What can be said about an election that looks like a replica of results five years ago? The BJP’s tally of around 345 seats—with a few more allies—makes it appear that absolutely nothing changed in the country since the day Narendra Modi swept to power in 2014.
But, when you look closely at the results, the difference between the two results becomes clear: In 2014, the BJP won because it was able to harness public anger against the then UPA government. In 2019, the BJP has won because there was nobody in the opposition to talk forcefully about Modi’s failures and emerge as a viable alternative. This was an election where there was no alternative to Modi and the idea he represents.
So much happened during the past five years: Farmers came out on the streets to protest rising debts and fallings prices; Dalits rose in anger against oppression in Modi’s home state; students revolted against the establishment in many places; there was rising unemployment; demonetisation destroyed small and medium businesses; and there was a lot of anger against Goods and Services Tax.
While all this was going on, a class of voters that had supported Modi because of his development promises became disillusioned with the government. A large section of liberals got annoyed with lynchings over beef and the BJP’s overt wooing of hardliners through mainstreaming of people like Sadhvi Pragya, Sakshi Maharaj and other hotheads.
Simultaneously, the Congress appeared to be on the charge with gains in Gujarat and victories in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Many other opposition parties buried their differences and came together in key states, signalling a united challenge to Modi.
On hindsight, with BJP emerging stronger than ever, it seems all this happened in some parallel universe, or in a different time zone. In India, nothing changed on the ground. The political developments during the past five years made no difference to the fortunes of the BJP.
How did this happen? The only explanation is this: People ignored everything that went around them, including their own hardships, trials, tribulations and anger. When it mattered, they bought Modi’s vision of India and contributed to it with their vote. In their hands, this time the vote became a tool for serving nation, not their personal interests or immediate concerns.
How did Modi elevate the status of an individual’s vote? To understand this, look at Modi’s tweet soon after results came out when he claimed, “India wins again.” Notice how he equated India with himself and the BJP, called his own electoral triumph as a victory for the country. This is exactly the strategy and the messaging that helped Modi win in 2019.
At the beginning of the year, soon after the Congress won in MP, Rajasthan and MP, many opinion polls were predicting a tough contest in 2019. Some even went to the extent of suggesting that if the Congress-BSP and SP put up a united front, the BJP might get wiped out of Uttar Pradesh.
Soon after the opinion polls came out, the BJP stopped talking about development or its own track record. Its focus turned to ‘nationalism’, India’s security and a muscular approach towards Pakistan. With Pulwama and Balakot fresh in their memory, voters agreed with the BJP’s spiel and shut their minds to whatever the opposition was saying. Consecrating their vote to the ‘cause of the nation’, they ignored the caste arithmetic of the Mahagathbandhan in UP and Bihar, the Congress promises of guaranteed income and the independent media’s revelations on Rafale. By the end of March, almost all of India had receded in its own echo chamber, where the only voice it heard was of Modi’s.
While nationalism became the common denominator, other factors helped the BJP make additional gains. In rural areas, the promise of direct transfer of ₹6000 to accounts of farmers and the PM’s Awas Yojana erased caste and community divides. Believing that ₹2000 in hand is better than the ₹72000 in the Congress manifesto, voters flipped for the BJP.
Could the BJP have been stopped? The results suggest it would have been a statistical impossibility for the opposition to defeat the BJP. In large swathes of north and central India, the BJP has won by huge margins, garnering in excess of 55 per cent votes. So, even if the Congress had partnered a few more regional allies, the result may not have been different. Yet, it can be argued that the election was lost not because of a lack of alliances but because of the lack of an effective leader who could counter BJP’s agenda based on emotive issues.
The BJP has positioned itself as a party of the Hindus, an outfit that serves the interests of India’s majority and guards them from external and internal enemies—read the minorities, the liberals and the so-called Khan Market gang, the very groups it claims the Congress protects. This is precisely why, except for two states—Punjab and Kerala where Sikhs, Muslims and Christians are in large numbers—the Congress has been decimated. It is abundantly clear that a large section of Hindus see the BJP as their representative.
What then is the way ahead for the opposition? Two massive defeats in five years will definitely break the back of the Congress. Its leader Rahul Gandhi will be shattered, he will not know what to do next. A similar sense of doom will grip its cadre and second line of leaders. The smartest thing for Gandhi to do would be to step aside and let an alternate leader emerge in the Congress. Since he has been rejected by the electorate in two consecutive elections, Rahul should abdicate all moral, dynastic or political rights to run the Congress. This may be hard, primarily because there is nobody around who inspires confidence or has a pan-India following within the Congress. Yet, Rahul has overstayed his welcome. He must go.
For the regional parties, the message is clear. Caste arithmetic has become irrelevant in elections. Those clutching on to power because of their perceived monopoly over Yadav, Jatav, Muslim or Vokkaliga votes have no future left in India. This implies, many regional parties will have to shut shop.
India will be dominated by a single party and its allies over the next five years. The current opposition to this monolith is dead. The only thing left to see is if an alternative will emerge by 2024, or nothing will change for another five years.