Narendra Modi was able to maintain his charisma in the eyes of the Indian public
Democracy is an intricate game of facts and public perceptions.
The game is more unpredictable in the developing world than the developed. Lives of modern citizens, even in the developing world, of various socio-economic strata, now have multifarious aspects and the complex modern state system and international environment they live in make the issues of individual and collective lives an even bigger puzzle.
A poor street vendor suddenly becomes wary of a made-up national security issue, forgetting his own well-being. Or a lower middle class office-goer becomes too interested in religious icons, ignoring his own job security. This is a riddle.
Democracy was initially thought to be a system that creates a neutral and objective atmosphere for the adult citizenry to exercise their franchise. But the reality is that there is no such thing as being purely neutral and objective in the exercise of electoral democracy, and the problem is acute in big developing democracies like India. The prime reason is, it’s possible to substantially spin public perception away from facts with the help of power -- monetary and others. This is what played out in the Indian parliamentary election this time.
The incumbent BJP government has performed very averagely in the crucial areas of governance and economic development. But they have been re-elected by Indian voters yet again. To understand this, one needs to come back to the point of public perception and the elements that influence constituting it.
The BJP is way ahead of other parties of India in terms of wealth. The party is officially several times richer than the Congress. Its extensive network-building , ethical or otherwise, with India’s corporate world has allowed it to gain this monetary power. Right-wing forces are generally cadre-based, and the BJP and other elements of the Sangh family have gradually expanded and strengthened their cadre bases by making it a sustained priority.
The indoctrination of party cadres was rigorous, which made them aggressive campaigners for the party’s agendas, irrespective of their value. The party also pro-actively allured leaders and workers from other parties in big numbers -- Tripura, West Bengal, and Orissa are cases in point.
Since the BJP couldn’t deliver much of what they promised in the 2014 election, in this election they focused on vilifying the otherwise modest and cultured Rahul Gandhi and his kin who were the prime ministers of the nation, and brought forth the issues of patriotism, national security, strong leadership, etc irrespective of the real priority.
More than 40 Indian officers were killed by Kashmiri militants, the blame largely falling on India’s failed movement plan. India struck Balakot in Pakistan with hardly any confirmed success. But the Pakistani counter resulted in a loss of an Indian aircraft. India’s claim of downing a Pakistani fighter jet was not confirmed by any neutral source. Far more Indian security forces and Kashmiri civilians were killed in Modi’s five years than previous terms.
A couple of years back, a small so-called surgical strike was carried out inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir with hardly any result. Similar strikes were done by Congress many times without any publicity as propriety demanded. Yet, the saffron media and its leaders were able to turn these events of setbacks as favourable propaganda tools for Modi.
BJP-RSS also used tools like the religious lives of Indian Muslims in othering them. Allegations against Muslims of being hostile while ignoring the same of the Hindus -- including the cow-related lynching -- were blown out of proportion to scare the overwhelming majority of Hindus and solidify their votes.
They also used global Islamic terrorism to convince their domestic stakeholders that Hindus and India will be in danger if they slip out of the hands of Modi and fall into -- in their campaign vocabulary -- “weak leaders” of the opposition. Many suspect that the negligence in the movement plan of Indian paramilitary was deliberate, and part of a conspiracy to invite Kashmiri militant action, so that the fatalities could be used in BJP’s favour during the election.
In the end, the BJP was able to impose its agenda on the pre-election and election-time public discourse, and the opposition had no viable answer to that.
Also, the fact that the oppositions’ election strategies had considerable flaws helped the BJP. Hardly anybody knew about Rahul Gandhi’s carefully prepared scheme NYAY (Nyuntam Aay Yojna) or Minimum Income Project for the vast underprivileged youth. The late timing of its launching along with the lack of outreach were pathetic.
Narendra Modi was able to maintain his charisma in the eyes of the Indian public by transforming his persona from development messiah to national security strongman. It may eventually wane if he fails to deliver again on key issues, and if the opposition gets smarter. The public can’t be fooled every time.
But this time it paid off due to what BJP did in the campaign, and the external favourable factors coming together to sail them through. Just a 30% vote consolidation in the Hindi belt and its periphery has done it again.
The majority of Indians, South Asians, and other international stakeholders will now have to learn to live with Modi 2.0.
The Hindu right wing rose in Indian polity about three decades back. But with Modi’s renewal, it is now confirmed that the Nehruvian liberal political order in India has come to an end, at least in its classical form.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a contributor to Dhaka Tribune.