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The March 10 assembly election results have confirmed what eight opinion polls had predicted more than a month ago. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come roaring back in Uttar Pradesh, gained hugely and won in Goa and Manipur, and also retained its hold in Uttarakhand. Their prediction, that the Aam Aadmi Party would lead, and possibly win, in Punjab has also been vindicated. The Congress party has not only been the principal loser but has, in a word, been slaughtered. With these elections, whatever little claim it could make to being the leading alternative to the BJP has vanished.
Before we get inundated with the flood of explanations that is bound to follow, there is still time to reflect on the single greatest anomaly that the results have captured. This is the complete absence of any anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP despite eight years of not only lawless, but also inept, government that this country has suffered.
The Narendra Modi government should have had its first encounter with anti-incumbency in 2019. By then GDP growth had been falling for six consecutive quarters and the number of new jobs being created in the non-farm sector had declined from 7.6 million a year between 2004-5 and 2011-12 to 2.9 million a year in the next 8 years, forcing 37 million recently urbanised workers back into agriculture. Six of these eight years were presided over by Modi.
The resulting pressure on rural wages and the need to feed a larger number of mouths in each family had increased the number of people below the poverty line by a staggering 76 million by March 2019, of whom 66 million live in the villages. This had reversed the trend of declining poverty rates the country had experienced for the previous six decades.
Oxfam’s latest study of poverty in India has shown that the poorest 20% have suffered a 53% fall in their incomes in 2020-21, even as the number of dollar billionaires increased from 102 to 142.
The main victims of the economic decline have been the youth of the country – precisely those who had backed Modi, personally, for prime ministership in 2014. Government data shows that while the proportion of young people with a secondary ( i.e. till class 10) education who could not find jobs jumped from 4% to 16% between 2011-12 and 2018-19 and of those with a higher secondary (till class 12) education, from 7% to 22%, it was those who had invested the most in education who were most comprehensively betrayed: unemployment among Bachelors’ degree holders jumped from 20% to 38%, among postgraduates from 19% to 43%, and among those with technical degrees (mainly in engineering) from 19% to 38%.
By 2019, the non-farm job famine had already lasted for eight years. Five of these had been presided over by Modi. So the BJP should, at the very least, have lost its absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, if not been pushed out of government. But for the first time in India’s 72 years of elections, the results defied the logic of anti-incumbency and, instead of falling even if only by a few percent, the BJP’s share of the vote rose by more than 6%.
Modi’s second term has so far been even more disappointing than the first. Not only did India’s GDP growth continue to slide, and unemployment to soar, but when COVID-19 struck the world, Modi all but left 60 million or more migrant workers, and lakhs of micro, small and medium sized enterprises, to fend for themselves.
When the first COVID-19 wave ended, Modi ignored frantic warnings that a far more dangerous delta wave was coming, did nothing even to equip hospitals with oxygen, and went on an election rampage instead. For weeks the smoke from burning ghats darkened the sky and corpses floated down the rivers, but a bare nine months later the election results show that all this might as well not have happened.
Why is there no anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP? The standard explanation – that Modi has been able to weaponise what the French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has labelled the Hindu ‘majoritarian inferiority complex’ towards Muslims – takes us only a small part of the way towards understanding it. For the Sangh parivar has been weaponising this complex not since 2014, but ever since the Godhra train fire in February 2002.
The virtual disappearance of the anti-incumbency vote therefore requires another explanation. But we do not need to look very far for it, for that too lies hidden inside these election results. The clue to it is the dramatic success of the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab.
From its inception in 2015, the AAP has been an anomaly in Indian politics because it has not sought the people’s vote on the basis of caste, creed, loyalty to community leaders or in memory of the nation’s founding fathers. All these forms of appeal to the electorate are an extension of feudalism, for they treat the vote as a gift conferred by the ‘Lord of the Manor’, on his or her subjects, to be exercised as directed by him or her . The reward has usually been the grant of a favour – a government job, a petrol pump site, a gas agency, or a plot of land beside a highway.
On its part, the Sangh parivar, in philosophy, if not practice, has been against caste (as it weakens the ‘Hindu’ identity it favours), and its mode of recruitment has been through social service. Its conversion into a fascist political movement has been gradual, and not even wholly intended. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad was not created till 1964, and did not become militantly anti-Muslim till 1983. The Bajrang Dal, its ‘sword arm’, was not created till 1984.
However much one may disagree with its goal of creating a Hindu rashtra – a quasi- totalitarian nation state founded around religion and ethnicity – its preferred method of gaining mass political support is the offer of a chance to serve ‘Hindu India’.
So when Modi came to power in 2014, he did so with not a two but a three-pronged strategy. The first was economic revival, in which he failed miserably. The second was promoting Hindutva by dismantling the pluralism and multi-ethnicity sanctified by the Constitution. The third was launching programmes that aimed at reaching the poor directly and empowering them, rather than the bureaucrats who had been administering development and welfare programmes till then.
Among these last are the Jan Dhan Yojana – which has universalised bank accounts into which the direct benefits that the poor are entitled to are now being transferred electronically, thus empowering them rather than the bureaucrats who had been administering these till then. Then there is the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan, which promised toilets in every rural home, and the Gram Jyoti Yojana and Saubhagya schemes for rural electrification. To these, Yogi Adityanath added the extermination of lawless elements through police ‘encounters’ in UP.
AAP’s approach to governance is the secular, democratic opposite to answer to the Sangh parivar’s narrowly focused Messianic approach. There is no hint of caste or religion in its politics. There never has been. Kejriwal founded the party around a single burning issue – the fight against all-pervasive corruption and bureaucratic extortion in government. Its 2015 election campaign was crowd-funded and its message was spread by thousands of young volunteers, from among whom a core emerged as the party’s permanent cadre.
Its success in Delhi in 2015 was utterly unexpected, but its return to power in 2017 was not. As it grappled with Delhi’s innumerable problems, it widened its focus till it embraced most other areas of governance. In all of them, but especially in the provision of health, education, power and water supply, slum regularisation and urban transport, AAP has taken initiatives that have given the poor the security and legal standing that they had lacked before.
In 2017, Modi recognised the threat that AAP’s ideology posed not only to his government but to the Hindu rashtra project, and tried his level best to destroy it, but failed. Since then, an accommodation of sorts has been reached, which was partially reflected in AAP’s silence over the organised pogrom in north-east Delhi in January 2020. But, all in all, it is the BJP that has been forced to coexist with AAP in Delhi rather than the other way around. The BJP’s nervousness can be seen in its desire to postpone civic polls in Delhi.
In 2019, after the decline in its share of the vote in Punjab, and its failure to get anywhere in Goa, most people wrote AAP off as a party that could not extend its reach beyond Delhi. Delhi was a special case, they concluded, because it was made up almost entirely of migrants who were mostly educated, and had already left caste and creed behind when they migrated to the Capital. But its spectacular success in Punjab in these elections has shown that there a more fundamental change taking place within the electorate.
As Kejriwal emphasised in his victory speech after the results were announced, the key word in his party’s campaign, and the word that was on everyone’s lips during the campaign was ‘badlav’ (change, or transformation). The badlav that people were referring to, and which his party has promised them, is in the relationship of the state to its people. “Under the British and for 75 years after they left,” he pointed out, “the people had served the state. Now it it the turn of the state to serve the people.”
Therefore, the lesson that the opposition parties need to learn from the total absence of an anti-incumbency vote against the BJP is that the days of a caste-based entitlement to votes are rapidly drawing to a close. The lesson they need to learn from AAP’s victory in Punjab is that in the future, their victory will depend upon their ability to build alliances around programmes, and the measures they will take to implement them.
AAP’s victory shows what kind of programmes they need to espouse and the kind of alliances they need to make. They have barely two years left to learn these lessons and create the alternative to the BJP that the nation needs.