Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
ThE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won 303 seats in this summer’s Lok Sabha election, 30 seats more than what they won in 2014. BJP’s allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had managed to muster another 50 seats. The BJP-led NDA then commands an unassailable 353 in the 543-seat Lower House of Indian Parliament. There are two intriguing aspects of this story of BJP’s, which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s, victory. First, BJP president Amit Shah and before him senior party leader Rajnath Singh had claimed a week before the verdict day that the BJP is going to win 300 seats on its own. It seemed tall talk because it appeared that BJP will manage about 230 to 240 seats on its own, and that it will need the help of allies to form the government. The second is the absence of Modi wave on the ground. Many people felt that Modi and the BJP should get a second term in office but it was more for the sake of stability and continuity and not because of any spectacular achievements of Modi in his first term in office.
Modi and party president Amit Shah harping on national security, nationalism in the wake of the Pulwama terrorist attack and the retaliatory aerial strike in Balakot appeared a sign of nervousness on the part of the BJP, which was desperately clutching at emotive issues like nationalism and anti-Pakistan sentiments. Modi had however denied in the media interviews he gave in the final phase of electioneering that he was pressing the panic button and he was falling back on emotional issues like national security. He argued that his half-hour speeches were mostly about the positive achievements of his government and that the national security issue was only one of them. There was apprehension on the part of Modi’s political rivals a year ago that Modi would somehow conjure up a situation which would raise the sentiment of nationalism to win the election. Modi and Shah are sure to argue that they did not anticipate Pulwama, and that the decision to retaliate through the Balakot air strike was taken in the context of defense preparedness rather than with elections on mind. Modi and Shah then went on to use the Pulwama and Balakot incidents for political purposes during the campaign, and they even defended that it was legitimate to do so.
It is difficult to disentangle the reasons as to why the people voted in favour of Modi. What was the impact of Pulwama and Balakot? Did this give an advantage to Modi, and if there was no Pulwama and Balakot, would Modi and BJP have got 303 seats? Did the people give the verdict in favour of Modi because they did not like the divided opposition and not because they were charmed by the genius of Modi? Did the people prefer stability and continuity and they did not very much fancy the high decibel patriotism of Modi and Shah? What is however very clear is that there was no visible and tangible wave in favour of Modi in 2019 as there was in 2014. It would not be off the mark to infer that Modi won because there was no credible alternative. Indirectly, Modi himself admitted to this, but in his own rhetorical fashion. Speaking to the victorious Members of Parliament of the NDA in the Central Hall of Parliament, Modi said that the competition was between the Modi of 2014 and Modi of 2019, Modi 2019 beat the record of Modi 2014. In 2014, BJP became the first party since 1984 to have won a majority on its own.
The details of the Lok Sabha poll results show that the BJP did well in the states where it had a stronghold – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka – and it won the extra seats from West Bengal and Odisha. The expectation was that the BJP would not be able to win the same number of seats in these states that it had won in 2014. The law of statistical averages suggested that the BJP would lose many seats on the way and yet remain the single largest party short of simple majority. The BJP just romped home.
So, the question crops up yet again? Why did Modi win? Is the Modi magic intact? The media are of the general view that this was a Modi election, and that he is the charismatic leader who has carried the day. The others who feel that the verdict is not a simple endorsement of Modi, the Leader are groping for an explanation that reflects the fact of Modi’s victory and also the reason the people voted for him.
The meaning of the verdict has a bearing on what Modi and his government would do in the second term. If they believe that they managed to win the election because of Pulwama and Balakot, then they will have to flex the military muscle in the neighbourhood, against terrorists based in Pakistan. The assumption here is that failure to tackle the challenges of the economy would not matter if the Modi government can keep the spirits of patriotism up.
There is also the argument within the school of Modi admirers and among Team Modi that it was welfare measures like Ujwala, which involved giving LPG cooking gas connection to village women, and the Jan Dhan Yojana scheme that won them the election. Then it would mean that the Modi government will have to step up on its welfare schemes. But the Modi government has little or no idea as to how it would finance these schemes. Its simple presumption is that the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which was launched in Modi’s first term, would fetch enough revenue which could be used for supporting the welfare measures. But it is not aware of the issue that the tax collections could go down if the economy does not grow sufficiently, and the fluctuation in economic growth is a natural.
It is not that the Modi government can ignore the other challenges like improving the educational qualifications and skills of Indians, or of creating world-class scientific research and development infrastructure in the country because Modi is keen to make India a leading country in the field of science and technology. But the government does not seem to have a clear idea as to how this is to be achieved. Is India willing to invest in good universities and will it allow researchers the freedom to go about their work? The BJP and Modi tend to believe that research should be beneficial to the country without realizing that the element of serendipity is high in scientific research and that there will be many dead-ends before one comes up the breakthrough discovery. And scientific research flourishes when there is untrammeled intellectual freedom. But the BJP’s ideology requires both blinkers and controls which are counterproductive.
On the economic front, Modi’s government is unable to find innovative ways of building the country’s manufacturing base, which is necessary if India is to become a powerful economy in the world. This would require that there should be technological breakthroughs in the manufacturing sector, which in turn presume a highly skilled and highly trained technical work force. India cannot compete with either Europe or Japan, or even China and South Korea on this front. The Modi government does not have the patience to deal with a complex problem like this. It prefers to deal with the simple and tangible things like the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro’s) manned mission to the moon, which can be showcased as an achievement to the world and which could then be used as political capital to win the next election.
Modi and Shah have shown in the last five years that they are very good at fighting elections and winning them and they are not interested in anything else. Whatever good that happens in the course of governance is a side-effect of the Modi-Shah plan to win an election. It can be argued that as long as development is taking place if only to enable the Modi-Shah-led BJP to win election after election, then it should not matter.
This poll-related developmental agenda is likely to result in misshapen development, but it would help India to march onward somewhat somehow. The greatest challenge for the Modi government in its second term would be to maintain social harmony and to keep the lumpen Hindutva elements on the leash. Modi and Shah may be tempted to believe that social tensions might have their political value for the BJP’s electoral prospects. It is the point when the script could get out of hand.