If the exit polls for the 2014 general elections prove to be accurate, the single most important change since 2009 is that the Bharatiya Janata Party has roughly doubled its share of the vote. The projected figure of 35 per cent or more suggests that more than a third of the Indian electorate voted for the BJP in this election, the first time that this has happened. The party’s best performance before this was the 1998 general election when it won just over 25 per cent, a fourth of the total votes cast.
In terms of India’s political evolution, how significant is the 2014 general election result? That is probably a question best answered 10 or 15 years from now when we know whether the BJP managed to build on and consolidate its spectacular surge in this election, but for now the best we can do is to try and measure the scale of this victory by setting it in historical context. How does it compare with elections past?
The BJP’s leadership has, understandably, reached for the most impressive precedents it can plausibly invoke. One of the BJP’s chorus of pundits insisted that this election was historically more significant than the 1977 post-Emergency ouster of the Congress. This is borderline bizarre, given that 1977 marked both a liberation from the republic’s only encounter with authoritarian rule at the Centre and the first time since Independence that a non-Congress party formed the national government.
More plausibly, BJP spokespersons have claimed that this result represents the best performance by any single party since that mother of all victories, the Congress tsunami in 1984. If the BJP wins 240 and more seats as the exit polls suggest, they will be technically right, but the more relevant comparison (in terms of vote share) is with the 1991 general election.
The projections made for this election are, in fact, a neat inversion of the result of the 1991 election, with the Congress and the BJP changing places. In 1991, Narasimha Rao became prime minister on the strength of a Congress performance that saw it win just over 36 per cent of the vote, more or less the same percentage that’s projected for the BJP in 2014. The BJP won just over a fifth of the vote in 1991; the Congress is projected to win a fifth of the vote in the 2014 contest.
But this mirror image symmetry is misleading because it compares two sets of election results without looking at the trends they represent. From a high of nearly 40 per cent of the vote in the 1989 elections, the Congress declined to 36 per cent in 1991, and then declined further and plateaued out at roughly 28 per cent (except in 1998 when it dipped to 26 per cent) through the the Nineties and the Noughties. The BJP, on the other hand, started with less than 12 per cent of the vote in 1989, climbed to 20 per cent in 1991 and stayed constant at about a fifth of the vote through these decades except for a spike in 1998 and 1999 when it climbed to around a fourth of the votes cast and a dip in 2009 when it slipped below the 20 per cent threshold it established in 1991.
So while both parties plateaued out in the Nineties, for the Congress this represented equilibrium at low level following a steep decline while for the BJP it was progress: the consolidation of the electoral gains it made on the back of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign and the ‘credit’ it received for the razing of the Babri Masjid. The electoral story of the past 25 years couldn’t be more different for the two parties. Starting from a low base the BJP’s vote-share climbed, plateaued and finally spiked in 2014. The Congress started from an electoral alp, slid, levelled off and then plummeted in 2014. Plotted on a blackboard in chalk, this is, for the Congress, the writing on the wall.
Through a quarter of a century and eight general elections, the BJP’s political compass steadily tracked its Ideological North: the consolidation of the Hindu (or non-Muslim) vote via sectarian crusading and its attendant violence. The returns on this strategy were mixed; it worked in the violent and supercharged aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, but as that malignant event receded into the past, its political returns began to diminish too. The legatees of Mandal, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, proved stubborn obstacles in the path of Hindu consolidation with the former hoovering up the other backward classes and the latter monopolizing the Dalits.
But as these political enemies squabbled with each other in their karmabhoomi, Uttar Pradesh, the BJP returned to the province with the Gujarat Model and its inventor, Narendra Modi. The BJP is correct when it argues that it has fought this election on the twin mantras of growth and governance. It has. Except that the Gujarat Model has a third unspoken element: the disciplining and corralling of insubordinate Muslims. This isn’t the way it is put: all majoritarian parties phrase their determination to put minorities in their place by using the passive-aggressive idiom of complaint: thus, Muslims are being pandered to, appeased. And this must stop. Given 2002, given the segregation and subordination of Muslims in Gujarat, Narendra Modi seems the right man to stop it.
We’ve seen this idiom at work through this campaign: the BJP’s leaders and candidates have alleged that Muslims prey on the honour of Hindu women, that all terrorists are Muslims, that they are cow-killers abetted by false Hindus, that as opposed to Hindus who are natural citizens of India wherever they might live, Muslims are by default deportable infiltrators.
The reason Modi regrets nothing is that disciplining Muslims is his calling card and it’s electorally useful to let people know that he is India’s Hindu strong man. This is a good time for the politics of Hindu consolidation: in a slowing economy with few jobs and raging inflation, life can seem like a zero-sum game. So the dogwhistling is the tanpura drone around which Modi improvises his Raga Vikasi, the base notes that make his riffs on development resonate. It works.
Which is more than can be said for the Congress’s politics. In its heyday, the Congress’s ideological pluralism was underwritten by electoral coalitions of diverse social communities. In the Gangetic plain, it was the storied combination of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims, while in Gujarat — then a Congress state — it was Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims, handily described as KHAM. After the political earthquakes over ‘Mandir’ and ‘Mandal’ these coalitions unravelled. The BJP made off with the upper castes, the SP with the OBCs, the BSP with the Dalits and after the razing of the Babri Masjid on Narasimha Rao’s watch, the Muslims sought other protectors.
Wiped out in the Gangetic plain, the heartland of India’s parliamentary politics, the Congress’s claim to pan-Indian power came to depend on its control of two big states, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, and its role as a contender in several smaller ones: Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Kerala. The votes it received in these states had much to do with its diminished, but still credible, claim to being a pan-Indian party, India’s ‘natural’ party of government.
These exit polls, if accurate, have all but destroyed that credibility. In every state in north and west India in which the Congress confronted the BJP in a two cornered contest, it has been wiped out. The BJP has overtaken the Congress even in states once seen as beyond the BJP’s remit: Odisha, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Seemandhra and Telangana.
Not only is the Congress- inspired division of Andhra Pradesh a case study in political dumbness, it is a textbook example of the contemporary Congress’s inability to understand or accommodate powerful provincial satraps. The YSR Congress, which is basically the Congress in Seemandhra under a new name, follows the Trinamul Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party out of the parent party because of the chronic political deafness of a dynastic high command. It is a deafness that has left the Congress unfit for purpose, constitutionally incapable of running an expansive party of the Centre.
No ‘Third Front’ is likely to replace the Congress any time soon as the principal opposition to the BJP. Its likely constituents — the BSP, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Trinamul Congress, the SP — are intrinsically provincial parties, incapable of leading an all-India coalition. It’s worth remembering that ‘Third Front’ governments in the past were possible because there were two roughly equal pan-Indian parties to be played off against each other. In a political scenario where the National Democratic Alliance has an absolute parliamentary majority and the Congress has been reduced to a dysfunctional rump one-third the size of its rival, a viable ‘Third Front’ is a non-starter in the near term.
For those who see Narendra Modi and his party as a threat to India’s prospects as a pluralist nation state, political redemption is likely to be a long haul. It will come when a party of pan-Indian ambition with a leader fluent in Hindi pushes to occupy the centre-left of Indian politics. This could well be a non-dynastic Congress led by an ambitious vote-winning politician, the Anti-Chidambaram, so to speak. At the moment this seems a distant prospect, but stranger things have happened in politics. Alternately, it could be a party like the Aam Aadmi Party, fired by idealism, driven by virtue, perverse enough to push against prohibitive odds and build towards a general election ten years from now. It’s worth remembering in this moment of Modi’s triumph, that 30 years ago, in the election of 1984, a young BJP won all of two seats. The exit polls give Kejriwal’s party twice that number.