Saffron-Lash Or Dynasty Fatigue? Making Sense Of Modi’s Spectacular Victory
Marvi Sirmed in this article compares Modi’s successful campaign in India with the election strategies of three major political parties in Pakistan, PML-N, PPP and PTI. She also highlights the key factors that led to his re-election to the office of Indian Prime Minister.
When Pakistanis look back at the last five years of their eastern neighbour, they see Indian secularism – the object of their envy and contempt for decades – collapsing in broad daylight. Pakistani perception is, if Modi’s success in 2014 was an accident of history marking the beginning of contemporary global right-wing wave, the latest victory bears witness that India has finally succumbed to what she has been planning and designing for Pakistan – implosion by the way of internal unrest and utter meltdown of social cohesion.
On one hand, this divisive regime in India is our schadenfreude, but on the other it is a stronger than ever validation of the two-nation theory on which Pakistani strategic elite is adamant to rest the foundations of Pakistan. The ‘theory’ has been called out as deeply flawed, Noachian and divisive by many Pakistani liberals in recent years. Modi’s India brings the godsend opportunity for the conservatives to snub these ‘anti-Pakistan’ liberals reminding them of how valid the theory was, in fact still is.
However, looking at the complex political, cultural and religious fabric of India, it seems quite a lazy and lethargic approach to yield to simplistic conclusions however comforting they might sound. Without taking away the credit of Hindu supremacism from Mr Modi and his parental duo BJP-RSS, it is imperative to see India as a dynamic part of the global community rather than an isolated hamlet; as a multi-layered society with diverse cultural values and religious views rather than a huge bunch of homogenous, remote-controlled robots; as a place where people live with aspirations and ambitions of their own rather than a menagerie full of blood-thirsty monsters and poor little geese that need to be saved. India is big, diverse and, yes, the enemy-in-chief. Knowing it, and approving or disapproving of it for correct reasons is key to our own collective emotional intelligence.
During the election campaign of Mr Modi in 2014, his refrain was ‘achhay din aanay waalay haiN’ – the promise of the good days. He created an image of himself as a messiah who was there to rid India of all pains. There was promise of jobs, of eradicating poverty, of anti-corruption, of prosperity, of development and modernisation.
His pro-business persona and social media avatar of a tech-savvy accessible and responsive leader clicked with Indian youth. His emphasis on ‘Indian-ness’, India’s cultural identity, India’s place in global community had put him in unique position within Indian politics that was completely lost on Indian National Congress – his key political and ideological rival.
His last tenure, known in Pakistan only for regularly reported lynching incidents of Muslims, Dalits and Christians by Hindu vigilantes, had actually started with attempts at implementing his development agenda. To describe which, parallels can be drawn with development models of Pakistan’s three major political parties – PML-N, PPP and PTI.
Like PML-N’s ‘Nawaz model’ and ‘Shehbaz speed’, Mr Modi focused much of his attention on infrastructure development i.e., constructing roads & highways, bridges alongside building airports and public transport system. Although, almost all of these projects were conceived by last two Congress-led UPA governments. Ease of doing business under Modi improved immensely during the last five years, as per Ian Bremmer who wrote in Time magazine that India had moved up from 100th place to 77th in World Bank ranking.
Highly criticised de-monetising policy of Modi’s government ended up in around 300 million new bank accounts opened by the people who have never had them. This made credit and state subsidies accessible for these people alongside bringing them into the formal economy, Bremmer writes.
Complementing it with PPP-style development model wherein rural and quasi-urban population benefitted with electrification of remote villages, provision of health services to the poorest of the poor under Ayushman Bharat program, provision of public toilets at grassroots levels through Swachh Bharat program, Gobar Dhan scheme that focuses on useful conversion of cattle dung into usable energy, provision of free gas for cooking in remote rural areas under Ujjwala Youjna scheme, and expansion of social safety net among various other initiatives, small and large. However, most of these schemes either did not complete during the term or had immense flaws, making it impossible for Modi establishment to convert them into voting capital.
In the final year of his tenure, Mr Modi woke up to the disturbing reality of his tenure – his inability to pull through the poverty alleviation quagmire or fulfilling any of the campaign promises, biggest of which was jobs for unemployed youth. Instead, a leaked report of the Indian government revealed last year the unprecedented hike in unemployment.
The same year, India was hit by one of the worst financial crises because of unwise lending and as a result of concentration of these bad loans in mainly one sector – power & energy. In these five years, India could not make up her mind what to do with non-performing public assets (much like Pakistan), whether or not Reserve Bank of India’s stashes could be used as pork barrel, how to improve the agriculture sector, especially the plight of the small farmer, etc.
Worst of it all was the ever-deteriorating social cohesion, exasperating internal social discord and thus affecting collective national morale. In the final year of his last tenure, therefore, Mr Modi resorted to the good old playbook – invoke national insecurity by decrying the problematic neighbourhood, poking the bear of religious and cultural identity, and stir up the country’s nationhood.
The unfortunate attack in Pulwama provided him the one such opportunity on a platter. Whereas an attack of this magnitude was an indictment of the government’s ability to keep the country safe, Mr Modi soon turned the narrative to his side by changing the debate from India’s inability to control the insurgency in Kashmir, to anti-Pakistan hyperbole pinning the entire blame on Pakistan-based terrorist groups and Pakistani government’s inability to curb these groups and then demanded handing them over to India.
Without engaging in an all-encompassing comparison, it is pertinent here to draw parallels between this Modi strategy in India and Khan’s strategy in Pakistan witnessed last year. There we have the Imran Khan rhetoric model.
Like Mr Khan’s ‘Naya Pakistan’ and ‘Tsunami’ of supporters, Mr Modi brought the jargon of ‘Naya Bharat’ and Tsunami of Bhakts. If Mr Khan has highly abusive, rude and self-righteous “PTI trolls”, so has Mr Modi on social media who easily beat their Pakistani counterparts in vigour and toxicity. Like Imran Khan’s slogan ‘looti hui daulat’, Narendra Modi had ‘bhrashtachaar’ – corruption. Interestingly, like Imran Khan had his rivals branded as ‘political dynasts’, Narendra Modi too had his share of dynastic opposition. In fact, Mr Modi made it a huge part of both his campaigns to denounce Nehru family’s political hegemony, in no uncertain terms.
Like Imran Khan resorted to religious puritanism when it came to Khatm-e-Nabuwwat inspired protests in 2017, Mr Modi also invoked religious identity whenever needed. It was on his watch that a highly contentious and acrimonious personality identified with Hindutva, Yogi Adityanath, was appointed as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
In recent elections, Malegaon blast suspect Ms Pragya Singh Thakur was fielded by BJP from Bhopal to contest for Lok Sabha seat, from where she won with a resounding margin of around 300,000 votes.
Like Imran Khan routinely eulogises and defends rashest and most arrogant of his comrades while spewing venom against the rivals, Narendra Modi and his party has been seen supporting, defending and even celebrating expressions of Hindu supremacism. Both Khan and Modi hate liberals and secularists, both of them think the world came into being and the time started when they began their political careers.
What Mr Khan does not have in Mr Modi’s comparison is a blood tainted Gujarat-like baggage. Notwithstanding, both have thick Teflon coating on them like all other right-wing xenophobes of the world – nothing ever affects their public image.
In the past, Imran Khan has been supporting the narrative of the terrorists by advocating against drone strikes whenever they hit terrorists’ strongholds in north-west; supporting terrorists of TTP, demanding offices for them on the line of Qatar office given to Afghan Taliban, following the extremists’ narrative on Afghanistan calling terrorism there as part of Islamic Jihad, vowing to make Pakistan Islamic welfare state aka the state of Medina, and all this while, speaking passionately for minorities’ rights.
When Khan’s party won the 2018 elections, no one concluded that Pakistan had yielded to extremists and Muslim supremacists; or that the entire nation had gone crazy Islamist just because it had elected a man who was nick-named Taliban Khan. Similarly, however enticing it may feel, it is still important that India’s decision to keep Mr Modi for the next five years is explored in a tad more depth.
Modi has been dealing with a political opposition marred with a very difficult baggage of corruption, incompetence, and huge crisis of internal democracy. Millennials are nowhere in the mood to accommodate the old order, traditional monarchical rulers and dynastic political parties. Whether it is in Pakistan or India or elsewhere in the world.
When such an antediluvian political order is challenged by a strongman showing leadership and commitment to national security, cultural identity and rejection of everything that comes in the way of pompous (and exclusive) patriotism, trust with eyes wide shut that young Indians or Pakistanis would aggressively support the latter.
In Mr Modi’s case, cherry on the top is his persona, his ability to engage with people (while not engaging with media at all – during his five years as Prime Minister, his only press conference came on the last day of his tenure), his Teflon, the optimism that his leadership carried which gave people a hope that he can carry the country forward, not being personally corrupt or corruptible, not being a dynast or any future possibility of being dynast, having officials around him known for not being corrupt, etc. Couple this with the fact that his political alternative was anywhere between ‘unavailable’ to ‘horrible’ for the people of India.
If one lists down main reasons for this Modi victory, they would be his social sector schemes described earlier; his strong leadership and persona – the brand Modi; his party’s organisation at grassroots levels and building alliances wisely (the credit for which should go to Amit Shah, BJP’s head, who burned midnight oil in accomplishing this); BJP’s campaign strategy (it was an election won by Narendra Modi not BJP – like a presidential candidate); ineptitude of Congress and in fact all opponents of Mr Modi; Hindutva agenda and track record on that for last five years; post-Pulwama Indian posturing on Balakot; Mr Modi’s inseparable Teflon!
The ridiculous claims of killing 300 Jaish workers in Balakot were busted soon, and Mr Modi had to take a lot of bad press internationally. Similarly, Congress had to eat humble pie on Rafael deal scandal against BJP government and the ‘Chowkidar Chor Hay’ slogan, which was rejected by the people. Many Indian commentators are saying it was ‘un-Indian’ to fall to that level of political discourse.
In final analysis, Mr Modi’s electoral victory must be seen as a result of a mix of many propping factors, and not as final indictment of India’s secularism. It was not Saffron-lash solely. Too early to say that. Everyone who has voted for BJP is not a Hindu extremist or a Muslim-killer. After all, majority of the people standing up to Hindutva and Hindu supremacism are Hindus themselves!
The writer is a freelance journalist and human rights defender. She has been part of women’s movement for over twenty years