In an interview, Mehta spoke about how the general election, which has given a clear majority to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has changed many narratives and what it means to the party and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
How do you see the verdict?
This election is one of the momentous election results we have seen in the history of independent India. It has overthrown all the narratives we have had in Indian politics.
We had come to think that no party could attain majority on its own, but the BJP has reached there. We thought that the caste-based parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) would have a role to play at the centre. But they have not done well at all. We thought all politics is local, which is to say that India was not one national election, but a series of local elections. This was a genuinely national election with a genuinely national wave. The Congress party is looking at a possible extinction, so deep has been its rout. All the master narratives of Indian politics have been overturned in this election.
Do you see Narendra Modi matching up to expectations?
That question is always very hard to answer about any leader. He has shown he has the tenacity, capacity and will when he decides to go after something. And he has succeeded in that electorally. Now the question is, to what ends will he deploy the mandate that he has got? He certainly now has no excuse. He has been given as free a hand as the Indian electorate has ever given anybody. Certainly, the incentive for him is that if he can keep India on track, then his power can endure for quite a while. So there is a big incentive to do the right thing.
But as you know, in politics, sometimes absolute power corrupts. That is a possibility on one hand. On the other hand, as we thought in 2009 when Congress had a large mandate but could have done much better. So these choices are always very contingent in politics. But he (Modi) is lucky in the sense that almost no leader in the last 30 years has had such a propitious mandate to do things. We all just hope that he uses it wisely.
Do you believe this was a vote for the BJP or against the Congress?
Obviously, the Congress imploded on so many fronts. The economy was struggling, inflation has been high, there was a leadership vacuum and abdication. But we had anti-incumbency votes in the past—like the 2004 vote was an anti-NDA vote, an anti-India Shining (BJP’s campaign slogan) vote.
But the fact of the matter was that it took Modi and the BJP to crystallize it into a national political formation. The significance of this vote is that there is actually a pretty wide social base of support. Dalits have voted, scheduled tribes have voted. I did not expect the BJP to do as well in Karnataka, for instance, as it has. It is not a purely negative vote. It is a positive affirmative mandate.
Do you believe it’s a new beginning in Indian politics? In 2004, it was a vote against the existing government. But this is no longer a fractured verdict. People have chosen a national party to express their anger against a party and a government...
It’s a new beginning in many ways. We used to think that elections are largely about stitching social alliances, bringing particular castes or communities together. To a certain extent, it remained true in politics; it has never gone away entirely. In a sense, what makes this election different is that it was fought on a theme of governance, nationally—whether he will deliver or not is a different matter.
Second was the ability of a political party to mount an effective nationwide campaign—all usual analyses of BJP always said it cannot win more than 200 or 220, it is limited by a social base, etc. Clearly, we are moving beyond a politics of social arithmetic into something else. That doesn’t mean that it can revert back if this government disappoints. But what it has demonstrated is that Indian politics is not just the sum of a social group, but something larger than that.
Has minority politics run its course?
To be honest, one has to wait and see. Clearly, this election has some interesting sub stories. For example, in Assam, the BJP seems to have won quite significant Muslim votes. I do not think minorities want to be trapped in a politics of minorities forever. One of the greatest tragedies of Indian politics was that we created a discourse in which the minorities’ voting was considered as block voting; we thought of minorities voting as a voting for survival and, I think, the minorities want to get beyond that.
Whether they can achieve that partly depends on what kind of a space the new government is giving to them. If they breed insecurity, it will engender a new round of identity politics. On the other hand, if they are confident about themselves in their mandate and everyone vote on the issues of development and good governance, it could open new spaces. But we still can’t conclusively say that that era is over. A lot will depend on the kind of insecurity this government produces.
What about the performance of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)? Not on the basis of the number of seats it won, but on the basis of the vote share it has and the momentum it gained. Do you see it emerging as the new opposition, especially in a scenario where the Congress is reduced to below 50?
That is certainly possible. In a way, the AAP has a lot of hand in the BJP’s victory because it was a part of that movement that illegitimized the Congress. All the people AAP went after have lost badly. Its impact is far greater than the number of seats it won. It (possibility of its emergence as a new opposition) depends on whether it will learn from its mistakes. People were looking for a more affirmative agenda than just a negative agenda—this was a mistake.
The second mistake was that it could make a tactical choice to build a political base. Clearly, in Punjab they struck a deep chord. They can re-group in Punjab and Delhi certainly. On economic issues, AAP’s message has become quite blurred. There will certainly be a demand for a more vocal opposition. The AAP should try and fill that space.