So that’s it, about the worst that could have happened for 1.3 billion people has happened. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returns to power with a resounding majority in the 17th Indian General Elections; the first time since 1971 that a single party returned to power with an increased majority. The Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has won over 350 of the 542 seats in the lower house of the Parliament, with the BJP alone gaining about 20 seats. The election is a resounding affirmation of the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is set to return for a second term presumably to continue corroding India’s objective adherence to secularism and to further the politico-legal agenda of capital.
While the victory of the NDA had been predicted by exit polls, the sheer scale of it has turned out to be staggering. The BJP retained all the states it had won in 2014 and won back with ease the three states which it had recently lost to the Congress Party in State Assembly elections. This is surprising as the BJP was expected to shed a sizable number of seats in the North (especially in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh); instead it retained most of these and more than made up for the loss by making significant inroads in two eastern states. In fact the NDA increased its overall vote share to over 50%, a rare achievement in Indian electoral politics, and the BJP has increased its own vote share to about 38%. What this means on the ground is that more people voted for the BJP over regional parties, a reversal of the trend visible in Indian politics in the 1990s and 2000s.
And herein lies the contradiction — there isn’t much for the Modi-led government to be proud of in the last 5 years. The government came to power on the promise of development for all, only to preside over worsening economic conditions (which it aided with disastrous policies like demonetization) and rising social tensions fed by the ideology of brahminical Hindu nationalism of its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). By 2018 dissatisfaction with the government was on the rise and was becoming almost palpable — this is when BJP lost elections in three state assemblies, but the BJP successfully subverted the entire public narrative in the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attacks and consequent rising tensions with Pakistan early this year. Modi and the BJP were highly effective in setting the terms of the elections, on the one hand utilizing the Pulwama fueled nationalist sentiment, and on the other hand through the differential enforcement of Election Commission norms thanks to its ‘influence’ on the body.
The entire campaign of the BJP was focussed, on the one hand, of belittling the achievements of past Congress governments and leaders, and on the other of highlighting the lack of a credible Opposition Prime Ministerial candidate. Unlike the 2014 elections, the promises of development were not the center of the campaign precisely because the BJP was conscious of its own lack of performance. Instead by framing the elections as a question of “Modi vs Who”, the BJP captured back the votes of those who were underwhelmed by the first term but retained faith in Modi as an effective leader.
The role of media in the tenure of the government, the coverage of the Pulwama attack, and the election itself, has been crucial. Most news channels are privately owned, openly pro-BJP, and seem to be locked in a contest over who can glorify Modi the most. They spend hours covering Modi’s diet, his grooming habits and his daily routine, asking important questions like ‘how does PM Modi sleep only four hours every night’ and ‘where does PM Modi get his energy from’. This election has not just been about a personality cult however, though that has been a prime factor. The anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit, pro-Hindutva sentiment cultivated by the RSS which has manifested in the equation of the BJP led government with the very concept of Indian nationalism, has grown disturbingly strong in the last 5 years.
This majoritarian jingoistic position has become the norm for caste Hindus across classes and educational qualifications, with even liberal defenders of human rights are being targeted as ‘anti-nationals’. Modi is continued to be seen as the only leader strong enough to usher in development, with Hindutva being an insignificant side order for some and the main course for others. At the same time there are a number of people who feel like strangers in their own country, whose very existence is threatened by the rise of such politics and who are unable to relate with the dominant conversation and mood of the country, at the same time unable to find a credible electoral outlet for their dissent.
One can only hope that the dissenting movements that exist outside the electoral sphere, in the form of farmers protests and mobilizations, Dalit protests, and student movements gain strength and rise up in what will otherwise be dark days for the people of India.