Authors: Vignesh Rajahmani, KCL and Jeyannathann Karunanithi, Chennai
India’s general elections have now ended, with the last voting phase on 19 May 2019. In the final period, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi focussed his narrative on re-opening the festered wounds of the past like the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the Bofors Scandal. This is a notable transition from earlier in the year, when the campaign rhetoric wove itself around terror attacks and the strikes in Kashmir.
This is also a stark shift from the previous narrative that revolved around quotas for the poorer unreserved sections of society and health insurance for 500 million Indians.
But a similarity between the 2014 and 2019 elections is in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) creating and popularising a discursive discourse that jumps between a focus on broad development on one hand and an unhealthy focus towards Hindi nationalism on the other.
In 2014, the BJP peaked in India’s northern states — the so-called ‘Hindi belt’ — but performed poorly in the east and south. The post-2014 period saw the BJP striving to make inroads into these eastern and southern states with unclear electoral successes.
The country is struck with the conundrum posed by the clearly worsening relationship between GDP growth, which is rising, and societal development, which appears anaemic. The BJP is being blamed for this. Along with a greater focus on development and the need to unleash the innovative and entrepreneurial potential of the Indian youth, welfare as an assured public good has also entered the political vocabulary.
The opposition Indian National Congress party has made welfare its key pitch. Its manifesto promises include, among other things, a minimum income guarantee scheme for India’s poorest 20 per cent. The narrative of ‘wealth creation and the welfare of our people’ that underpins such schemes is a clear theme of the Congress party’s platform. The political significance of welfare is becoming particularly pertinent given the sharp fault lines widening between economic classes within castes. This, in turn, is pushing the economically disadvantaged to be foot soldiers for the hate campaigns and the muscular nationalism fostered by the BJP.
The 281 seats that the BJP won in the 2014 election were found to be extremely concentrated — six states alone (Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) contributed 194 seats. In these states, the BJP won 91 per cent of the seats it contested. In the 189 seats where the BJP and the Congress party were the top two vote-getters, the BJP won 88 per cent of them.
This revealed the BJP’s dominance in narrative construction and posturing in the 2014 election. But the Congress party’s narrative of welfare as a challenge to the BJP’s ‘Hindu state’ has since been better spelled out by the Congress, and its translation into votes is the first strike against the BJP’s electoral dominance. The recent pre-parliamentary election victories of the Congress party in the legislative assembly elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, along with the fight put up by the Congress party in Gujarat last year, reveal potential chinks in the BJP’s armour in this national election.
The geographic centricity of the BJP and their absence as a credible competitive party in regions outside the ‘Hindi heartland’ is attributed to the strong regional parties and states with a history of regional and sub-nationalistic undercurrents. In response to the muscular nationalistic rhetoric of the BJP, the regional parties are reinvigorating regional identities. They are also working out electorally strong socio-political coalitions around caste and religion, particularly in states such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These parties have strong organisational abilities and a more intimate connection with the electorate.
Past elections suggest three inferences. First, a near stable vote-share of the regional parties has been hovering at around 50 per cent. In terms of seats, the tally for them has been over 200. Second, the growth of the BJP in these states has been at the expense of the Congress party rather than the regional parties. Third, the presence of the BJP in these states has been restricted to urban pockets.
With the Congress party opening negotiations with the regional political parties on the question of regional development, the fight against the BJP is gaining potency. In response, Modi himself is now hinting that he is also amicable towards the prospect of further potential coalition partners.
While the Congress party’s narrative is in line with the idea of an inclusive India, they are still yet to re-emerge electorally. Moreover, the regional parties have not done enough to contain the BJP’s ideological inroads into the non-BJP states.
But the antidote to the BJP’s ideological force does not necessarily need to be similarly ideological, as that could end up becoming exclusionary. Conversely, an inclusive narrative that accommodates the aspirations of all Indians as a diverse group of people could pose a serious challenge to the hegemony that the BJP is trying to build. That is not to say that such a force would not include the BJP, but an opposing alliance of this nature would own the bargaining power.
Vignesh Karthik Rajahmani is a PhD Candidate at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London.
Jeyannathann Karunanithi is a Political Analyst based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.