Modi’s Win: It Wasn’t the Economy, Stupid!

Posted on by

By L K Sharma, who has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. He was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. He reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. He edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul  His two e-books The Twain and A Parliamentary Affair form part of The Englandia Quartet. Originally published at openDemocracy

Narendra Modi’s stunning victory in the parliamentary elections speaks volumes about the transformed India and an India keen to be transformed further. He defied the incumbency handicap to be crowned as India’s Prime Minister for a second term. He got the most impressive mandate despite his Government’s dismal economic record, his unkept promises, mendacity, an unprecedented rise in bigotry and sustained low-level communal violence during the past five years.

Elections are not won or lost because of one single factor. However, what mattered most to the voters and why they felt so enamoured of Modi became somewhat obvious. A more authentic assessment may be made by Donald Trump’s election strategist. The rise of the two leaders calls for a composite study. The two have learned a lot from each other. Modi’s achievement is bigger because India’s economy faltered during his regime.

Indian voters had several reasons to do what they did but perhaps most of them looked for and chose a Messiah determined to protect the “endangered” religious majority. Such voters want a devout Hindu to be the Prime Minister. They responded to the BJP’s clarion call: “Declare with pride that we are Hindus!”

From Hope to Fear

Modi’s poll campaign in 2014 was about hope: this time it was about fear. In an atmosphere of fear, lynch mobs fear the other and the victims fear the perpetrators. There was no angry public response to the acts of commission by the Hindu vigilante groups and acts of omission by the state police. This neutralised warnings by intellectuals and opposition parties that Modi’s India was heading towards Fascism. The people accepted electoral authoritarianism for their security.

Sustained propaganda by Modi and his party created religious polarisation. The fear that “Muslims are coming” led to the consolidation of the Hindu votes. The religious card of the Hindu nationalist party worked wonderfully well this time.

An allied strand of this electoral strategy was the focus on Islamic Pakistan. Once an Indian Muslim terrorist killed para-military troops in Kashmir, the Modi campaign of toxic nationalism took off furiously. The voters were warned that they live in a nation threatened by enemies within and without.

The Modi Government failed to prevent the killing of the para-military personnel in Kashmir by a terrorist. But Modi’s media management ensured that its criticism was not amplified. Such a killing during the Congress regime would have damned that Prime Minister. Modi in the opposition would have gone to town demanding his resignation for the Government’s huge intelligence failure! Modi ordered a surgical strike into Pakistani territory, publicised it on a massive scale, highlighting his nationalistic credentials and macho image. His followers sang praises of the Modi army!

Modi prevented any political harm resulting from his dismal performance on the economic front by distracting the voters’ attention from their economic woes. He harnessed their support for the greater cause of helping him to protect the nation! He avoided any reference to his 2014 promise of “Good Days” that never arrived. No new promise of economic nirvana was made.

Understanding the Follies and Frailties

Modi presented himself as a devout Hindu seeking to restore the glory of Hinduism by making it muscular and aggressive. Bigotry and toxic nationalism energised the BJP’s election campaign. Millions followed him as they would follow a cult leader. In their eyes Modi could do no wrong. His failures, his divisive sectarian statements, his threats, uncivil remarks and lies only increased his popularity.

The campaign for these elections was launched by Modi immediately after winning the last ones in 2014. A steady flow of communal poison kept dripping into the nation’s veins. The incidents of violence against minorities, rationalists, independent journalists and liberals have been well documented.

The vigilantes marching behind the flag of Hindutva enjoyed considerable freedom while Modi’s critics faced threats and lived in an atmosphere of fear. Writers were the first to protest against the culture of enforced thinking introduced by the Modi regime. The dissenting writers were neutralised by a social media hate campaign. In any case, how many battalions does a writer command?

However, the believers in majoritarianism alone could not have secured a record victory, so Modi wooed different voters with different messages. Some came to him because he appeared competent and efficient. Some believed he could not be corrupt because he does not live with his wife and has no progeny. Modi’s claim that he is a fakir was amplified by his acolytes, notwithstanding his valuable personal possessions and his very expensive and huge wardrobe. Many were persuaded by the repeated assertion that there was no alternative to Modi. Of course, Modi also offered political stability which is valued even by ordinary voters unless they are too dissatisfied by an outgoing regime. Thus, Modi sold himself even to many of those untouched by sectarianism.

Modi came across as a dynamic and charismatic personality. He could mesmerise large audiences with dramatic gestures and sharp and satirical remarks against his opponents. Modi had access to record sums of money. He had the fullest support of the incentive-hungry business leaders ever ready to loosen their purse strings to expand his party’s war chest. There was no level field in these elections.

The ruling party’s muscle power comprised millions of booth-level workers and a vast network of volunteers working selflessly for the RSS, a so-called cultural organisation. Modi commanded a subservient media that amplified the message of hate against his opponents and against a religious minority.

However, for being able to coordinate the strands of a winning strategy the credit goes to the mind of Modi. Some may qualify his genius but he has proved time and again his understanding of the follies and frailties of human beings and of India’s social and religious fault-lines. He used his oratorical skills to exploit these fault-lines. Being a divisive figure, he has taken conflict to every home so politics has come to dominate social life. Modi creates confrontation and prospers.

Onslaught Against Secularism

Since religious polarisation could not fully bridge the caste differences, Modi devised a complex strategy to break up the political dominant castes. He wooed and won sub-castes to neutralise the opposition by that caste formation. With two powerful weapons of envy and resentment, he divided it by accentuating internal economic rivalry. This strategy saved Modi in a couple of states where he was challenged by the caste-based parties. The BJP thus firmed up the sub-caste identities.

Modi had the big advantage of having an incompetent and divided opposition. He went after the enfeebled Congress and its young leader Rahul Gandhi because when it comes to an ideological war, the Congress is the only “enemy”. Most other opposition parties have flirted with Modi’s party in the past. Enshrined in India’s Constitution, secularism was so cherished by the masses that the communal political parties were kept out of power for decades.

Modi’s party relentlessly attacked the secular parties for “appeasing” Muslims. In a society lacking in empathy, this propaganda influenced many Hindus and some of them even started holding the Muslims responsible for their economic misery. The Congress had no effective strategy to counter the onslaught against secularism. Modi derided the secularists and said that their days were numbered in a nation bubbling with Hindu pride. Hinduism scholars never protested against the BJP hijacking their faith for a political project and seeking to distort it. Hindu priests were either co-opted by the BJP or chose to remain silent.

The Congress raised the issue of corruption by alleging that Modi favoured a private Indian company instead of a public sector firm while striking a deal with France for the Raffle aircraft for the Indian Air Force. It did no political harm to Modi even after many reports embarrassing the Government were published by one newspaper. Corruption becomes a big issue if a party is competent to exploit it.

The Congress had miserably failed to publicise the economic achievements of its Manmohan Singh Government. Thus, the voters got convinced by Modi’s assertion that nothing was done in India till 2014. The young impatient and aggressive aspirational class truly believed what Modi said.

Narendra Modi appointed prime minister, May 27, 2019. | unreguser/PA. All rights reserved.

Natural Advantage

In a confrontational election campaign, leaders like Modi have a natural advantage. The days of the gentleman-politician are over. The growing criminalisation of politics is reflected in the profile of the new Parliament. Politics has place only for crafty individuals. Some years ago, Modi could not have called his opponents anti-national Indians. Every critic of Modi is asked to go away to Pakistan. This propaganda stooped to its ugliest level in social media. Even after the Model Code of Conduct came into force and the Election Commission prohibited references to religion and the military in the campaign, the Prime Minister merrily ignored such advice.

India witnessed the ghoulish act of shooting down Gandhi’s cardboard cut-out in a public square by a saffron-clad woman. It was gleefully video-graphed and circulated. The scene had the artificial blood flowing down after the “gunshot” from a toy pistol. Some Hindu nationalists have not forgiven Gandhi for his sin of “appeasing the Muslims”.

The BJP fielded as its parliamentary candidate a terror-accused Hindu nun Sadhvi Pragya who is out on bail. She said she had cursed a police officer who had once investigated her in a Hindu terror case involving the killings of Muslims. This officer later died fighting Muslim terrorists and was widely hailed as a martyr. Sadhvi Pragya also applauded as a patriot the right-wing Hindu killer of Gandhi, Nathuram Godse. She won by an impressive margin and will now speak in Parliament on the India of her dreams.

Modi’s mentor organisation RSS has the declared objective of establishing a Hindu nation. Its political wing, the BJP, proudly calls itself a Hindu nationalist party. Modi has a proven record of consolidating the Hindu voters. As the chief minister of the Gujarat state which witnessed sectarian killings on a massive scale during his rule, he was hailed as Hindu Hriday Samrat (Emperor of the Hindu Hearts). His poll strategy in 2014 demonstrated that the Muslims, notwithstanding their numbers, could be politically marginalised. So, some compulsions of democracy were gone as far as Modi’s party was concerned.

Social media posts and statements by the BJP leaders had prepared the ground to instil the fear of a coming demographic disaster and the infiltration of the “termites” belonging to a different faith creeping into the nation. The BJP chief used the word termites while an official move was made to grant citizenship to all infiltrators barring the Muslims!

Educated Indians can be heard talking of the coming “Islamisation of India”. It is not that an epidemic of bigotry hit India all of a sudden. A large number of Indians, like the people of other nations, had kept such sentiments suppressed for years. In the atmosphere created by a new kind of political leadership, the dam burst.

Reading the election results, one has to say it wasn’t the economy, stupid! Someone from a new breed of BJP intellectuals may write a tome titled It’s the Muslims, stupid. He has a ready template in It’s the Jews, stupid.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

17 comments

  1. Pokie

    There are many situations discussed that are similar to US politics. For example:
    “In a confrontational election campaign, leaders like Modi have a natural advantage. The days of the gentleman-politician are over. The growing criminalization of politics is reflected in the profile of the new Parliament. Politics has place only for crafty individuals. Some years ago, Modi could not have called his opponents anti-national Indians. Every critic of Modi is asked to go away to Pakistan. This propaganda stooped to its ugliest level in social media. Even after the Model Code of Conduct came into force and the Election Commission prohibited references to religion and the military in the campaign, the Prime Minister merrily ignored such advice.”
    Replacing relevant government entity and country name with with US counterpart name and titles brings a clearer picture to mind.”

    Reply
  2. rn

    The author has overlooked two important factors.

    (1) Modi has transcended caste politics. Caste politics In india is similar to religious politics in other countries. He has received votes from all the castes, unlike his opponents, who were interested in playing caste politics.

    (2) “Concrete Material Benefits” – welfare subsidies have reached the needy, across the entire country, in spite of all the inefficiencies and corruption of the bureaucracies and polity.

    Reply
    1. orange cats

      Regarding your first point, there’s this from the article:
      Since religious polarisation could not fully bridge the caste differences, Modi devised a complex strategy to break up the political dominant castes. He wooed and won sub-castes to neutralise the opposition by that caste formation. With two powerful weapons of envy and resentment, he divided it by accentuating internal economic rivalry. This strategy saved Modi in a couple of states where he was challenged by the caste-based parties. The BJP thus firmed up the sub-caste identities.

      Reply
      1. Sudhir

        This is an assertion not backed by any evidence.

        What Modi has been able to do is get more than 50% of the votes cast in most states that they won (including Karnataka which is not a Hindi speaking state). This is an astonishing achievement and you have to go back a long way to find anything comparable.

        Most political commentators in India live in a bubble and have no idea as to what motivates people so their post-poll analysis should be taken with a healthy skepticism. In fact, they all missed the scale of this victory before the polls. Some of them continued to deny it even after the exit polls were published!

        Reply
  3. Marshall Auerback

    An excellent piece, although I hardly think the economic achievements of its Manmohan Singh government were much to write home about. The Congress Party has a real problem because it became yet another handmaiden of neoliberal reforms. It also must rid itself of its obsession with the Gandhi legacy (much as the Democrats have to rid themselves of the cult of Clinton). In that sense, as Pokie notes, the Modi victory has many salutary lessons for the US. Just campaigning on a status quo ante restoration didn’t work in India, and it won’t work in the US either.

    Reply
  4. skk

    I read the author’s description – “L K Sharma, who has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. He was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. He reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. He edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul ”

    Sad, 4 decades and all he can do is lament a changed India. As I sometimes say of people coming in for software jobs with 20 years experience – Same year repeated 20 times. I just saw assertions and a lament in the article. No links to evidence and little backing detail.

    He’s lived in the western bubble so long he’s totally missed the transformations. And having thought of himself as the answer to Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern speak” he doesn’t like the modern answer – “Not you !”

    Reply
  5. Olga

    Here is a view from Arundhati Roy (who does live in India) – it is all about who wields economic power in this large country:
    https://www.straight.com/life/616401/arundhati-roy-explains-how-corporations-run-india-and-why-they-want-narendra-modi-prime-minister

    “Wealth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands,” Roy tells the Georgia Straight by phone from New York. “And these few corporations now run the country and, in some ways, run the political parties. They run the media.” The Delhi-based novelist and nonfiction writer argues that this is having devastating consequences for hundreds of millions of the poorest people in India, not to mention the middle class.”

    Reply
    1. skk

      She missed the voting. Thought it was more important to attend the PEN ( a western festival ) in New York that “stand in line and vote”. But she says “But I’ve been voting against these people for 20 years in my writing”.

      So this is nothing new, its been her stance for 20 years. Both how she feel about “these people” and her priorities. It looks like self-Orientalism.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP-RtpWTTto

      Reply
  6. Aloha

    This is a perfect example of how politicians use various religions against all human beings to manipulate the masses. I miss the words respect, non-violent, work together, peace, find something good in your neighbor…
    I would imagine that we will see this sort of thing play out in the US in 2020.

    Reply
    1. a different chris

      The third option is that they use the criminal “justice” system to undercut each other.

      Much like the Democratic Party can’t bring itself to do the things that win elections (aka appeal to the yucky working class) as they really want to be Gerald Ford’s Republican Party. So everything goes thru the courts.

      Reply
  7. Steven Greenberg

    There is another side to the story. I am not qualified to tell you which side,if either, is closer to the truth.

    Nexus in Lutyens: Meet the Forces that Conspire Against India

    Why are liberals, leftists and most mainstream journalists arrayed against progressive Indians? Why are these groups so out of sync with the mood of the people? How could they rush to declare demonetisation a failure, even as a billion ordinary citizens braved long queues and solidly backed the government? Why do they crank up the volume of protest when a Christian church is burgled and vandalised by criminals, but there is deafening silence when Muslim mobs destroy an entire Hindu town in Bengal? When Muslims are attacked for allegedly consuming beef, the cacophony of these groups doesn’t end for weeks, but when six Hindu women are gunned down by Kashmiri terrorists during the Amarnath pilgrimage why do they dismiss it in a tweet? Why are they always on the side of forces inimical to India, such as fundamentalist Muslims, evangelistic Christians or communists who are in the pay of the Chinese? Why are they sympathetic to Pakistan, whose raison d’être is at worst the destruction of India or at best its Islamisation?

    http://indiafacts.org/nexus-lutyens-meet-forces-conspire-india/

    Reply
  8. ObjectiveFunction

    Speaking as an occasional visitor (business and tourism) and freely admitting my woeful ignorance of the affairs of 1/4 of humanity, I can only say Greater India (includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and overseas Indians, from Cape Town to Fiji to Cambridge to Santa Clara) pushes all boundaries of the human experience, and all epochs of civilization rub shoulders.

    But in the homeland of the word “pundit”, using the laments, posturings and axe-grinding of various outward-facing columnists as a resource to try to decode India seems like being the blind man in Plato’s cave. Mystery-riddle-enigma, etc. Where does one even start?

    One observation I do feel comfortable venturing: set against the overwhelming crowding and poverty that dominates every outsider’s view, we must also note the meteoric rise of the South Asian diaspora. In less than two generations they have both won access and risen to the very top of the global liberal order! This is an amazing achievement matched only by the European Jews in the 19th-20th centuries. Well beyond ‘model minority’, it is a tale of whatever-it-takes striving that confounds all IdPol resentment tropes.

    My own takeaway is that paying attention in 9th grade math class pays off, regardless of skin tone! (maybe the much maligned Booker T Washington knew a thing or two after all). And hey, if there’s anything socialist regimes do superbly it is solid basic technical education for kids of all social classes. Kerala State has the longest running elected Communist government in the world. It turns out their polytechnic system was perfectly positioned to feed talented native sons and daughters into the “gold collar” IT boom of the 1990s and the offshoring wave of the 2000s. Today Kerala is among the most developed stares and has had to import lower skilled Muslim labor from the north, creating some new tensions (although all these states have had Muslim populations for a thousand years+)

    FWIW

    Reply
  9. Jessica

    I didn’t see it mentioned in Western accounts of Modi’s landslide win in India, but digging through articles from the Indian press, it seems that an important factor was multiple programs that directly benefit poorer Indians. Concrete, material benefits, as Lambert calls them, are even pulling voters out of their previous caste-based voting.

    https://scroll.in/article/924506/2019-elections-why-did-the-akhilesh-yadav-mayawati-experiment-fail-in-uttar-pradesh

    Ujjwala Yojana helps poor Indians get cleaner fuel (LNG) instead of dirtier fuel (cow dung I am guessing) and PM Kisan Yojana is cash payments to poor farmers.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *