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A rising tide

  • Published at 02:58 pm May 26th, 2019

Modi’s win is nothing if not expected

The first time Narendra Modi swept to power as head of a BJP government in 2014, it was called a wave. Some, more hyperbolic or more servile than others, called it a tsunami. The general expectation, going into the elections this time, was that the wave had receded -- Modi and BJP might be back, but only just … or not even that. Perhaps there would be an upset, as had happened with the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004, when defying all expectations, Congress had wrested back power.

That time, the BJP, overconfident, even complacent, had run a campaign called “India Shining.” It had marshalled technology in novel ways -- for instance, people were astonished to receive recorded calls in the voice of PM Vajpayee on their still-new mobile phones. It had failed to convince the masses that India was, in fact, shining, because they did not feel it in their still-miserable lives.

This time, there were none of those mistakes.

No party worked harder than the BJP. Its leaders, from Modi on down, campaigned like maniacs. There was no complacence. The party struck all kinds of alliances with regional and local parties, big and small.

It did so without the usual bickering over seat-sharing; it simply gave allies sufficiently good deals. In Bihar, for instance, the BJP only contested 17 seats, far fewer than the 30 it contested in 2014, and less than the 22 it won.

It did so to save its alliance with the Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar. The alliance, along with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti Party, has won 39 of the 40 seats in Bihar. In Maharashtra, where the BJP’s alliance with the Shiv Sena has long been rocky, with the Sena carrying out a relentless campaign of daily criticism of its ally, the seat sharing was done smoothly. The alliance won 41 of the state’s 48 seats. 

Similar stories were repeated all over the country. Congress, meanwhile, had turned down repeated overtures from the Aam Aadmi Party for an electoral alliance in Delhi, after much dithering. It had also failed to stitch together any alliance in the crucial state of West Bengal, where BJP focused all its firepower in the face of bitter and determined opposition from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. It ended up with zero seats in Delhi and one out of the state’s 42 seats in Bengal.

BJP swept Delhi, winning all seats, and made its first serious inroads into Bengal, where it has won 18 seats, up from two last time. It not only held on to its near-total domination in the northern, western, and central parts of the country, but expanded into new areas in east and northeast India.

The opposition was not merely defeated; it was decimated. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi himself lost to former TV actress Smriti Irani of BJP from his family’s pocket seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. 

Superior organization and crafty alliances, along with unmatched money and muscle, and the sheer absence of a nationally-acceptable alternative, undoubtedly helped the BJP maximize its gains, but these factors by themselves do not account for the results.

The broad thrust of the result is that Hindu India has lined up behind Modi. It has done so across castes and classes, and -- barring Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the far south -- across regions.

The rhetoric behind which it did this, however, was not the Ram temple in Ayodhya, or any similarly religious demand. It was nationalism with a Hindu flavour. 

For this, a share of credit, or blame, must go to the terrorist Masood Azhar and his group’s attack on a convoy of paramilitary police in Pulwama in Kashmir on February 14, just as the country was heading towards elections.

Until then, BJP had been looking increasingly vulnerable, having recently lost state polls in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and failing to form the government in Karnataka despite finishing as the single largest party. The conversation was about the Modi government’s failure to deliver economic development and jobs.

There was talk of farmer distress. Modi and BJP’s rhetoric of Hindu nationalism was sounding repetitive. Modi’s candidature itself lacked the freshness and excitement that it had held five years earlier.

The Pulwama attack, and the subsequent airstrikes by the Indian Air Force on Balakot in Pakistan, completely changed that.

The tensions with Pakistan during election season made it an election about nationalism. Even though there were, and still are, serious questions about the actual efficacy of those airstrikes, such questions were successfully painted traitorous by the BJP.

The capture of an IAF pilot by Pakistan and his subsequent release, all played out on news TV, only helped to further inflame nationalist sentiments. The downing of an IAF helicopter in a friendly fire incident was hushed up. “Nationalist” TV channels such as the ones run by Arnab Goswami, whose daily doses of hysteria had become familiar and jaded, were suddenly back in the limelight.

Bollywood, too, did its bit. The whole propaganda machinery was, like the rest of the campaign, superbly organized and run, with messages and videos being shared through WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

The fact that the Hindu Indian voter fell for it is perhaps not so surprising.

India is not the only country in the world to be showing majoritarian tendencies at present. Populists running on majoritarian nationalist platforms are doing quite well around the world.

Just days earlier, President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies won a crushing victory in the midterm polls in Philippines.

Poland and Hungary now have strongly majoritarian nationalist parties in power.

There are powerful and growing right-wing parties in France, Italy and Germany. In the UK, Nigel Farage’s new right-wing party won massively in the latest EU polls that were conducted on May 23. And America, of course, has President Donald Trump. 

A rising tide lifts all boats, it is said. The tide that is rising everywhere is the tide of majoritarian nationalism.

This is a tide that was unleashed by the very idea of the nation-state itself, because the nation-state is conceived of as a state essentially belonging to a particular ethnic group.

It is imagined as a clear-bounded space inhabited by people sharing a dominant language and/or religion and culture. Nationalism is the very bedrock of the nation-state.

To try and change that idea of the nation-state, from a closed and bounded space belonging to one group more than others, to an open space where all have equal rights as citizens, is not so simple or easy. Some global citizens of cities around the world, which are global spaces -- nodes connected to one another by dense networks of communications -- can imagine living in such equally-shared spaces. Most cannot. 

The issue is really one of how the nation-state is imagined. India was never a nation-state throughout its history. Its greatest modern poet, Rabindranath Tagore -- whose work has become national anthems of both India and Bangladesh -- had spoken on this a hundred years ago. He did not like nations or nationalism.

India’s encounter with the West was, according to him, the first time “we had to deal, not with kings, not with human races, but with a nation -- we, who are no nation ourselves.” Ironically, for a writer of national anthems, he was the ultimate anti-national.

The West’s idea of nation-state is how the global architecture is now organized. The countries of today’s euphemistically named United Nations, most of which were born through the bloodshed of World Wars I and II, owe their existence to the idea, barely 300 years old, of the nation-state.

The progression of this idea froze during the Cold War years. It thawed out with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and since then, it has seen a resurgence worldwide.

Modi and Hindu nationalism in India; Erdogan and Turkish Muslim nationalism in Ataturk’s Turkey; Jewish nationalism in Netanyahu’s Israel; white Christian nationalism in Europe -- a rising tide is lifting all their boats.

Beyond the basics of organizational power, money, and muscle, the idea of the nation-state as an ethnically defined space itself is responsible for cries such as “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan.” 

Samrat Choudhury is an author and journalist, and a former editor of newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. He tweets as @mrsamratx.

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