The recently concluded election produced a puzzling outcome. During the tenure of the National Democratic Alliance government (NDA-II), the Indian economy significantly under-performed, heightening the distress of millions of farmers, raising unemployment and increasing the insecurity of workers in the informal sector.
The signature policies of NDA-II – demonetisation, and the manner in which the Goods and Services Tax was implemented – contributed to heightened distress. Violence against minorities, intellectuals and dissenting voices during NDA-II have been widely noted. Yet, the NDA returned to power with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increasing its majority in the Lok Sabha (from 282 to 303, albeit with a minority vote share of about 37%), overturning an established trend in Indian elections.
Historically (e.g. in 1967, 1977, 1989, 1991, 1998, 2004 and 2014), economic or political crises or growth slowdowns have always tended to weaken incumbents. Commentators have resorted to a wide spectrum of explanations ranging from a deep alteration of the Indian polity (with regional unevenness) to careful strategies by the BJP’s mighty electoral machinery to capture power. While we see partial truth in these explanations, we want to ask other questions: What is the precise message that contributed to this? What is the nature of the medium through which it was disseminated? What is the true meaning of the mandate that BJP/NDA got?
The winning message
Various opinion polls (regardless of their precision) show an unmistakable V-shaped trend in the popularity of BJP/NDA, with the trough located in February 2019. Results of elections (in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) and by-elections (in Uttar Pradesh) in 2018 are consistent with this.
As several commentators have noted, the narrative of a faltering economy was strengthening until February, when it was ambushed/altered by the terrorist attack in Pulwama, and counter-strikes by the Indian army in Balakot, Pakistan. These events shifted the scale of the contest from a local/provincial to a national one and gave a fillip to an already ongoing attempt to transform the election from a parliamentary to a presidential form.
The latter was heavily loaded in Narendra Modi’s favour given a divided opposition, with less formidable leaders. Therefore, the main message that the BJP disseminated after February was that national security (defence from an external force) and national scale (geographical) leadership could be delivered only by Modi.
After this shift, a number of other messages were tagged on to the main one, including reservations for economically disadvantaged groups and cash transfers (as evidenced by the Hindu-Lokniti-CSDS surveys). This expanded message was part-nationalist (vis-à-vis external forces), part-geographical and part-economic.
Most likely, it pulled a substantial number of voters to the BJP through the geographical and economic components. Moreover, the BJP manifesto (released in April 2019) has a substantial focus on the economy. Although it refers to some controversial issues (e.g. Kashmir, Ayodhya and Citizenship Amendment Bill), it does not explicitly articulate a Hindu-majoritarian discourse.
To examine the medium through which the above message was spread, we need to focus on a crucial space that has received inadequate attention, particularly in relation to the economy. This is the public sphere, our understanding of which owes a great deal to the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. It includes traditional media (e.g. newspapers and television) as well as the newer “digital public sphere” (e.g. email, messaging, blogs, search engines and social media like Facebook).
In the context of the public sphere and the economy, NDA-II implemented key measures. The Planning Commission was abolished and replaced by the NITI Aayog (National Institute for Transforming India). The pronouncements of the Planning Commission used to lead to considerable discussion, e.g. its poverty line (Tendulkar committee) was hotly debated, forcing the government to arrive at a new one.
The NITI Aayog is similar to a think-tank and lacks the same public accountability. There was also considerable interference in the work of statistical organisations (which have traditionally enjoyed autonomy) and suppression of data. The last survey on consumption whose results were made public was conducted in 2011-12. This prompted a large number of economists from around the world to sign a petition demanding an end to interference and suppression. Broadly, discussions based on transparent and public data (even if imperfect), were replaced by rumour, innuendo and speculation.
The media played a key role in spreading the national security-cum-national scale message. After the Pulwama attack, some networks advocated revenge and war with Pakistan. Modi’s militant and undiplomatic words – Yeh hamara siddhant hai ki hum ghar mai ghus kar maarenge (It is our principle that we will enter the home and kill) – received widespread coverage and approbation, putting the opposition parties on the defensive.
The digital public sphere is different from its older counterpart. It is not as well-monitored or securely placed in the legal domain. It has emancipatory potential (e.g. in fighting repressive regimes), but can also result in easier “captures”. Once this crucial domain is dominated, it is easier to spread fake news, misinformation or rumours. Even before land-based telephones (an old technology) became widespread, relatively cheap smartphones penetrated India (an example of a phenomenon termed “leapfrogging”).
India is the largest market for Facebook’s WhatsApp, which has become the main medium of easy communication among about 250 million users. WhatsApp is particularly suited to spreading misinformation for reasons that have been well-documented, e.g. impossibility of tracing the origins of a message and ease of creating groups.
Of course, every political party could use WhatsApp to suit its purposes. However, the BJP spent the most on advertising in internet and social media (Google, Facebook etc.) – more than six times as its main opponent (Congress). According to a BBC report, accounts that favour BJP are more prone to disseminating fake news compared to those against BJP. In fact, the prime minister’s NaMo App itself has been reported to be a major source of misinformation. Finally, the BJP’s social media propaganda has been found to be extremely polarising and exploitative of the Hindu-Muslim divide.
It is true that the BJP has been successful in consolidating a significant section of Hindu voters in its favour, and the difference between Hindu and non-Hindu voters looks stark (Lokniti-CSDS survey). However, it is the coming together of the medium (public sphere) and the message – that only Modi’s BJP can safeguard India’s national security and govern better at the national scale – that reversed the growing valence of the narrative of a faltering economy. This message, along with a promise of improved welfare schemes, is the decisive mandate that the BJP obtained.
Did the BJP/NDA secure a mandate to refashion India along the lines of Hindu-majoritarian nationalism? The answer has to be negative given the evidence. It is crucial to underscore that the BJP was able to increase its vote share from 31% to only 37%, and with NDA allies, to about 45%, which is still a minority vote share in the sense that 55% of the electorate chose to back their opponents.
In the absence of the Pulwama attack or the BJP’s dominance of the public sphere, the election would have, very likely, taken a different turn. Even though this limited mandate and vote share were obtained under highly specific circumstances, there could very well be calls for a Hindu-majoritarian restructuring of India or attempts to stifle internal dissent (by labelling it “anti-national”). Such moves are simply illegitimate because they are not supported by the mandate that the BJP/NDA received, quite apart from being unconstitutional.
One should keep in mind that deeper trajectories of democracies, despite occasional setbacks, have always moved towards greater inclusiveness, tolerance and equality in the non-economic domain. History tells us that electorates around the world (including India) do not take lightly political parties and leaders that overstep their mandate. This should give hope and courage to the majority of Indians, who have voted for an inclusive India and are willing to continue to fight for it.
Vamsi Vakulabharanam and Sripad Motiram teach Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Boston, respectively.