The nature of Narendra Modi’s 2019 victory has brought him at par with India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. No PM since Nehru has completed a full-term in office with a single party majority and been re-elected with the same. This is symptomatic of a leader’s ability to successfully secure and regain a mandate. To be sure, the Congress has had majority governments in the country continuously until 1984, except the three-year period after the Emergency. But no Congress prime minister other than Nehru was re-elected after a full term. Lal Bahadur Shastri died while in office. Indira Gandhi’s tenure before the Emergency was just four years. Her return to power in 1980 after the fall of the Janata Party government was cut short after she was assassinated in 1984.
It is this historic feat, along with the Hindutva imprint in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) politics – like in 2014, the BJP does not have even one Muslim MP in the 2019 Lok Sabha – which has triggered two broad, diametrically opposite reactions to the 2019 verdict. The first, even if inadvertently, borders on being hagiographic. It credits Modi and the BJP president Amit Shah for scripting a completely new political narrative through rewriting the old rules of caste-class and alliance politics with the help of the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s welfare programmes. The second essentially portrays this win as the triumph of majoritarianism and fears its implications. Neither tells us the complete story behind the BJP’s 2019 victory.
Modi has invested his personal stake in every election after becoming the prime minister in 2014. While the BJP succeeded in some, such as Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, it failed miserably in others such as Delhi and Bihar. In no assembly election after 2014, did the BJP even come close to its 2019 vote share. So, what worked in 2019, which did not click for the BJP between 2014 and 2019?
On the economic front, there were serious problems. Agricultural growth, especially nominal growth, had collapsed in the second half of the Modi government. Even the larger economy had been losing growth momentum for the last one year. Policies such as demonetisation and teething problems in implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) delivered a major and lasting blow to economic activity. Why did these headwinds not matter for the BJP in 2019, like they did between 2017 and 2019?
The answer to these two questions lies in the political acumen of Modi, Shah and others in the BJP in building a winning formula around three crucial Ms – Mandir, Mandal and Markets – which have mattered a lot in the polity of post-reform India. Here’s why.
1) Minimising confrontation and maximising gains through Hindutva
The phrase Mandir, though loosely associated with the agitation for construction of Ram temple movement in Ayodhya, can broadly be inferred as the Hindutva component of the BJP’s political strategy. On the temple itself, there has not been much progress (if one could use the word) after the demolition of the Babri mosque in December 1992. The matter is currently sub judice in the Supreme Court. Politically speaking, there is little the BJP can gain from this.
Two important events after the demolition of the Babri mosque, separated by a decade, provided a major political boost to the BJP’s gains from Hindutva. The first was the polarisation in Gujarat following the 2002 communal riots after a coach full of kar sevaks was set on fire at the Godhra railway station. Not only did the BJP win a big majority in the state in the assembly elections held months after the riots, it was also able to bury its intraparty factionalism with Modi acquiring an iron grip over the state of affairs.
In 2013, a year before the Lok Sabha elections, communal riots broke out in Muzaffarnagar district in western Uttar Pradesh. Unlike 2002 Gujarat, the BJP was not in power in Uttar Pradesh then. The polarisation which followed is considered to have played an important role in the BJP’s victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in the state. Both these events brought localised benefits for the BJP, but they also entailed a cost. The 2002 riots created a pan-India polarisation against the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, with allies such as Ram Vilas Paswan quitting the NDA. After back-to-back defeats in 2014 (Lok Sabha) and 2017 (assembly), the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) decided to come together in an alliance in Uttar Pradesh in 2019 to prevent a division of the crucial 19% Muslim vote and also align it with the combined 20% of Yadav and Jatav vote. This was the BJP’s biggest challenge in 2019.
After capturing power in 2014, the BJP has carefully re-crafted its Hindutva politics. No major communal riot, at least of the scale of Gujarat 2002 and Muzaffarnagar 2013, has taken place anywhere. This is often cited as an achievement of sorts by the BJP. However, the BJP has found ingenious ways to consolidate Hindus without an overt anti-Muslim plank.
Never before 2019 had the BJP raised issues such as implementing a National Registry of Citizens (NRC) to identify and throw out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants (mostly Muslims), enacting the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) to grant citizenship rights to Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist minorities from India’s neighbouring countries (read Muslim-majority Pakistan and Bangladesh) and promising the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A to remove special constitutional privileges to Jammu and Kashmir (India’s only Muslim-majority state) at the pan-India level in an election. The BJP had to sacrifice its state government with the Peoples Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir to champion a hawkish stand on issues like Articles 370 and Article 35A. It risked being alienated in the North-east after widespread protests against CAB. The NRC push in West Bengal had the potential to completely consolidate the 30% Muslim vote behind the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). Yet the BJP took these risks.
One reason why the BJP decided to push these issues could be that they were low-risk, high-reward strategies. The damages from a backlash against these issues would have been confined at the state level. For example, abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A is a popular issue in just the Kashmir valley, CAB just in the north-east states, and NRC only in border districts of West Bengal. The BJP did not have much to lose in these regions. But raising these issues allowed the BJP to portray itself as a relentless crusader for the cause of the Hindus, in not just these specific regions but at the pan-India level. The Opposition found it extremely difficult to counter the BJP on these issues, as they are extremely nuanced and contextual in nature and hence difficult to explain to a mass audience in the Hindi belt, more so during an election.
Another issue, and this could not have been pre-planned, which complemented this strategy was the government’s decision to send fighter jets of the Indian Air Force to attack terror camps inside Pakistan, to avenge the suicide attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Pulwama. The Opposition was portrayed as discrediting the armed forces by asking for proof of damage from the attacks, while academic debates about the effective deterrence of such strikes vis-à-vis future terror attacks were too complicated for the masses. The BJP through its rhetoric also suggested that previous governments were hesitant to take such steps against Pakistan, as they were scared of losing the Muslim vote in the country. This rhetoric was best captured in the BJP attacking Rahul Gandhi for contesting from Wayanad along with Amethi.
2) Disrupting the Mandal equations to make it weaker
The rise of Mandir politics, which gave the first big boost to the BJP in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, received its biggest counter from forces of Mandal (read mobilisation of other backward classes) in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Two leaders, Mulayam Singh Yadav of the SP and Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), both of which have never done business with the BJP unlike the BSP or Janata Dal (United), were the most successful faces of Mandal politics in India. The success of these parties lay in consolidating significant sections of the OBC population and not just their own caste group along with Muslims. The biggest strength of this kind of a consolidation was seen in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, when a grand alliance of the RJD, JD(U) and the Congress decimated the NDA. Among the most important talking points in Lalu Prasad’s Bihar campaign was attacking Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement asking for a review of reservations.
The BJP and its allies have achieved their highest ever vote share in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the 2019 elections, despite the index of opposition unity being higher than it was in 2014. The vote share of both the SP and the RJD has hit all-time lows. While the SP’s vote share has come down due to an alliance with the BSP, the alliance itself was the result of a weakening of both the SP and the BSP.
This could not have happened without a significant change in social equations, which used to work for Mandal politics, on the ground. How did this happen?
At least two things can be cited to answer this question. The BJP has been trying to champion the idea (perhaps true) among OBCs that most benefits of reservations in jobs and upward mobility through politics have gone to dominant OBCs such as Yadavs in the country. Because of the lack of employment and demography data at the subcaste level, it is impossible to verify and reject such claims.
In 2017, the BJP established a commission to sub-categorise OBCs and give greater reservation to less dominant OBC groupings. Dominant OBC parties such as the RJD have been against this move while trying to mobilise other OBCs along with their dominant sub-caste group. The election results show that the BJP has been able to drive a schism in the pan-OBC coalition which used to line up behind parties such as the SP and RJD.
The other policy that blunted the efficacy of Mandal as a political tool was the BJP’s decision to introduce reservations for economically weaker sections among those who were not entitled to reservations before.
The income threshold (up to R8 lakh per annum) has been kept too high to minimise any significant exclusion. With this policy in place, an overwhelmingly large share of the Indian population is now eligible for reservations. In terms of tangible gains, it means little, as the number of government jobs has been continuously going down.
However, the move compromised the most potent agenda of parties such as the RJD and the SP. It was difficult for them to oppose it as they would be seen as anti-upper caste. The SP supported the Constitution amendment while the RJD opposed it. The latter faced criticism from within. Senior upper caste RJD leader Raghuvansh Singh, who lost the 2019 elections, termed the decision as a mistake. Extending reservations to upper castes has also helped allay fears that the BJP would abolish reservations.
While doing all this, the BJP was careful in not alienating Dalits and OBCs on the issue of reservation in higher educational institutions — the only area where public sector employment has been and perhaps will continue to increase significantly. It brought an ordinance to revoke the Supreme Court’s order directing implementation of reservations at the level of institutions rather than departments, which if implemented, would have significantly reduced the number of reserved teaching positions.
Simply speaking, the BJP has been able to portray the historical representatives of Mandal such as SP and RJD as serving their own sub-caste groups, while it has positioned itself as the more egalitarian arbiter of social justice.
3) BJP’s economic failures were markets’, successes its own
The biggest economic policy mistake of the NDA government, at least in terms of failing to achieve its primary stated objective of purging unaccounted wealth stored as cash deposits, was demonetisation. Even as the economy was recovering from the disruptive impact of demonetisation, the government announced the roll-out of GST which impacted both the formal and informal sectors of the economy. By forcing all players in the supply chain to be a part of the tax net, lest their buyers forgo input tax credits, GST has brought in an additional tax component to many firms which did not pay taxes earlier. All this is expected to have decelerated growth of mass incomes.
The government’s own GDP statistics show that higher overall growth rates notwithstanding, it has performed badly than its predecessor in terms of growth in not just agriculture, but also hotel, restaurant and trade component of services and only marginally better in construction; the two most employment intensive sub-sector of India’s non-farm economy. According to statistics from the KLEM (capital with a K, labour, energy, material) database released by the Reserve Bank of India, the combined share of construction and hotel, restaurant and trade in total employment had crossed 30% by 2015-16.
When seen in this context, the deceleration in inflation, especially food inflation, appears to be at least a partial outcome of squeeze in mass demand in the country. Fall in food prices have been an important reason for rural distress under the present government. However, no opposition party had the guts to criticise a government for engineering disinflation through its policies.
In a country such as India, where poverty, even in cities, is widespread, and external oil shocks deeply impact inflation, the political rhetoric always converges towards attacking price rise. The BJP has championed low inflation under its government, which has hurt farmers, as an achievement rather than liability.
The rural distress has been attributed to non-governmental factors such as inefficiency or perversion in food markets, or worse, overproduction, which blames farmers themselves for their predicament.
Even on the question of jobs, the BJP was successful in avoiding any significant political damage. By championing schemes such as Mudra, which promised guaranteed loans for small businesses, it has created an impression that the serious and sincere entrepreneurs need not remain idle due to lack of capital.
This leaves us with the biggest question, as Modi prepares for another five-year term in office. Even in his first term, Modi had set targets for India until 2022, when the country will attain 75 years of independence. Some of these are egalitarian, such as housing for all and electricity for all, while others are strategic, such as sending a manned mission to space. These objectives, however, are no substitute for the fundamental economic transformation facing India, which is to ensure a large shift of farm workers to remunerative non-farm employment. All major economies until now have achieved this transformation via a rise in industrial employment. India has failed to make significant progress on this count till now. This is one of the biggest reasons why we lag behind China today.
We will have to wait and see whether the Make in India project, which aims to give a boost to domestic manufacturing, finally takes off as Modi and his government are assured of a smoother run in office than what they had in 2014.
May 27, 2019 07:15 IST
Mandir, Mandal and Markets: How BJP reversed post-2014 setbacks – Hindustan Times