City City Bang Bang, Columns

The elections & after

The state elections are over and the countdown to 2019 has begun. The Congress has made some definite gains and the BJP’s aura of invincibility has been dented quite significantly. It squeaked through in Gujarat, could not quite make the grade in Karnataka and now has lost in 3 major Hindi heartland states. Mr Modi’s personal brand, too, has taken a hit, and in comparison, Rahul Gandhi has become a more serious rival. Head-to-head, the gap is still wide, but that may not matter for unlike 2014, 2019 is looking less like a Presidential-style election, and more in the mould of conventional Indian elections.

Can this result be read as a rebuke to the communally charged campaign that the BJP has been carrying out? Has the Indian electorate begun to reject the BJP because of what it sees as the attempts to promote a divisive agenda? Or can the BJP, by activating the Ayodhya issue extract more electoral mileage out of this fault-line?

Tempting as that reading is for those opposed to the BJP’s approach, to believe that the elections point to a rejection of its Hindutva agenda would be to over-read the verdict. There is a market for a communally charged agenda, but it finds different expressions and operates at different intensities, depending on the constituency in question.

The first group is a relatively small but significant set of hardcore supporters of the party that are committed to its Hindutva agenda and for whom the party’s anti-Muslim stance is the defining reason for its support. This group sees the victimisation of Hindus as the central issue of the time, and would back any and every move that furthers this cause. Had this group been larger, the BJP would have breezed through all elections, but that is clearly not the case.

There is another group, particularly amongst the educated middle class, that supports the party largely because it is led by Narendra Modi. The idea of a strong leader who empowers those that see themselves as the cultural mainstream is a very alluring one. At an overt level, the aggressive Hindutva hardline is not articulated as a reason for supporting the BJP, but it is rare to find this group getting upset about any excesses committed in its name. The framing of the appeal of leaders like Mr Modi, Mr Shah and Yogi Adityanath, tends to be through the labels of strength and decisiveness, and not through that of Hindutva, although clearly, that is very much part of the party’s appeal. For this group, the support for the party is largely intact, even if the intensity of support might have dimmed a bit,

Then there is a set of voters that aligned with the BJP largely because of its developmental agenda, thanks to Mr Modi’s image the aura around his work in Gujarat. They share no particular affinity for the Hindutva part of the proposition, seeing as a necessary if somewhat undesirable price to pay for their support of the party. This lot has seen a clear erosion of support, with a sense that their hopes of transformative change have been belied and the increasingly strident noises being made by the party on the Hindutva is making them uncomfortable.

The largest group is perhaps of those that are not averse to a Hindu slant that the party displays, but do not see this axis as the one most central to their lives. They may not actively object to the party’s posture, but do not see it as the reason to support it. They do not actively support the more extreme elements of the party, but are unlikely to vote against the party for this reason. Only in case of extreme events like riots and wars, would their Hindu identity become an electoral issue. For them, the defining issues governing their electoral decisions today, have to do with issues of livelihoods and governance rather than culture and religion. This group feels let down by the party, having seen little change and in many cases, being adversely affected by demonetisation and the complex GST regime. For the BJP, this group, particularly in the Hindi heartland, is both a problem and opportunity, for in theory, it can be activated through more aggressive acts of polarisation.

How is the BJP likely to read the results? Will it rethink its emphasis on its Hindutva track, and the role that it has accorded to someone like Yogi Adityanath? The problem that the BJP faces is that whenever it finds itself on the back foot, regardless of what is a strategically more productive path to take, its natural instinct is to go deeper and more aggressively into the cultural side of its proposition. The preliminary analyses within the party after these results, indicate that the losses are being interpreted as arising out of too little rather than too much Hindutva.

On the face of it, that is a risky strategy today.  If the current results are any indication, there are few incremental votes to be found that way. For the Opposition, the choices are simpler. They have to attack the present regime and be vague about their own promises, for what they seek is a negative vote. The BJP’s biggest problem today is that of attrition, of an erosion of its 2014 support base, rather than the rise of a compelling counterpoint. The party is good at fighting a war, but this situation is different. What it needs to do is to knit together support by aligning with diverse interests. Structurally, the party under the current leadership is uncomfortable with this kind of politics. It is geared to stand firm and not to respond to feedback and sees the world in absolute terms, even when the situation might call for a more nuanced accommodative worldview. The BJP has a difficult choice to make, but chances are that it is capable of making only one of those choices.