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India: Modi the vote puller

Modi wiped out all others in most States except in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra. How did Modi become post-independent India’s most charismatic vote puller?


by Kusal Perera

Many interpretations and analyses on the “Modi phenomenon” have already flooded the public domain after 2019 Lok Sabha elections concluded in India. For Indians Modi’s explosive return would have different meanings than to her neighbours. For Sri Lanka, it would be as much the same as all that for the Indians with SL elections only 06 months ahead.



Phased out Indian Lok Sabha elections with over 67 percent of the 900 million registered voters going to polls with 15 million “first time voters”, proved the BJP theme

slogan "Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar" (Modi once more) was more than valid. In alliance with Shiv Sena, AIADMK, Janata Dal and with 17 other tiny regional parties, forming the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), BJP won a phenomenal 303 seats for itself while the NDA totalled around 354 seats in the 543 seat Lok Sabha. BJP polled over 38 percent of the total votes polled.

Comparisons with the 2014 Lok Sabha elections show BJP as a “Modi phenomenon” has gained greater dominance in all sectors of the Indian population and in most States, across caste and class. In 2014 elections the BJP polled 17.7 percent from Scheduled Caste (SC) votes and have increased that almost twofold polling 34.3 percent this election. BJP polled 38.2 percent from Scheduled Tribes (ST) in 2014 and increased it to 42.2 percent this time. From the poorest 20 percent of the population BJP polled 31.9 percent in 2014 and increased that to 39.2 this election. From the richest top 20 percent, the BJP increased from 27.8 in 2014 to 33.1 percent. Considered the rich urban middleclass, the second 20 percent from the top, also voted more with BJP increasing from 27.7 percent in 2014 to 33.0 percent. On the rural-urban divide too, the BJP increased its number of constituencies from 190 in 2014 to 207 this election in rural India and from 53 to 58 in semi urban India, while maintaining the same 40 urban seats.

Where the BJP lost or was comparatively reduced was in Constituencies with high Muslim concentrations of over and above 30 percent. While that was obvious or was close to what should be obvious, everything else in this Modi victory is not “obvious”. Seen steadfastly gaining ground as lead campaigner of the Indian Congress Party led alliance, Rahul Gandhi was firing on “false promises” by Modi and accusing him “Modi ne loota hai” (Modi has looted), but lost his seat Amethi in UP, the ancestral constituency of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Firebrand student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Kanhaiya Kumar who was charged for sedition in 2016, contested as CPI candidate for Begusarai once known as “Leningrad” of Bihar. He emerged as the star campaigner backed by high profile personalities like Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar and Swara Bhaskar. A seat, Kanhaiya Kumar was expected to win, but lost to BJP hard line Hindutva Candidate Giriraj Singh by a huge margin of over 422,000 votes.

Modi wiped out all others in most States except in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra. How did Modi become post independent India’s most charismatic vote puller? India’s “independence movement” led by Gandhi, Nehru and the likes of Ali Jinnah, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajagopalachari, Lal Bahadhur Shashtri to name just a few, was turned into an inclusive national dialogue with respected and popular literati like Rabindranath Tagore, Subramania Bharathi, Muhammad Iqbal, Chattopadhyay, feminist campaigners like Sarojini Naidu and Begum Rokeya, champions of social justice like Ambedkar providing an extremely broad and diverse platform. Politics of the “independence movement” thus came to be sealed as both secular and inclusive. Post independent India led by the Congress Party with Jawaharlal Nehru, and a Constitution which identified and accepted regional diversity on “linguistic differences” carried with it a democratic, secular and an inclusive social psyche.

What gave way for the Modi phenomenon was the fact he accepted “linguistic diversity” but turned “religious diversity” into a “religious divide”. In democratic, nationalist and secular India constituted as a “Republic” did not accept “religious diversity” as a political factor in its independence movement though Hindu reformist and revivalist movements were alive. By 1925 Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s “Hindu Nationalism” was given organisational form as “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh” (RSS) by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar a physician in Maharashtra. By 1946 Ali Jinnah added another dimension to religious politics demanding a separate State on the basis of Islam as a religion. Proscription of RSS first after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, thereafter during Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule during 1975 to 1977 and then for its role in the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 gave legitimacy to RSS as a Hindu nationalist campaigner, while Jinnah’s political move in creating Pakistan, East and West of India, provided RSS with undue advantage of peddling Hindu ideology as “anti Islam”.

Yet for more than 02 decades time wasn’t right for Bharathiya Jana Sangh (BJS) formed in 1951 to be accepted as an “alternate” to secular politics of the Congress. BJS came to be recognised post 1977 after secular democratic politics of Congress went into crisis with poverty and economic stagnation. Contradicting its own “democratic” tradition, PM Indira Gandhi clamped down “Emergency Rule” in 1975. With a crisis around, RSS had begun militant activism with the early formation of affiliates like the “Vishva Hindu Parishad” (VHP) that later led to the formation of the BJP and also far more extreme new groups like Abhinav Bharath, Shiv Sena, asserting themselves aggressively in Hindu society. Emergence of the BJP with RSS backing thus became an alternative to secular politics of Nehru-Gandhi Congress with a Hindutva ideology tied to free market economics. After many electoral upsets, the RSS and BJP worked towards a strong Hindu voter base with an “anti Muslim flavour” that was being created outside political parties. There wer e violent attacks on Muslim communities like in Gujarat, Malegaon, Samjhauta train bombing, Ajmer Dargha blast and in Hyderabad the Mecca Masjid bombing.

The RSS by then had groomed its successor to Vajpayee in Narendra Modi who was publicly accused as responsible for the massacre of Muslim people in Gujarat, one year after he became the Chief Minister. Spate of attacks on Muslim people and on Mosques hardened Hindutva politics that by 2013 qualified Narendra Modi to be declared the BJP prime ministerial candidate. Modi’s 2014 election campaign therefore was basically a challenge to democratic secularism of Congress on a Hindutva nationalist platform within the free market economy.

BJP with Modi was heavily funded in their electoral campaign by the Corporates. That clearly indicated the Hindu Corporate lobby too wanted a Neo liberal leader of their own. Their election campaign was more about “development” showcasing the “Gujarat model” under Modi as the most vibrant alternative to Congress politics. Election campaign was a two-tiered campaign with RSS and its affiliates working on the ground ensuring a large Hindu turn out at polls, while the BJP and Modi downplayed their Hindutva image at national level. Modi’s efforts in making him look secular and a determined “development Guru” against “corruption” attracted the Urban middle class that came out on streets with Anna Hazare, against mega corruption of the Congress government.

The explosive comeback of Modi at this 2019 elections, should therefore be assessed on two different aspects of “politics in governance”. One, politics of his image building as a strong Hindu leader, and two, his politics in economic policy focussing the urban and rural middle class with populist offers to the poor. In the first two years as PM after the 2014 elections, Modi worked towards centralising the otherwise devolved State power. He had a bill passed in Lok Sabha to have more power in appointing Judges and reducing that of the judiciary. In his first year itself Modi took advantage of accusations and allegations against the policy designing apex body “Planning Commission” for inefficiency and lack innovative development programmes, to replace it with his own; National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) – Aayog. This in effect reduced horizontal accountability in developing policy and space for State governments to negotiate with the Central government despite promises for “co-operative federalism”. His appointments to high posts too were aimed at more centralised power around him. He thus gave himself greater ability to stand above executive power of the government.

Government economic policy could thus be implemented without a Lok Sabha “nod” and they became “Modi policy” more than BJP government policy. His heavy stress on social media in emerging as a strong national leader, thus appealed to youth and the urban middle class. This creation of a strong leader in Modi, was backed by bringing RSS into active mainstream politics and allowing Hindutva goons to go about lynching, attacking, vandalising Muslim life with impunity. His image with greatly centralised executive power was thus moulded within brutalised “Hinduism” of RSS as a political force and not within religious “fundamentalism”.

A strong leader at the Centre, who could manage and sustain an economic growth, was seen as the most formidable alternative to Rahul Gandhi and his Congress when April 2019 elections were approaching. Inability of Congress politics to challenge inequality, social injustice and anti Muslim violence backed by the Modi rule within a truly democratic development alternative left Modi with his Hindutva majoritarianism as the dominant factor in current Indian politics. A free market economy Modi sustained with a 7.0 percent growth rate as the fastest growing economy, tied the growing middleclass with Modi rule. Thus, while anti Muslim violence was moving around with impunity, there was no social questioning, how 01 percent of the richest in India under Modi could accumulate 73 percent of the wealth created in 2017. How 67 million people who are the bottom half of the poorest in India was left with only 01 percent increase in wealth. There is also no social debate on how 09 billionaires till year 2000, galloped to 101 in 2017 and now to 119 billionaires, just 05 years with Modi. It is said, a minimum wage worker in rural India would take 941 years to reach the income of a top executive in a leading apparel sector company in India. (Oxfam - https://www.oxfam.org/en/even-it/india-extreme-inequality-numbers)

Summing up this socio economic crisis, Professor Himanshu of JNU is on record saying, “What is particularly worrying in India’s case is that economic inequality is being added to a society that is already fractured along the lines of caste, religion, region and gender.” Yet when they are not brought to mainstream politics as major issues by Opposition political parties, when urban middleclass and social intelligentsia goes without demanding serious answers, Modi gains social and media space to run his own Hindutva agenda. Over the past years, everything negative and brutal including corruption was brushed with a new and an aggressive “Hindutva” fragrance breathed into society to project Modi as the nationalist leader for India to emerge as a world power. Nationalist image for a super power was lacking in Rahul and his Conservative politics, while Modi used recent conflicts with China and Pakistan to his advantage. He gave them the spin on his election platforms to project him as the patriotic Hindutva leader who dictated terms for the benefit of India.

In a nutshell, despite all orthodox challenges to his economic policy, Modi proved he could manage the free market economy for the benefit of the Hindutva majority and keep India safe and growing, with violence against Muslims, savagely widening inequality and crying social injustice all ignored and covered up by an aggressively dominant Hindutva campaign to poll 38 percent of the Indian vote that gave him a disproportionately large comeback that makes him a political legend in post independent history of India.

This same majoritarianism is more than apparent in Sri Lanka. Recent violent and brutal Easter Sunday attacks on 03 Catholic churches and 03 super luxury hotels in Colombo by a small extremist group that does not seem to have much training and expertise. It was more like self-hypnotised few Islamic extremists walking in wearing back-packs with explosives to explode themselves. But these brutal attacks were immediately turned into anti Muslim politics with violent attacks on innocent Muslim people far away from where the extremists exploded themselves. They are now being justified with unbelievable anti Muslim stories, the mainstream political leaderships don’t dissociate from. The RSS, the VHP and the like have similar anti Muslim violent outfits, patronised by mainstream politics. Fumbling of the economy and mis-governance by the present UNP allows the main Rajapaksa opposition to go one step beyond Modi, with the advantage of challenging a fractured and a feeble government. President Sirisena is making a valiant bid to be relevant within the now emerging anti Muslim, Sinhala Buddhist politics. The ground is being readied for elections that would take the same campaign trail, which brought back Modi with unexpected and uncalculated margins that none ever thought was possible other then Modi and his extreme Hindutva politics.

In months to come, with all indications of dressing up Modi like, the slogan here could also be "Phir Ek Baar Mahinda Sarkar" (Mahinda once more). The “Lotus bud” voters can then sing praise "Chalo Ek Baar Phir Ham Mahinda Sarkar Banate Hai / Garv Ke Sath Desh Ko Age Badhate Hain/ Phir se Kamal Khilate Hai (lets elect Mahinda government again, let’s move the country ahead with pride, let's help lotus bloom again)".

That being the irony we are faced with.

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