. It triggered the still unresolved debate about different civil codes for different religions in India. Rajiv Gandhi’s attempts to pacify the majority Hindus led to opening the locks of the disputed Ram temple in 1989. Thus began the unending saga of the Ram temple, again unresolved till date. Another infamous legacy of Rajiv Gandhi was the Sikh riots of 1984 in which thousands of Sikhs were allegedly killed under the patronage of Congress leaders such as Sajjan Kumar, who till recently had gone unpunished. By invoking Rajiv Gandhi, Narendra Modi succeeded in reminding people of the predatory politics of the Congress party.
If in 2014 Narendra Modi was a gamble, in 2019 he was an informed choice. If the vote for Modi then was an expression of anti-incumbency, this time it was an assertion of right choice. If Modi 1.0 was magic and wave, then Modi 2.0 resonated the voice of aspirational India loud and clear. Modi wove a narrative of development, governance, nationalism and security. This created an unparalleled chemistry between him and the Indian voter, and all the calculations of the opposition parties that took voters for granted were rejected.
Months ahead of the elections, many analysts claimed that the ‘Vijay Rath’ of the BJP would be stopped in Uttar Pradesh by the ‘invincible’ Maha Gathbandhan or grand coalition of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. Political pundits predicted that this coalition was in a position to bring the BJP below the two-digit mark in the state that has the largest seat share in Parliament.
From Lutyen’s Delhi, it was easy to fall for this analysis. However, after a tour of several constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, I found that the Maha Gathbandhan had clearly failed to provide an alternative that people could identify with. By the time the seven phase election crossed its second phase, the opposition’s message was completely lost as was their perceived unity. On the other side, Modi’s campaign at this point was getting stronger and more visible. The counter buzz was too feeble, and its visibility too low. People were clear that Modi deserved another chance and therefore, their votes. Modi’s image of a hard working prime minister strengthened their belief that he would be able to effect big changes given another term. The Balakot strike, reservation for economically weaker sections and benefits of centrally sponsored schemes like Jan Dhan, PM Kisan, PM Awas, Ujjawala, and Ayushmann Bharat, had already touched different sections of the society in Uttar Pradesh.
The narrative that emerged in the form of Narendra Modi on one end seemed to have no comparison on the other end of the opposition. Multiple voices and conflicting messages of the opposition had confused voters. The ideas of Congress’ biggest pre-poll promise – the Nyay scheme – hardly reached the masses and people did not find it strong enough compared to Modi’s promises. Moreover, the BSP-SP seat sharing alliance did not work on many seats. The populace of UP that usually takes great interest in political developments, hardly seemed enthused by this tie-up. As a result, Modi got a resounding mandate from UP.
Over the span of his first term, Narendra Modi pursued a decisive, far-sighted, corruption free development model and was willing to take chances for long-term goals, refusing to give in to pressure tactics of any kind. He reached out to every section of society through a range of welfare schemes, making India truly inclusive. A large number of women, farmers, youth and poor, trusted the prime minister to represent their voice as he moved toward making a more inclusive India. Hence, the 2019 elections defied the traditional vertical identities of caste, language and religion, among others, and laid the foundations of a New India.