Modi's Strategy of Playing to People's Aspirations Doesn't Have a Long Shelf Life

Policies and political events moved between hope and pragmatism. But can the same strategy be repeated for a second time?

Narendra Modi has achieved stupendous success in the 2019 general elections, the results of which are in line with the global resurgence of cultural nationalism and conservative right-wing politics.

Not long ago, Jair Bolsonaro – a complete outsider to politics and without the backing of a proper organisational structure – won a similar victory in Brazil. In comparison, Modi is backed by the well-oiled organisational structure of the BJP, and the RSS.

However, while, the other political parties and Left-liberal intellectuals are thinking for the poor and the subaltern, the BJP-RSS combine thinks like the vulnerable. In this sense, they belong to the same strata of cultural subalterns that they tend to represent. They, therefore, closely understand how anxiety, fear, honour, pride and shame work.

In this sense, this is not merely about the organisational structure and electoral calculations – this victory is more moral than political. It is more about psychological warfare than about social transformation.

The BJP managed to expose the tenuous link between social policy and electoral choices, and sold social policy in terms that actively spoke to the beneficiaries’ state of mind.

Also read: Explaining Narendra Modi’s Global Image Victory

For instance, the Ujjwala scheme was not just about giving LPG cylinders, but about empowerment and reinforcing the traditional role of women in the household. The government innovated new policies around toilets to give a sense of mobility, away from the social stigma attached to filth and pollution. It addressed caste without changing caste-based discrimination on the ground.

Demonetisation targeted the long-standing grouse against the corrupt and crony elite rolling in black money, without actually hurting the interests of the elites. Bank accounts too gave a sense of getting included in the formal and modern monetised economy with the hope of direct cash transfers – without money actually flowing into the accounts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi distributes free LPG connections to the beneficiaries under PM Ujjwala Yojana in Ballia. Credit: PTI

An electoral campaign around airstrikes further sealed the party’s commitment to the nation. In effect, the BJP, over the past five years, did not ameliorate the dispossession and poor living conditions, but instead gave a sense of meaning to the sufferings of the dispossessed.

This was possible because the BJP-RSS combine understands religious and familial ethics. Nation, party and the leader were made synonymous to ‘the home’.

A narrative of India’s ‘new’ and ‘improved’ image in the eyes of the world was sold to the people – without any attempt to clarify what this means in tangible terms. A critique or questioning of the glory amounted, in popular imagination, to exposing private frailties in a hostile world.

Policies and political events moved between hope and pragmatism. The slogans were recalibrated. The BJP began with ‘acche din‘ and ‘New India’, which articulated the growing aspirations of Indians, then shifted gears towards ‘saaf niyat, sahi vikas‘, which signified an intention to deliver in spite of obstacles. Finally came ‘Modi hai toh mumkin hai‘, signalling the possibility that achievement of aspirations is more realistic provided he gets another chance. The campaign ended with ‘ayega toh Modi hi,’ driving in the idea of no alternative, even if people thought he did not meet their expectations. Another interpretation can be that Modi’s victory was a foregone conclusion and there is no point wasting one’s vote on anyone else.

Also read: What Will Narendra Modi Be Remembered For?

It was a fact that while the opposition built its narrative around jobs and agrarian distress, these problems were not restricted to BJP-ruled states. Though the Congress did float the NYAY scheme, it was at the penultimate moment and could not generate euphoria since the party itself lacked credibility. Also, by that time, people had already decided to give Modi another chance.

Had the Congress done something more dramatic in the states they won in December, people might have taken them more seriously. But no such thing happened, and they did more of the same.

Narendra Modi, given his past record, will continue raising the aspirations of the people. He said the first term was to provide the basic needs and his second term will be about fulfilling aspirations. In a situation of exploding aspirations and imploding opportunities, psychological fine-tuning will offset routine deprivation.

However, to expect that this strategy has a long shelf life without the expectations actually being met can prove to be challenging.

The first term was spent in the denial of joblessness, agrarian crisis and farmer distress by hiding data and disallowing any sustained debate on it. The gap between the two will reveal the cracks. This, in fact, will be the real challenge. Given the way policy and institutions were managed without the necessary gestation to think through, dependence on the leader and his credibility went up exponentially. But can the same strategy be repeated for a second time?

A deeper question would be whether the character and nature of right-wing politics allow for inclusivity and empowerment of the people. Is disempowerment not a necessary precondition for jingoism? Or can there be a new kind of balance that can keep the aspirations in tune with majoritarian consolidation?

Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He recently published India after Modi: Populism and the Right (Bloomsbury, 2018).