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We are living in a very different India

In the aftermath of the election results, various explanations are being offered for the collapse of the Congress, the Mahagatbandhan and the other opposition forces.

And nobody is entirely sure how the BJP pulled off such a spectacular victory.


The explanations being offered are valid but inadequate. Yes, Sam Pitroda should not have sounded dismissive about the 1984 Sikh riots. (Though it doesn’t seem to have done the Congress much damage in Punjab.) Perhaps Rahul Gandhi should have avoided calling Narendra Modi a ‘chor’. The opposition should have worked out better alliances. And so on.


   All of this misses the central point. This is a pivotal election in the history of Indian democracy. Once the old Congress consensus broke down at the election of 1967, there have been three clear phases in modern Indian politics. The first began in 1969 when Indira Gandhi launched a campaign to target the rich. She nationalised banks, the grain trade and the coal industry. The government imposed ceilings on salaries and tax rates hit absurd levels.


   Mrs. Gandhi justified this on the grounds that she was fighting fat cats for the sake of the poor. For good measure, she also stripped the Maharajas of their titles though it is not clear how much this helped the poor.


   This was the first great phase of modern (post 1967) Indian democracy and though it was framed in terms of garibi hatao, it was really only about class. I know you are poor, Mrs. Gandhi suggested to voters, but it is because of the rich and I am going to teach them a lesson.


   The one advantage of class-based politics was that it trumped caste. Indira Gandhi’s mandates cut across caste and regional identities.


   But garibi was not hataoed and from 1990 onwards, Indian politics entered its second big phase, one dominated by caste and regional identities. It was VP Singh who accepted the Mandal report and launched a new kind of politics in the Hindi belt in which the likes of Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav became stars. Such caste-based groups as the BSP rose to national prominence.


   Throughout this phase the Congress struggled to compete. Its own members broke away and launched regional parties.


"So this is not just another election: it is one that cements a structural change in Indian politics."

   During this period no party won a parliamentary majority. All governments were coalitions that included caste and regional parties. Identity/Caste driven politics was the second great phase of modern elections and we sometimes mistakenly believed it would go on forever.


   Looking at the results of this election, it is clear that a third phase started in 2014 though we did not necessarily realise it at the time. Just as it had moved from class to caste, India moved now to religion.


   What Mr. Modi offered his voters was a triumphant Hindu majoritarianism which, he suggested, would serve as a springboard for national pride and development. When Mr. Modi spoke of an Indian resurgence, he was clever enough not to frame it in terms of such tired old clichés as the Ram Temple but as a return to old, virtuous Hindu values.


   As we must now accept, this appeal won over India. At its base was the suggestion that India had been run, so far, by privileged dynasts who admired Western values. Mr. Modi’s India, on the other hand, would use traditional Indian (Hindu) values to assert its place in the world.


   There have been ugly manifestations of this phenomenon, with the cow at its centre. But the average Hindu seems to have bought into it anyway. This is greatly assisted by Mr Modi’s own popularity and the general belief that even when things go wrong, it is not because of him; he is still sincere in his intentions.


   At this election, the attacks on the BJP have come from the parties rooted in the traditions of the past.  The Left with its outdated emphasis on class committed harakiri at the polls. The SP, RJD and BSP, with their focus on caste, all did badly. Strong parties based on regional identities (the TMC, the BJD, etc.) suddenly found themselves in tough fights with the BJP. The Congress, with its so-called Western values and dynastic leadership, never really stood a chance.


   So this is not just another election: it is one that cements a structural change in Indian politics. That’s why the BJP had no hesitation in fielding Pragya Thakur or why Amit Shah could talk about Indian citizenship in terms that many objected to.


   The advantage of this change is that the era of unstable coalitions seems to have ended. The disadvantage is that it paints Mr. Modi into a corner. Even if he disapproves of violent gaurakshaks, of the sorts of things his followers say about Muslims, etc. he can only be mildly reproving because, in a sense, these are his people.


   One day, this phase will end --- as the other two phases ended too. But till that happens, let us accept that we are living in a very different India from the one that existed a decade ago.


   Political parties that have not accepted this reality face oblivion. The election results are their death notices.



  • Sujit Bagchi 26 May 2019

    I felt, in the last two years, that PM Modi was biding his time to rein in the hot heads in his party and move forward. He is smart enough to realise that politics based on religion is bound to fail. Now that he has his second mandate he will do so. His opening remarks after BJP's victory is a reminder of that. He invoked the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny where Hindus and Muslims fought against the British and reminded the nation that the minorities must not live in fear.

Posted On: 24 May 2019 10:17 AM
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