Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Understanding Modi's victory

Well, yes, it is Modi's victory, not the BJP's, as many have said. Surjit Bhalla makes the point forcefully in his piece today. As he points out, had the BJP been led by anybody else, people would not have been able to tell the difference between the NDA and the UPA.

But what exactly has brought about this victory? The direction of change was clear enough from the opinion polls but none predicted the sheer enormity of it. I have been reflecting on the many explanations:

i. People were fed up with corruption: No. Many of the surveys did not thrown up corruption as a major concern. I doubt that anybody seriously thinks that corruption will disappear with the new government.

ii. The slowdown in growth and mismanagement of the economy: If one looks at the last ten years or even the last five, the UPA government's management of the economy has been pretty good. True, we have had two years of a slowdown and high inflation and some of the urban middle class may have been swayed by the development agenda of Modi. But real wages in the rural sector have gone up in recent years despite inflation and the rural poor have also benefited from the UPA's welfarism.

iii. People don't want welfarism, they want growth and jobs:Trouble is, the BJP has not asked for MNREGA to be scaled down or closed, it was more aggressive on the Food Security Act than the Congress, strongly supported Land Acquisition Bill and opposed what has been labelled a reformist move, letting in FDI into multi-brand retail.

iv. The Congress did not communicate its achievements properly: Does that mean the NDA lost because its India Shining campaign was not effective in 2004, that the Congress somehow had better communications in 2009? Not convincing.

v. People have had enough of dynasty: Is that why they favoured the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and made sure that Mulayam Singh Yadav's family alone got elected in UP while other party members were routed?

vi. The Congress did not project Rahul as a PM: Did that worsen or improve matters for the Congress?

vii. People were impressed with the Gujarat growth model: Yes, that's part of the explanation but it cannot be the whole explanation because, then, the CMs of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, two fast-growing states, should have been candidates for the post of PM in the past.

Personalities do count. Modi is an extraordinary personality by any reckoning, a man of enormous talent, energy, and a capacity to connect with the masses with his spell-binding oratory. Pitted against him was a 43-year old with no comparable record of accomplishment. In the eyes of many, it was a no-contest.

And yet, Indian elections do not centre on personalities alone. In 2004, Vajpayee would have easily scored over Sonia and it's hard to say that in 2009, Manmohan Singh was perceived to be clearly superior to L K Advani.

Adding to Modi's formidable personality and impressive track record was, I believe, another key factor: the potent appeal of Hindutva. Support for the BJP this time cut across caste barriers. That support could have only been the result of the transcending appeal of Hindutva. The BJP rode to power in 1999 on the strength of the Mandir campaign launched earlier by Advani. In 2004, as an article in BS pointed out recently, the difference between the BJP and the Congress was a mere nine seats: it was the Congress' allies that enable the UPA to prevail over the NDA. In 2009, the appeal of Hindutva was muted by five years of extraordinary growth which permitted welfarism on an extraordinary scale: the farm loan waive, MNREGA, the Pay Commission award etc.

In 2014, against a more normal (or sub-normal) economic background, the BJP was able to tap into the latent appeal of Hindutva. In Modi, it could not have had better candidate to do so. It is a phenomenon to which V S Naipual drew attention in the wake of the demolition of the Bajri Masjid. He characterised the event as the manifestation of long-suppressed Hindu pride and rage, a movement from the ground-up.( He was severely criticised for his explanation). With economic advancement, Naipaul noted in his book, A million mutinies now, comes an assertion of one's identity. The go-go years of this decade have provided the fuel for precisely such an assertion.

Development has its appeal but the pull of right-wing parties also involves a rich dose of nationalism. Development plus Hindutva must explain the sheer scale of Modi's victory.

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