The 2019 Indian elections, explainedThe BJP has been in election mode for the past five years. Despite the voter’s short memory span—the pains of demonetisation have been soothed by the retaliation to Pulwama—the party has consistently pushed its narrative across all forms of media.
And so, five years after Narendra Modi stormed his way into parliament, the Indian voter has come full circle, once again ready to exercise her choice in what could be an even more landmark election than in 2014. A massive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) victory in this election means Modi will leave behind an unparalleled legacy in 2024, a saffronised country overpowering the Congress ideology that has dominated Indian democracy since 1947. It will be the triumph of an ideology that had little to do with the freedom struggle, but has come to define modern Indian nationalism. For the opposition, too, these elections are crucial. Even if the BJP returns to power as leader of a coalition government (and with fewer numbers than 2014), it would mean Narendra Modi has overpowered the caste and creed equations every Indian party seeks to get right. A loss for the opposition—including the Congress, which is fighting for its survival, essentially—will mean those opposing the BJP will have very little to look forward to. While the federal nature of Indian democracy means regional parties will have their states of control, at a national level, a BJP victory will mean the culmination of a long political battle for Hindutva, the ideology that traces its modern roots to the resurgence of Hindu nationalism since the late 80s and early 90s.
The other corner
Make no mistake. The Congress is far from being wiped out. Its massive income guarantee scheme that assures Rs6000 per month to nearly 50 million of the poorest Indians is a striking electoral promise that will sway some voters. The emphasis of a few leaders on their Hindu roots also tells us the Congress wants to get rid of the ‘Muslim party’ tag the BJP has imposed on it. The Congress has also done well historically in the south, where the BJP’s upper-caste ideology finds few takers in a polity that rejects brahminism. But at its core, a severe loss in this election, too, will mean the Indian voter today finds the Congress irrelevant—something that was unimaginable even 10 years ago.
Then there is the rest of the opposition. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is a formidable opponent, willing to take the fight to Modi. In UP, the Congress is conspicuously absent from the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP) alliance that will at the very least unite a section of non-BJP voters. In neighbouring Bihar, the BJP-Janata Dal (JD) combine faces a challenge from a Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) alliance. The BJP is also struggling in the south, where it is accused of ‘betraying the state’ (in Andhra), where it has little on-ground presence (in Telangana and Tamil Nadu), and where its attempts to shore up the Hindu vote haven’t really succeeded (in Kerala). In Karnataka and Maharashtra, however, they are better placed.
Controlling the narrative
The BJP has been in election mode for the past five years. Despite the voter’s short memory span—the pains of demonetisation have been soothed by the retaliation to Pulwama—the party has consistently pushed its narrative across all forms of media. The government has also pushed its electoral propaganda through the state machinery, a charge levied on it by the opposition. Despite such challenges, it has carefully managed its campaign. So what if India had the tech to shoot down satellites in 2012 itself? Even as opposition parties cried foul under the model code of conduct, what matters for the voter is that the actual test was done under Modi. For her, it is another feather in Modi’s cap, a signal to the world that India is a global power.
This, then, is Modi’s ultimate victory: the 2019 election is a game of whose nationalism is better. The BJP has already taken a giant leap by positioning itself as the guardian of India, and in its questioning of the opposition’s motives by doubting the Balakot strikes, it asks whether those who doubt the Indian armed forces are fit to lead the country. Then there’s the constant throwback to previous governments—by extension, Congress governments—and how they have failed India, and how the Modi government is correcting the mistakes of the past. These two emotional narratives—that of a nationalist government protecting India’s (read the majority Hindus') interests which previous governments have frittered away—are the thrust of the BJP’s campaign. Between these, it is little wonder that the opposition failed to make a corruption scam stick. Besides, Modi’s ‘main bhi chowkidar’ campaign intends to create a narrative of the BJP coming down hard on corruption. The BJP also asks voters to consider whether they want a ‘strong’ government at the centre or a ‘helpless’ one, seeking to negate the coalitions opposing them.
One must credit the BJP for wresting back the narrative. Until the Pulwama attack and India’s retaliation, the opposition looked to be on sturdy ground, especially among the rural population. Although government policies such as the rural housing scheme, the free LPG connections, rural electrification, and sanitation projects have shown progress, rural incomes have declined in the face of agricultural distress, and jobs are increasingly harder to come by. The BJP’s weakness on the economic front was most visible in the last state elections, where it lost three key states.
But despite questions over the economy, the opposition has failed to come up against the BJP’s trump card: the personality of Narendra Modi himself. It is not uncommon to hear the refrain that one chooses to vote for Modi despite a dislike for the local BJP representative. Modi remains India’s most popular leader by a margin; as in the last election, he will make this election a presidential one too. Rahul Gandhi is a more tactful politician than he was in 2014, but while the Congress has focused on the rural voter, he still remains a less preferable choice as prime minister.
Will the voter buy it?
The BJP also operates on a foregone conclusion that the Muslim voter will not vote for it; hence its electoral arithmetic that focuses on a coalition of different Hindu caste groups. The weakness in Muslim-majority areas is apparent; such a Hindu-centric coalition may also prove a challenge in Uttar Pradesh, whose 80 seats in many ways decide the elections. Here, the SP-BSP alliance has countered the BJP with its own grouping of Yadavs, Dalits and Muslims. But the alliance will face a tough battle against the ‘umbrella Hindu’ coalition the BJP has employed, for whom the 10 percent reservation based on income status comes as a welcome breather.
Readers may wonder if Narendra Modi’s foreign policy miscalculations may affect his re-election campaign. Despite the recent embarrassment after China did not support India’s multilateral nudge towards declaring Masood Azhar a global terrorist (and the distancing of Nepal after the 2015 blockade), India remains tall in the neighbourhood. Although foreign policy has little effect on electoral fortunes (not just in India, but across the world), Pakistan has been quietened after the airstrikes, and that is key for the BJP. The US sees India as a key ally who can hold China back in the global power balance, and no matter what the results, such a state of affairs will continue into the next government.
These then are the grounds on which the 2019 Indian elections will be fought. Hindu nationalism, Modi’s personality cult and the promise of strong governance, economic performance versus perception, and the delicate caste arithmetics—these will decide who comes into power on 23 May. Most polls and analysts have predicted a BJP-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) victory, albeit in lower numbers than in 2014. If the BJP wins again, it will signal the rise of a new India. The BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) combine pushes a homogenous Indian identity that is contrary to past multicultural imaginations of the country, and seeks to ‘unify’ India under this banner. The opposition has found it difficult to counter such claims; instead, it has co-opted such views, as we see in the Congress’s ‘soft Hindutva’. In fact, the opposition’s greatest weakness has been that it has succumbed to the BJP’s narrative of ‘Indianness’. By playing the nationalist card, the BJP has told the voter those who oppose it oppose the idea of India. Whether the voter is convinced, we can only tell once the results are out.