Rahul and Modi

By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo December 4: The results of the November elections to five Indian State Assemblies that were announced on Sunday show clearly that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mascot and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi understands North Indian voters better than Rahil Gandhi and the Congress do.

The BJP’s sweeping the polls in the populous States of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh augurs well for the party’s prospects in the May 2024 parliamentary elections.

The results of the State elections clearly show that in North India, issues like caste inequalities and the Modi-Adani nexus highlighted by Rahul Gandhi, get no traction. South India is, of course, a different kettle fish as the result in Telangana shows. The issues in the South are different from those in the North for historical reasons.

The States in which the BJP won were Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. But the party was wiped out in Telangana where the victor was the Congress led by Rahul Gandhi.

Prior to the polling held in phases in November, there was scepticism about the BJP’s keeping up its winning streak. A Congress revival was seen after Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (Knit India Together March) from Kanyakumari in the deep south to Kashmir in the North, a distance of 4008 km. The march took place between September 2002 and January 2023. It was a learning process for Rahul about the travails and expectations of the common folk in rural India across economic and cultural regions.  

As a result of the Yatra, Rahul kept highlighting the grievances of the people such as unemployment, a lack of avenues for economic advancement for the poor while the middle and upper classes were thriving. He in turn told the people all about the ill effects of the economic policies of the Modi government at the Centre, such as the concentration of economic power in the hands of oligarchs like Gautam Adani. He highlighted the Hindu-Muslim divide that had sharpened as a result of Hindutva or aggressive Hindu nationalism of the Modi-led BJP. Rahul also highlighted the shrinking of the democratic space by the government’s misuse of State investigative agencies to suppress dissent and its vice grip over the mainstream media. The Bharat Jodo Yatra appeared to be paying off when the Congress wrested the State of Himachal Pradesh in the December 2022 elections.

However, the most important test for the current status of the BJP and the Congress lay in the November 2023 State Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh Chhattisgarh and Telangana. The first three were in the politically important Hindi-speaking North Indian heartland and Telangana is in the South. These elections were crucial for both the BJP and the Congress as these States would be playing a crucial role in the May 2024 parliamentary elections. Indeed ,these elections were touted as the semi-finals for the final in 2024.

The November 2023 State-level elections were hard fought as the opposition parties had come together in an alliance under the acronym INDIA. The BJP, which has the advantage of accessing the disciplined cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), tom tommed the achievements of the Modi regime at the Centre and Modi’s superior leadership qualities.

The BJP and the RSS highlighted the successful delivery of Modi’s welfare schemes, the fact that under his watch, the Indian economy had become the fifth largest in the world and that India’s stature in the world had risen to new heights.

However, the pre-poll opinion surveys did not present a rosy picture for the BJP. The BJP seemed set to lose in Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and was given only an even chance in Rajasthan. However, exit polls showed an upswing in BJP’s prospects. It was only in Chhattisgarh and Telangana that the party had poor prospects.

But the final results came as a surprise to all. The BJP had swept the North Indian States of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and lost only the Southern State of Telangana. Out of the 199 seats up for grabs in Rajasthan, the BJP got 115 and Congress 70. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP’s tally was 163 out of 230. In Chhatisgarh, it was 54 out of 90. Only in Telangana the Congress got a majority winning 65 out of 119 seats.

The BJP claims that its welfare schemes and Modi’s personal charisma based on his economic achievements were decisive factors. It has downplayed Hindu nationalism in its claims apparently because of its divisive connotation, especially in Western democracies whose plaudits are critical for India’s geopolitical alliance with the West.

But Hindutva or an aggressive Hindu nationalism vis-à-vis the Muslims has been a defining attribute of the BJP. It is pronounced under Modi’s tutelage since 2014. He has unabashedly projected Hindu symbolism, Hindu pride and the Hindu past as being the real India undiluted by Western culture, ethos and political ideals like secularism and liberalism.

Significantly, Modi’s Hindu nationalism has also sought to obliterate caste distinctions in Hindu society that had led to the spread of left wing ideologies and religious conversions. Under Modi, the traditionally upper caste-dominated BJP successfully co-opted the backward castes, Dalits and Tribals by giving them an avenue of political mobility. The BJP cleverly exploited the backward castes’ innate wish to be accepted by the Hindu caste order through the adoption of the Sanskritic culture. As sociologist J.P.S. Uberoi put it: “There is a rush to get into the system rather than to get out of the system” among the lower castes.

Secular parties like the Congress and the Communists had failed to understand the psyche of the downtrodden Hindu masses and had been touting secularism, only to be defeated by the BJP.

However, it is important to note that Hindutva has an appeal in the North but not in the South, which has a secular ethos, based on a historically cordial relationship with the minorities like Muslims and Christians and also has a history of anti-caste social justice movements. Without a history of armed struggles with Muslim invaders from the North West, and the partition of their lands to form a Muslim Pakistan in 1947, the Hindus of the South have no fascination for an aggressive anti-Muslim line. Hindutva has no traction in the South in contrast to the North. This affects the BJP’s prospects in the South even in Telangana which has a substantial Muslim population.                  

Given the appeal of Hindu consolidation in the North, the Congress party’s strategy of speaking loudly against caste and economic inequalities in Hindu society and proposing a census of castes to know their relative social and economic status failed to get traction there.

On the contrary calls for Hindu unity and consolidation got traction. The BJP’s package comprising Hindu consolidation, national resurgence based on a Hindu identity and the portrayal of a glorious Hindu past appealed far more than micro issues like caste inequalities and injustices.  

As political scientist Suhas Palshikar wrote in Indian Express, the muscular brand of Hindutva complemented by the sanctioning of violence against opponents at home and aggressive responses to anti-Indian actions from abroad, appeals to the supporters of Hindutva. In this context, Rahul Gandhi’s slogan that the Congress “dispenses love in a market place of hate”, fell on deaf ears.

The Congress may also have to give up its tirade against concentration of wealth and economic influence in the hands of a few oligarchs like the Adanis and the patronage they get from Modi. The State elections show that Adani’s monopolies and his alleged shady deals are not an issue for the common man.     

Coming to the consequences of the election results, the most striking is the tremendous psychological advantage that the victories have given the BJP and Modi personally. The BJP and Modi will now go with gusto into the country-wide parliamentary elections in May 2024.

Conversely, the results will dampen the spirits of the Congress and its allies who come under the rubric of “INDIA”. The leadership of Rahul Gandhi could be challenged within INDIA. The constituent parties of the INDIA alliance will be meeting in New Delhi on December 6 to take stock of the situation and chalk out a plan for the future.