A word we have heard being used this election by politicians, journalists and commentators repeatedly is 'narrative'. Often we heard of the BJP ‘narrative’, sometimes of the Opposition ‘narrative’. Not so much the Congress ‘narrative’ or the mahagathbandhan ‘narrative’. And there was very little election ‘narrative’ in evidence, probably because the narratives on offer varied so widely from one another.
It's an interesting word, that probably hasn’t been used this extensively in previous elections. Which brings us to what people mean when they speak of 'narrative'. Most often they use the word loosely to mean a sales pitch, but many a time they are also reaching deeper into the word to mean a version of things, a history. In short, a story about who they are as represented through political figures who want to represent them!
In that sense, this election has been about competing narratives – narratives that were the polar opposites of one another Some have called it competing ‘Ideas of India’. The BJP narrative has been built around Narendra Modi. It's a complex narrative that has sought to counter those who decry the destruction of an old ‘Idea of India’ by replacing it with the ‘Idea of Modi’. Yet it has a singular differentiating thrust – that of the Sangh Parivar's ideology of cultural nationalism and a majoritarian India – but as represented in one man. This in itself is something new in the development of the idea (or narrative) of cultural nationalism (but more on that elsewhere).
The Opposition narrative has been something of a mixed bag. Rahul Gandhi and the Congress have spoken about a ‘politics of love’, combining it with their old ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan repackaged as ‘Ab Hoga Nyay’. While this has had its high points, it hasn't been able to really sell itself effectively as a counter to what it contends is Modi's 'politics of hatred'. It's not plugged into the pulse of the people enough to mount a real mass campaign taking on Modi's brand of politics. Also, this narrative has come across as weak because it has faltered when faced with charges of dynastic succession and corruption, all part of the old unpalatable Congress narrative in the BJP’s version of things.
Regional parties paid lip service to whatever ideology they spoke of in the name of narrative. These parties – many of them caste-based and feudal in character – seemed to be mainly concerned about their political survival. However, their role is important in so far as they provide the only counter Modi's narrative. From the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu to the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, their narrative has takers among those who don’t see Modi's narrative as working in their favour. Muslims, Dalits, and one might even add liberals, fall in the category of those who are not convinced by Modi's narrative. Clearly his a story that either excludes them or does not convince them.
That said, Modi's narrative has been the most clearly enunciated and has the added seduction of promising to replace an old, tired story with a new gleaming one, even if it is a repainting of old tropes and symbols that were anathema to those who laid the foundations of India. There are many Indians who are eagerly lapping up this version of who they are or want to be seen as, if exit poll results are to be believed. There is also a section of people – comprised of the excluded – who want to drown out this new story by shouting back and protesting. Some of them have disproportionately loud voices, despite being in a minority, because they are the political elite or sections of the media and the old intelligentsia who have traditionally held power. Many in the former group view them with suspicion and accuse them waging a so-called moral battle for the defence of the 'Idea of India' simply as a means to capture back power.
The clash of these narratives is likely to continue well into the term of the next government, whichever one takes office. In fact it continues without a break after the end of polling, as the disagreements over the credibility of the EMV counting process demonstrate. Yet, what both these narratives fail to capture is the over arching narrative of what India has turned into – a perpetual battle, a wounding clash of narratives in and out of elections.