NEW DELHI :
The results of the 17th Lok Sabha elections are finally in: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory, with a record 303 seats. Incredibly, the exit polls were spot on. Most importantly, it has cemented Narendra Modi as the pre-eminent political voice and BJP as the principal pole of Indian politics. To put it succinctly, it is a tectonic moment.
The verdict has upended traditional electoral metrics like caste and religion, handed a drubbing to rivals—including several prominent dynasts—shown up political punditry, reordered regional groupings and delivered a BJP majority of its own for the second consecutive term. And in this, if there is one common factor, it is undoubtedly Modi.
Like in 2014, he tapped into the aspirations of a new India, which is overwhelmingly young: 65% of the population is less than 35 years of age. This time, he leveraged the compact he had cultivated with the electorate over the past five years. While critics mocked Modi for implementing demonetization of high-value currencies, the public saw it as an honest effort to combat rampant corruption. Exactly why the word “bharosa" crept into the voter lexicon, as opinion polls revealed close to the election.
This verdict, not a black swan moment as some commentators claimed after Modi’s audacious win in 2014, will rewrite Indian politics like never before. This process will become easier as the political opposition lost its heft, with various leaders and dynastic constituents suffering humiliating defeats in their strongholds. The emerging regional satraps will be unable to fill the vacuum in the opposition space. Only logical then that the opposition will also lose its clout, both within Parliament and outside. A regrouping of the political order, especially among the opposition, is waiting to happen. The Congress will now find it difficult to justify its claim of being the first among equals and stake claim to the leadership of the opposition.
Given this state of affairs, it is safe to assume that Modi 2.0 will use this mandate to front-load its agenda for change. In this, the economy will be top priority. The intent will be made clear with the choice of the person who will head North Block and also the Union budget for 2019-20, which will be presented in July. The Sensex, a bellwether for business sentiment, scaled a record 40,000 but failed to hang on to the peak. The verdict has already created a global buzz, with some of the biggest leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel promising to turn up for the swearing-in of the new government—it is likely to take place on either 26 or 27 May.
The Modi factor
The BJP wave was fashioned around a carefully crafted narrative, sewing key alliances together and backed by committed and passionate party cadres—exactly why party president Amit Shah has to be co-credited for this incredible victory. At the core of the narrative were carefully chosen pro-incumbency metrics (little or no inflation, delivery of staples like cooking gas, electricity and toilets to the poor) to showcase the tenure of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in office, the promise to resurrect the Hindu identity (demonstrated by the highly successful hosting of the Kumbh Mela, makeover of the Kashi Vishwanth temple in Varanasi) and stoking hyper-nationalism (coalescing around the air strikes against terror hideouts based in Pakistan). With the benefit of hindsight, the Balakot air strikes served as a sugar high for most of India, except in Gujarat and Rajasthan; elsewhere in the country, it was the promise of delivering development and willingness of the PM to risk his social capital on causes that swung the vote.
At the same time, Modi was careful to own and control the dominant narrative—which, in this case, was a referendum on his government’s record—and also never miss out on the missteps by the opposition (Sam Pitroda’s “hua to hua" is one such example). In almost every election that BJP has won, beginning the 16th Lok Sabha poll in 2014, the narrative has been set by Modi; the opposition has had to play catch-up. After having successfully framed the contest as presidential, it was a case of Modi versus the opposition.
The singular failure of the squabbling opposition in backing one among them reinforced the narrative—mahamilawat—spun by Modi. In addition, they had to contend with Brand Modi, which in five years had grown and appropriated every electoral metric: anti-corruption crusader, development, nationalism and certitude. Shouldering the BJP challenge, Modi travelled to 27 states, addressed 142 rallies and clocked 105,000km.
Immediately after it was clear that NDA was on course to winning a second mandate, Modi tweeted in conciliatory terms. His appeal for a “new" and “inclusive" India has stoked expectations that Modi 2.0 will see a recalibration.
Poor as a vote bank
For most of the last five years in office, the poor have been the primary focus of NDA. In this, the emphasis was on raising their standard of living by providing basic material staples like cooking gas, electricity, housing and toilets. This focus acquired a sense of urgency after Congress president Rahul Gandhi struck with his barb: “Suit-boot ki sarkar".
According to BJP, at least 220 million people received benefits from at least one flagship programme of Ujjwala, Saubhagya, Jan Dhan and Swachh Bharat. While the poor in general were appreciative of this unprecedented focus, the constituency of women was particularly grateful—in Odisha, beneficiaries shared how womenfolk in their households no longer had to do the 4am routine to collect firewood and do their toilet. The misguided elites of Lutyens Delhi (whom Modi derisively refers to as the “Khan Market crowd") and reform-obsessed policy wonks, who heaped ridicule on such programmes were lulled into ignoring the electoral coup that Modi-Shah were organizing.
At the same time, it enabled NDA to walk its claim of being pro-business and pro-poor (first enunciated by finance minister Arun Jaitley). Traditionally, the poor were as a vote bank of the Congress; even in this election, its biggest pitch was the populist NYAY, which guaranteed ₹72,000 to every poor household. Now, this vote bank has shifted to BJP. Not only does it add to its numbers, but it is also a powerful counter to the traditional challenge of caste and religion. Exactly why the chemistry of Modi prevailed over the caste-religion math spun together by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the key state of Uttar Pradesh. At this point, one has to concede Shah’s claim that the new electoral metric in India is that of politics of performance.
While Modi was indeed the big difference between the incumbent and the opposition, there is no denying the fact that the BJP party organization carried out the grunt work. Over the last five years, there has been a sustained effort by the saffron party under the leadership of Shah to step up recruitments. Consequently, the party’s membership more than trebled in the last five years from 35 million to 110 million in 2019—the foundation of the BJP vote bank. This kind of a landslide win can only stoke another surge in membership.
Besides providing the infrastructure support for the rallies, party workers were also deployed in outreach. In Delhi alone, including in the BJP control room on Akbar Road, about 14,000 party workers were deployed. The 161 call centres spread across the country were tasked with the explicit job of reaching out directly on behalf of BJP to the 220 million beneficiaries of the various government programmes. Taking the BJP membership and the labarthis or beneficiaries together, the party had put together a formidable potential voter base—something that explains how it has won 50% plus vote share in several states.
The incredible performance of BJP in the East underlines the spectacular performance nationally. Not only has its performance here enabled it to more than make up for the reverses suffered in Uttar Pradesh, but it has also provided a much expanded electoral footprint to the saffron party. The saffron surprise in the East is akin to what it achieved in the 2014 general election in UP.
From an also-ran in West Bengal in 2014, BJP has eclipsed the Congress and the Left Front to emerge as a close second to the Trinamool Congress (TMC), whose leader Mamata Banerjee, was at one time being touted as a possible PM. The saffron surge ensured a direct fight and has led to an almost equal division of votes between BJP (40.2%) and TMC (43.29%), dealing one of the most devastating political blows to Didi’s persona and TMC. It will now have to be seen how TMC will regroup.
In Odisha, BJP may not have lived up to its pre-election claim of ending the record tenure of Naveen Patnaik. The veteran CM pulled off another one-sided win in the state elections, but had to share the spoils with BJP in the fight for the Lok Sabha. But in the process, the die is cast for the future polity of the state, with BJP emerging as the principal challenger.
In the north-east of India, BJP has in this election cemented its status as the principal party. Of the 25 seats up for grabs, BJP won 12 and its NDA allies three. Previously, NDA had won 11 seats, while the BJP count was eight.
If the country’s oldest political party needed a wake-up call, then this was the moment. In 2014, it suffered its worst drubbing ending up with 44 seats; if people believed—especially after Gandhi underwent a makeover following his ascent to the post of party president—that a turnaround was possible, then it remained a pipe dream. The shrill negative campaign—chowkidar chor hai—and the lack of credible alternative ideas, except for NYAY, have left many red-faced.
The Congress suffered another humiliating loss ending up with 52 seats—a marginal improvement on its previous tally, but still short of the number to automatically claim the prestigious post of the leader of the opposition in Parliament.
Not only did Gandhi lose from Amethi, the party is now reduced to one representative, Sonia Gandhi, from Uttar Pradesh—one of the two states without which the Congress can never stage a revival. The bulk of its MPs in the next Lok Sabha will come from south India—including Gandhi, who won from Wayanad in Kerala. After drawing a near blank in the Hindi heartland, it risks losing its credentials of being a national party. More worryingly, it should recognize that over the last four decades, key constituents have deserted the party. First to leave were the Dalits, later followed by the OBCs; and now, BJP has completed the heist with its successful wooing of the poor. The Muslims in general continue to be loyal to the Congress, which, however, in the context of a rising Hindu consciousness, could be a political liability, especially in the heartland.
The Road Ahead
With the elections done and dusted, Modi is likely to refocus his attention on governance. One big challenge will be in putting together the union cabinet. If there was one drawback of this government, it was the lack of bandwidth in the union cabinet.
The second big test will be with respect to the economy. The containing of retail inflation and improved plumbing of the economy through measures like goods and services tax have no doubt improved the underlying basis, but there are concerns that cannot be ignored--obvious ones are farm distress, lack of job creation and flagging investment. With such a massive mandate, Modi will be under pressure to deliver solutions—though it is a fact that there is no shortcut. Undoubtedly, he has a task on hand.
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