We learned that many Indian voters are willing, at least temporarily, to put aside concerns about their material well-being, in order to follow more elemental desires for security and feelings of belonging. But we did not learn how serious the ruling party is about economic progress, nor do we know how opposition parties will respond to the new state of affairs.
What did we learn from the victory of the ruling coalition? We already knew that Narendra Modi is a charismatic and effective campaigner, and that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is well-organised and influential communicators. What we learned from the stronger than (mostly) predicted triumph was that voters were susceptible to the kind of appeal that the ruling party and its leader, in particular, offered. This was an assertive nationalism, firmly grounded in religious identity.
Certainly, elements in Pakistan played into this narrative—without the attack in February, the margin of victory might have been smaller. But the result also suggests that, even without the specific national security angle, a campaign of emphasising threats from outsiders, whether hostile neighbouring governments or hapless illegal immigrants, would have paid dividends.
The core message of the BJP has been sinking into Indian minds, becoming normalised and familiar. A party that had never captured much more than a third of national parliamentary seats before 2014 is now, by far, the single most dominant force in Indian politics, with a robust new presence in the nation’s East and (partly) its South.
The substance and style of the campaign also taught us something about what many Indian voters value in a leader. Modi has effectively created himself as a “man of the people,” though with clear signals that he is also special (the many doubles, the ubiquitous images, the various symbolic actions and markers of holiness). In a sense, he is—someone from an urban working class background, not a descendant of a wealthy dynasty. Jawaharlal Nehru acquired the common touch by his participation in the freedom struggle, though he remained an aristocrat at heart, but each succeeding generation has move further away from that legitimacy. Rahul Gandhi was figuratively left in the dust in the comparison with Modi, even losing his parliamentary seat in a former family stronghold. As many have noted, Modi is a new kind of leader for India.
We also learned that many Indian voters are willing, at least temporarily, to put aside concerns about their material well-being, in order to follow more elemental desires for security and feelings of belonging. To the extent that these feelings are fulfilled by denigrating others, this is a dangerous situation, not just for the victims of this exclusion, but ultimately also for the victimisers. Division and conflict of this kind do not lead to good outcomes. This is partly why I described India’s election as “unhappy” in my previous column (“India’s unhappy election”; FE, May 25; https://bit.ly/2VRMJuj). Of course, there are many examples of identity-based conflict throughout independent India’s existence, but the vote in this election suggests an unwelcome resurgence of acceptance of that state of affairs.
What we did not learn from the election is how these factors will play out over the next five years. It is certainly possible for an autocratic ruler to erode institutions that support democracy, through various checks and balances, especially if enough citizens acquiesce or are apathetic. Some observers have noted the tendency of the last government to act in ways that diminish institutional autonomy and integrity. If that impulse continues, then this election may mark a permanent shift in India’s polity.
We also did not learn how serious the ruling party is about economic progress. At times, there have been positive signs, including a continuation of reforms started under previous governments, as well as striking new initiatives such as a focus on toilets and sanitation. However, in many ways, the previous government continued the worst habits of all its predecessors: overcentralising, emphasising symbolism rather than effective implementation, and not drawing on a broad enough range of expertise. Centralisation and personalisation of power and decision-making are unlikely to lead to economic policies that support economic progress at the rate India needs, and is probably capable of.
We also do not know how opposition parties will respond to the new state of affairs. It is plausible that the national government’s relative failure on the economic front contributed to the wins for the opposition in recent state assembly elections in the Hindi heartland. In the campaign not one opposition party seemed to offer a message of a pathway to economic betterment that could be an alternative to the nationalist war cry. Nor did they articulate a compelling alternative ideal of what India is as a nation. Perhaps nothing would have worked in this campaign, but the lack of vision is worrisome. “Bijli, sadak, paani” is not passé, but needs to extended to “hawa” and “zameen,” as environmental degradation starts to erode the quality of life and even livelihoods. The Congress party has a complementary problem as well—its lack of any compelling vision of how to drive improved material well-being for the masses is connected to its being run as a family business, with weak organisational structure and no room for new ideas. We do not know if it can learn any lessons from two successive drubbings, and implement the changes it needs to stay politically relevant.
There are many lessons of the momentous election that has taken place in India, and many causes for concern. But there are also many uncertainties, and India’s future is not completely determined by the results of this one election. The next few months may provide clarity: whether that is positive or negative has to be seen.