The attacks on prime minister Narendra Modi, always sharp, have increased in intensity after he pulled off a spectacular victory for the BJP/NDA. While most expected the alliance to lose a large number of seats due to the economy slowing and joblessness rising, in Uttar Pradesh, there were the additional factors of cow-related violence and costs to farmers with stray cattle eating their crops and, of course, the fact that two big caste parties – the SP and the BSP – had got together to beat the BJP.
Despite this, however, the BJP got 20 seats more than in 2014 – the 282 in 2014 itself was a record of sorts for non-Congress parties – and with an increased vote-share of around 6%; it rose from 31.3% in 2014 to 37.4% in 2019. That is quite a change from earlier elections when winning parties typically got just around 28-30% of the votes polled. Indeed, in key states, the vote-share was dramatically higher. In UP where the BJP was expected to lose 30-40 seats, it lost just nine, and managed to increase its vote share from 42.3% in 2014 to 49.5% this time around. In West Bengal, where the party stormed Mamata Banerjee’s citadel by bagging 18 of 42 seats – TMC held 34 and the BJP just two in 2014 – it raised its vote share from 17% to a massive 40.2%. In Odisha, where the BJP rose from one seat to 8 – the BJD fell from 20 to 13 – the party’s vote-share rose from 21.5% to 38.4%. By all accounts, the big takeaway from the elections was the decimation of caste warriors.
It would be premature to say caste is dead since even Modi pays close attention to the caste of his candidates and, during the campaign, he did mention his caste; also, the government’s plans to do a sub-categorisation of OBCs to ensure that just powerful castes didn’t corner all the reservation benefits makes it clear caste is alive and kicking. The difference, however, is that when there is a larger cause – Ram mandir in the past, and ‘nationalism’ this time around – it is possible to get voters to subsume their caste identities while voting. So, when Modi is blamed for the ‘toxic masculinity that characterises the BJP’s ideological discourse’, to quote one observer, what is one to make of this?
Lok Sabha Election 2019: Full Coverage
Certainly the party’s stance on cow-related violence, and gaurakshak lynch mobs, has been condemnable; while Modi did come out against the gaurakshak violence, his chief ministers were not able to stop this. More important, Modi’s running down the ‘pink revolution’ – the colour of beef – is what emboldened the gaurakshaks, as did the subsequent large-scale closing of abattoirs by the UP government. According to factchecker.in, there were a total of 127 incidents of cow-related violence across the country between 2012 and 2019 which resulted in 47 deaths; 124 of the incidents and all the deaths took place since 2014.
One crime doesn’t justify another, but in the case of caste-based violence, however, the NCRB reports 799 murders of schedule castes in 2016 alone. It is likely that factchecker.in doesn’t have all the details of cow-related violence – the NCRB doesn’t report this at all – but it is does appear that incidents of caste-based violence are far greater. So if – and that is a big ‘if’ since removing caste-bias will take decades – focusing on an identity bigger than caste reduces caste-related violence, is that something Modi should be praised for or blamed?
And while Modi is accused of pushing a majoritarian – or anti-Muslim – agenda right through the election, it is possible, as Modi and the BJP argue, that the media highlighted only certain parts of his speeches that related to ‘nationalism’/Balakot/Hindutva, and ignored the parts where he spoke of what the government had done for development. That seems plausible since, in the pre-election period, the government made much of the fact that over Rs 2.3 lakh crore was distributed to the poor via DBT over the past five years, over 5 crore persons got subsidised life insurance and 13 crore accident insurance, 6 crore got free LPG connections, 1 crore subsidised houses were built, as were close to 10 crore toilets …If the government was highlighting this before the election, why would it not do so during the elections since the poor would certainly see this as a reason to vote Modi?
Another big takeway from the elections in states like Odisha, for instance, is that voters are quite discerning even if they are poor and poorly educated. In Odisha, on the same day, voters were able to vote in Naveen Patnaik in the assembly elections and Narendra Modi as the country’s prime minister; the voters were able to distinguish between the fact that national and local priorities are different. This was also evident in states like Rajasthan where, just months after the BJP lost the assembly, it swept the national election – even when the BJP lost the assembly, one of the slogans of the electorate was “Vasundhara teri khair nahi, Modi tujh se bair nahi” (we will fix you Vasundhara, but we have no quarrel with Modi).
While the Opposition needs to come out with a more coherent strategy than chowkidaar-chor-hai or the allegation of Anil-Ambani’s-Rs 30,000crore-Rafale-payoff if it hopes to beat Modi in 2024, the country’s intellectuals who run down Modi need to think over these issues, to explain how the assertion of caste-based and regional identities is a preferred alternative. Just last year, Chandrababu Naidu was trying to get south Indian chief ministers to get together to protest about how they were subsidizing poorer north Indian states; surely this too was against the idea of India as a conglomeration of states and identities; and, if this assertion was to be accepted, why should the country’s rich pay more taxes as individuals to subsidize the poor? Modi needs to ensure the Hindutva agenda doesn’t become anti-Muslim or anti-Christian, but he is not the only one that needs to do some introspection.