In the elections held in five states in March 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won majority in two states and managed to form the government in another two with coalition partners. A total of 690 seats were contested in the five states, of which the BJP won 406 that translates to 59 percent of the total.
Of the five states that went to the polls, the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) is of special significance in Indian politics for a number of reasons and it is in this state that the BJP claimed an overwhelming victory. UP is India’s largest state with a population of over 220 million. If it had been an independent nation, it would have been the fifth most populous country in the world. In UP, BJP garnered over 40 per cent of the vote, which in a first-past-the-post electoral system gave them 77 percent of the assembly seats on offer.
With this victory in state elections, the BJP now runs 13 of India’s 29 states. More importantly, the 13 states that it runs also contain the ones at the forefront of national development. The impressive electoral showing in March has been hailed as a personal moral victory for the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. More importantly it indicates a direct victory of the altered political values that he represents at the national level. About six months before the elections, the Central Government in Delhi had initiated a controversial economic reform through the demonetisation of the 1000-rupee note.
Traditionally India has always been heavily dependent on a cash-based economy. The demonetisation brought on tremendous hardships on the middle and lower strata of the society who were the people directly affected. Not only was the initiative supposed to fail, but popular dissatisfaction was also supposed to be reflected in the forthcoming state elections. Most of the analysts predicted a huge electoral backlash whenever elections were held next. It was commonly predicted that the demonetisation drive would weaken the Prime Minister’s ability to consolidate power and assert the will of the Central Government. However, the state elections in March, half-way through the 5-year term of the Central Government, proved this gloomy prediction completely wrong. Not only did the BJP improve its standing, the results have also provided the BJP with the foundation to gather political momentum for the national elections scheduled for 2019.
India has been a practising democracy only for the past seven decades. However, even within this short span of time it has managed to evolve its own special brand of democratic processes. Of particular note has been the rise of regional parties, which dominate state politics. The regional parties emphasise and mainly focus on regional pride and caste-oriented populism.
From a national perspective, they are divisive elements to the national ethos, even though most of them manage to govern with reasonable efficiency. These regional parties follow narrow parochial interests and have been in power in a large number of states for the past few decades. Such state governments can become a hindrance to central leadership in implementing economic reform, becoming the catalysts that delay progress and development. The BJP victory in UP and Uttarakhand decimated the regional parties of these two states. The election results have brought to the fore two fundamental questions that needs to be asked.
The first is generic—do these results mean that politics is changing in the Hindi heartland of India? There are already commentaries extolling the fact that the election results are the triumph of development over communal politics and religious vote banks. It is true that caste and religious alliances that have so far been dominant in creating ‘vote-banks’ that in turn provide the numbers needed for electoral victory have been pushed aside. However, it is too early to call this a trend that will be sustained into the next election and the one thereafter.
It is also not sure at this time whether or not the trend will spread across the nation. There are high probabilities that this could be a ‘one-off’ result. More so if the BJP government either fails to deliver on its promise of development, or worse, starts to cater to the Hindu nationalistic rhetoric that is being touted openly in the country. In UP, BJP has promised economic development to one of India’s poorest states.
At present there is no clear evidence that it was this promise that reengineered voter sentiment towards an inclusive nationalism. There could have been a few other dynamics at play, which made the resounding BJP victory possible. It is possible that the BJP projection of overt nationalism that delivered inclusive economic growth, combined with their indirect refusal to ‘appease minorities’ played a chord that brought in some of the undecided voters to its side. There is no evidence that such a trend manifested itself in UP. However, if this is indeed true, then it is a new trend in Indian politics and needs careful analysis and monitoring in forthcoming elections.
The second question is more personal and oriented towards the Prime Minister. There is no doubt that in the three years since winning government in Delhi, Modi has charted a new course and narrative in Indian politics. It is also true that he has won more trust from the people than any other leader in recent times. There is an inherent connection that is palpably visible between the Prime Minister and the people, the common man.
This unparalleled status is very similar, and more than equal, to the popularity that Indira Gandhi held during her heydays in power. However, Mrs Gandhi squandered the people’s trust in very short order, for a number of reasons that are not germane to this discussion. Therefore, the second question is, how will Prime Minister Modi use this overwhelming trust of the people through the life of this government? Or will he squander this massive mandate through catering to the baser religious elements within his own party?
If the past three years are any indication, it is certain that Modi is acutely aware of this massive opportunity—that comes only once in a lifetime for any democratic leader—and therefore will not let it slip through his fingers. The portents that can be read are many and indicate a move in the right direction. After the recent electoral victory, he has called on the BJP cadre and leadership to ‘bend down’ in humility before the will of the people and to shun arrogance and hubris. Even so, the BJP and its overt Hindu nationalism may yet prove to be the Achilles’ heel in the Prime Minister’s armour. The BJP is being accused of overt Hindu chauvinism that could turn vituperative rapidly. While the Prime Minister is circumspect regarding the growing Hindu nationalism, the rank and file of the BJP have made minorities feel apprehensive by their display of religion-fuelled nationalistic bravado.
It would seem that the BJP has been charting a nuanced strategy for the March state elections. The strategy was actively pursued for the first time in the recent UP elections and was a resounding success. It is safe to assume that the BJP will follow this new strategy, crafting it to suit local requirements, in future elections in different parts of the nation. At the base level, the strategy aims at consolidating the Hindu vote, moving across and blurring the traditional caste divisions that have so far kept it divided.
If this holistic assimilation can be effectively achieved, then it is a move that will create a situation where the BJP could afford to selectively ignore the minority votes and yet win the elections. The minority votes in each constituency will vary and may even be large in some, but as a percentage of the total vote it would still remain largely inconsequential in the current electoral system. The caveat to achieving this is that the Hindu votes remain undivided.
Consolidating power at the central Government is essential to push forward the economic reforms that the Prime Minister has been focused on since assuming power. The strategy being adopted is aimed at achieving a populist domination of the people by the BJP—which in turn will translate to electoral victories.
Consolidation is necessary to open the economy in order to establish a pluralistic society with a federal polity, within the next two decades. It is also critical to creating job opportunities for the burgeoning youth population. Modi is focused on making unrelenting efforts to rapidly transform the nation; to convert normal development into a ‘people’s movement’ that in turn will ensure inclusive upward mobility and transition for one and all.
For the past two years the pace of this transition has been hobbled by a moribund bureaucracy, which has stood steadfast as an antithesis to everything that the Prime Minister articulates. The realisation that inaction is no longer a viable option is only now sinking into the bureaucracy. Modi needs to urgently create efficient, transparent and accountable governance if any of the many ambitious schemes are to bear fruit. More than anybody else, it is the Prime Minister who is aware of this.
In spite of an inactive bureaucracy, the central government has assumed the lead in a number of activities and is also viewed as being strong and viable. From a commerce and trade viewpoint this is definitely a plus point. Only after creating a strong and consolidated Central Government can the Prime Minister make tough economic decisions and policy choices to move the nation forward. India needs to be opened further to the global market and barriers put up by state legislations will have to be dismantled in order to achieve this. Already a national sales tax has been approved and will replace the completely confused state-levied taxes in vogue now. This should improve the currently chaotic regulations that increase the difficulty of ‘doing business’ in India.
In this equation to consolidate power, why are state elections so important? There are two reasons for state elections to assume critical stature in moving the nation forward. First, is the constitution of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament. Currently it continues to have a blocking power on the initiatives of the government. The colour of the Rajya Sabha membership will only change gradually. The Rajya Sabha is a 245-member house of whom 233 are elected by the state legislative assemblies and the remaining 12 are nominated by the President.
The changes in state governments directly affect the membership of the Rajya Sabha that in turn could make life easy or difficult for the government. It can either ensure that the Lower House bills are passed in time or it can drag its feet and make the process a bane on development. When a government is in a hurry to move forward, an uncooperative Rajya Sabha can become a perennial spoke in the wheel. This is the current situation in India.
The second reason for state elections to play such an important role in national governance is the size of the country, and its geographic, demographic and cultural diversity. In order to cater for this diversity, governance of the states is legally designated to the elected state governments. The Chief Minister of each state exercises executive powers at the state level. Therefore, it becomes extremely important for the Central Government to have the states ‘on-side’ if national developmental agenda have to be pushed forward. This is easier to achieve when the centre and state have unanimity in political ideology through being ruled by the same party. In these circumstances, consolidation of power becomes relatively easy.
The Downside of BJP Nationalism
Hinduism is the philosophical underpinning of the BJP and it also happens to be the religion of nearly 80 percent of the population. Even so Hinduism is not the official religion of India, which constitutionally remains a secular nation.
However, in recent months BJP-sponsored Hindu nationalism has started to incrementally challenge the core philosophy of Indian secularism, as has been practised in the nation for the past sixty years. This has initiated heated national debates, especially regarding the nation’s political identity and the direction in which the broader society seems to be moving.
Within the BJP there is a perceptible hard-line though process that insists on making Hinduism the guiding principle of the entire Indian society. This would obviously lead to the political and cultural subordination of other religious minorities, especially the Christians and the Muslims. Such a dramatic change will not be palatable to the majority of the nation and is bound to create further schisms. Independent India suffers from a history of religious and communal violence, starting from the riots in the aftermath of partition in 1947 to the current day.
Within this somewhat ambiguous situation, the Prime Minister could be said to be pursuing a nuanced pro-Hindu strategy in a subtle manner. Some analysts have even termed it an anti-Muslim agenda, without such a strategy being openly articulated. This conclusion is not entirely true and does not give credit to a Prime Minister who has gone to great lengths to drop all biased religious references in the formulation of his policies and his speeches.
Irrespective of Modi’s stance, the majority of the BJP cadre is wedded to and push a Hinduism-based agenda. The unsaid part is that such an agenda invariably is a non-secular one. Even with an overwhelming Hindu religious agenda, the BJP ranks can be divided into two wings, with sufficient overlap at the dividing line to make distinct divisions difficult. The first is the pragmatic wing, concerned mainly with national economic development and understanding the need for inclusivity to achieve this. The second is focused on religion and on the fall out that minority politics have had on the social and cultural fabric of the nation. These two disparate groups will have to compromise and come to terms in agreement regarding the direction that the party and the nation must adopt, before tangible progress can be made.
Considering heterogeneous quality of the BJP, at least for the moment, it is difficult to interpret the recent electoral victories as a manifestation of a long-term reconfiguration of the voting pattern, which has so far been based almost entirely on caste, religion and identity.
Further, the question emerges, would the demonstration of the consolidation of the Hindu vote mean a reworking of the society itself? Both of the above, a reworking of the society based on Hindu consolidation, remain distinct possibilities and could then radically change the political and societal ethos of the nation. At this juncture it is impossible to predict the actual changes that would be brought to bear and also the direction that the nation would take thereafter, if such a change come to pass.
There is no doubt that the minority religions are apprehensive, especially when they see that the BJP clamour for an overt and offensive Hindu nationalism as a core concept that must be embraced by all Indians have been strengthened by the recent electoral results. The vociferous nature of this demand has been demonstrated by reported numerous cases of ‘cow vigilantism’ that have led to violence and death.
The foundational plank of Prime Minister Modi’s way forward for India is inclusive economic development and the delivery of essential services. In a number of areas this developmental aspiration will come directly into conflict with the overt Hindu nationalism of the party. For example, the leather industry, which is one on the ‘make in India’ list, would come up against the need to ‘worship’ and safeguard the cow. The future direction of the society and India at large will be determined by the manner in which such contradictory situations are resolved.
Even with further consolidation of power in the centre, if the BJP continues to function within the current framework of the party, the Prime Minster will find it difficult to deliver inclusive economic development. Cultural politics, especially in an entrenched caste-ridden political environment, will not have the heft to carry the deadweight of religious minorities pulling the other way. The story of BJP in government is an on-going and developing saga—watch this space.