A neo-Gaullist storms Delhi darbar
The stunning victory of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] in the recently-concluded general election in India needs to be understood from three perspectives – first, the sheer dimensions of the victory; second, its meaning; and, third, what it portends for India’s political economy in the coming five-year period in terms of national policies…
Without doubt, the BJP has secured a historic mandate from the people of India. A victory was expected but not on such a massive landslide. The party won 283 seats in the 540-member parliament, which is by far the highest ever tally in its history. The BJP secured an impressive one-third of the votes. More important, to borrow the words of the party chief Rajnath Singh, the mandate is «comprehensive in geographical spread». The party, which has been traditionally restricted to the so-called ‘Hindi belt’ in the northern states of India has spread its wings nationally and reached all nooks and corners of India. It is of symbolic importance that it secured handsomely half the seats in the northernmost Jammu & Kashmir state as well as won the southernmost parliamentary constituency of Kanyakumari, apart from doing well in much of India’s northeast and making a clean sweep virtually in the western states.
Equally, the party’s pan-Indian mandate comprises support of a broad cross section of Indians, cutting across the divides of Hindu castes and creed. Suffice to say the BJP government returns India to single-party rule in a way that was thought to be inconceivable in the opinion of most observers up until last week. What explains it?
In a country as diverse and complex as India is, simplifying an electoral mandate at any time is a difficult enterprise – especially in a bruising election such as this one has been where emotions were running high and subjective judgment and prejudices cloud rational analysis. Indeed, the BJP mounted a multi-vectored election campaign. But at the core of it was the persona of Narendra Modi who was nominated as the party’s prime ministerial candidate as far back as last September. Through this past 8-month period, the BJP robustly projected Modi as a one-dimensional personality – a decisive doer who brooks no delays, no alibis for non-performance. The idea was to juxtapose Modi with the timid leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Modi presented a development plank of large-scale job creation and high economic growth, which contrasted sharply with the prevailing languishing state of the Indian economy.
The strategy brilliantly worked. Then, there were the subtexts – Hindutva ideology aimed at covertly and insidiously marshaling a Hindu consolidation, Modi’s caste appeal as belonging to the lower strata of the Hindu caste hierarchy, the plentiful local issues at any time in such a vast country and so on. However, the single biggest factor behind the BJP’s victory has been its success in driving home the argument that India badly needed a «change» after the decade-old rule by the United Progressive Alliance [UPA] government led by the Congress Party.
Perceptions matter in politics and in this case the pervasive impression came to be that another five years of UPA rule will be an unmitigated disaster for India. In reality, though, India enjoyed a rare degree of social stability and a significantly high growth of 8.5% through the UPA period and, in fact, an unprecedented social welfare system was ushered in during these past ten years with emphasis on the hundreds of millions of people who live under the poverty line.
However, what tipped the scale hopelessly against the UPA were the spiraling inflation and the hugely embarrassing corruption scandals, which combined to fuel the anger and disenchantment of poor people and the middle class alike against the Congress Party. The Congress Party overlooked that an increasingly restless and aspirational young population is not so much enamored of the welfare schemes as jobs and opportunities for a better life. The fact remains that more than 50% of India’s current population (estimated 1.27 billion) is below the age of 25 and over 65% below the age of 35. As a leading Indian thinker Pratap Bhanu Mehta put it, «It was a deep intellectual failure of the Congress to understand and adapt to changed circumstances. It continued with its politics of low aspiration».
Mehta is spot on when he says, «I don’t think Indians were yearning for an authoritarian leader. There was a sense that in Manmohan Singh we had a leader who was not discharging the leadership role appropriate to his office. There was a yearning for leadership that was inherent to the office». Alongside this failure on the part of the Congress Party to grasp the shift in the mood of a changing India from a «petitional» to an aspirational culture, one cannot entirely overlook that the public perception of Rahul Gandhi as a leader who refused to take responsibility. Belatedly, through the latter half of the election campaign, Rahul Gandhi became forceful and began presenting himself as a hands-on modernizing ruler to match up to Modi’s superman image, but it was already too late.
Having said that, a salience that cannot be overlooked is that the BJP’s campaign was not only choreographed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh but also conducted by its disciplined cadres. The RSS enjoys a vast network of swayamsevaks (volunteers) and pracharaks (agitators) and Modi himself is an erstwhile pracharak. Again, the BJP appears to have had a virtually unlimited war chest to finance its campaign and, quite obviously, the Indian corporate sector rooted for Modi as a «business-friendly» politician.
All in all, therefore, the Modi phenomenon in Indian politics strongly reminds one of Gaullism in France in many respects – especially, right-wing Gaullism – although analogies of such broad kinds do not hold good completely. In foreign policy, Modi does have a pronounced Gaullist orientation, his main theme being India’s national independence. He fiercely upholds the belief that India should refuse subservience to any foreign power. His policies of grandeur should not come as surprise – the insistence that India is a major power in the world scene and that military and economic forces be established to back this claim.
Modi’s internal policies will be placing accent on social conservatism mixed with a form of populism that draws deep into the Hindutva ideology. Like Charles de Gaulle, he too relies heavily on personal charisma and is riding the wave of popularity in a country that is ravaged by a deep sense of despondency and defeatism. And going by his 14-year record as Gujarat’s chief minister, Modi too has distinct preference for a direct relationship with the people to parliamentary politics. But a notable difference might also be there insofar as while Modi could be scornful of politicians, he doesn’t remain aloof from playing political games.