In BJP’s big win, a new national icon

Picture credit: Savitha BR

Few verdicts are as unambiguous as the 2019 Lok Sabha polls result. The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (nominally in an alliance) swept the elections in large parts of India, retaining a lion’s share of seats in the Hindi heartland; decimated the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance in Maharashtra; made significant gains in West Bengal and Odisha expanding its footprint in the East and making its presence felt across all regions of the country, save a sliver of South India comprising Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It managed to decisively win in Karnataka – in the process destabilising the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) government in the state – and even succeeded in spreading it influence to a second South Indian state, Telangana. In Uttar Pradesh, where it was up against the combined might of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party – the BJP still appeared set to win an astounding 58 seats. The North India sweep for the BJP was sweeter because it came months after reversals in Assembly polls in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgrah.

All of that, however, became a thing of the distant past on the morning of May 23, as the results confirmed that the election was fought on a single issue. The people, it seemed, were presented with a simple choice: Whether or not to give Narendra Modi another term. Their answer was an overwhelming, unequivocal yes. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) vote share jumped up almost 10 per cent to about 48 per cent according to reports. The last time any government had this share of the popular vote was back in 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress swept into the Lok Sabha in the sympathy wave that followed his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.

As the BJP tally hovered within striking distance of the 300 seat mark, a question that needs to be answered is what explains this unprecedented Modi victory.

Said MD Nalapat, Professor, Manipal Academy of Higher Education: “Seventy per cent of the those who voted for the BJP in 2019 did so for Narendra Modi, 20 per cent for the BJP and 10 per cent for the candidate.” This Modi vote also managed to dwarf its sole national rival, the Congress, by a long margin. The party struggled to just about better its tally from the historic low of 44 it had touched in the 2014 polls.

The lesson in it for the Congress was also the larger message of the verdict. Anti-Modi-ism as an idea was not a winning strategy. The Congress and the wider Opposition’s personal attacks on Narendra Modi rebounded on them. Voters appeared to equate the attacks on Modi as an attack on a cherished figure, someone who was a source of pride for them.

“This last happened with Jawaharlal Nehru. Modi has established himself in the minds of the people,” Nalapat said, adding that people had forgotten that Nehru too was opposed by a big section of people made up of the Lohiaites, the Communists, the Socialists and others.

While 2019 may be about the rise of a new national icon, it is also worth asking whether Modi’s unquestioned rise is a product of the lack of a credible opposition to him either in the form of a single leader, with an alternative idea and a roadmap for India, or an alliance, made up of a group of disparate parties and ideologies, as it happened in 1977 with Indira Gandhi in the post Emergency elections which she lost.

BJP’s new found dominance is likely to recast the rules of politics in India for the foreseeable future. For example, it immediately raises questions about the survival of the Congress as a national force and that of regional parties in states such as UP. Some like Telugu Desam’s Chandrababu Naidu may be facing the prospect of political meltdown.

The 2019 polls have been described as a Modi tsunami or a Wave 2.0, but this reading fails to see that this is not a verdict for a challenger. It does not wash away anything. This kind of political support for an incumbent can only point to fundamental changes in society and how people see themselves as mirrored in their political leaders. While it may be tempting to read the vote for Modi as a vote for Hindutva, it would be foolish to assume that that is all there is to it. The rhetoric of majoritarian assertion is definitely part of Modi’s appeal across the length and breadth of India, as the cliche goes, but what seems to be at work is a deeper need in the population to see themselves mirrored in a figure whom they can identify with in a globalising, young India.

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