Politics of Irrational Confidence Continues to Win the BJP Elections

Do the recent state results have any signalling effect for the upcoming 2024 national polls?

Recent electoral results from three very distinct electoral landscapes brought out interesting results.

In one, Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party was projected to win, but its scale of victory, and the extent of its consolidation seen in terms of vote share especially in parts of North, South and Central Gujarat, were quite unprecedented.

In the state Himachal Pradesh, strong anti-incumbency-led factors loomed large for removing the BJP from power, paving the way, by a narrow margin though, for the Congress to win the state’s assembly polls.

In the local municipal elections of Delhi, the Aam Admi Party (AAP) scored a win against the BJP, in an electoral contest which almost gained national-level coverage – and was seen to be a contest between Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi (much to the disadvantage of the BJP).

What do these electoral results say about Modi’s cult popularity amongst voters driven by a politics of vicharheen vishwas? Do the current results have any signalling effect for the upcoming 2024 national polls?

The answer to each of these questions navigates towards a complex, layered response.

For one, what the recent electoral results indicate is an added layer of complexity that makes any causative analysis of voter preferences an allusion, whether one sees this as part of municipal vs state vs national-level elections.

People seem to be voting in different ways for different elections – much like consumers change consumption/buying patterns in a market place, voter’s expectations from parties too are changing. Some, however, may have subscribed more unconditionally to Modi’s cult-persona and embedded irrational confidence in his ability to solve all their problems. BJP’s political force, guided by Modi’s popularity, is increasingly being centred – election after election – around a politics of vicharheen vishwas or one that exhibits irrational confidence amongst voters.

The new politics of vicharheen vishwas

On recently travelling in the Bhuj-Kutch area, at the time of the recent Gujarat elections, for a research project, a common factor evident in the responses of most rural (and semi-urban) voters, when asked about their party of preference, pointed towards a belief in Modi’s ability to do better for the state, be seen as a ‘one-man-solution’ to all of its woes, from a politics of irrational confidence.

The phrase vicharheen vishwas may broadly expand its meaning and contextual significance from political scientist Neelanjan Sircar’s earlier concept of a “politics of vishwas”, which as a phenomenon could help one understand how most voters, irrespective of economic or identity-based markers, increasingly pledge their votes towards Modi and the BJP. This is true of state-level autocratic leaders too (say, for Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal).

This new practiced politics of vicharheen vishwas reflects a blinding, irrationally diffused support amongst voters for a single leader’s presence, as a party-hegemon, and agency to substitute the systemic presence or role of any given institutions. From lower-caste groups to even upper-caste-class voters, all markers of socio-economic divide kept aside, may enable voters to prefer a single leader’s party, while being conditioned by an undistilled faith in his/her leadership.

Not just in Gujarat, in many parts of UP too, during the last assembly elections, when we conducted field visits across a few districts and interviewed new-and-old voter groups, we saw a similar wave of irrational confidence in the Yogi-Modi ‘double engine’ combine to be the answer to all of state’s concerns and solutions.

This political behaviour may fail to provide any credible explanation or rationale for voter’s preference (in most one-sided state elections like Gujarat or UP), except for the fact that ‘cult-personality’ driven voting patterns, driven by contesting parties’ conscious attempt to project larger than life figures (whether Modi in Gujarat or Yogi-Modi in UP or Mamata in West Bengal or Naveen Patnaik in Odisha), as observed in Indian politics, and much of popular cinema at this point, influencing or trending voter choices.

Those writing on the sociological milieu of Indian Politics, like Partha Chatterjee, have written extensively about this behaviour in the past, where agency of ‘strongmen’ (or a single leader) may be perceived as an institutional propriety of its own kind. And, now, under a wave of right-wing populism shaping much of the global electoral trends, new studies like the one undertaken by Markus Koppensteiner and Pia Stephan may also help one understand this pattern of Vicharheen Vishwaas from a statistical viewpoint.

What aided the BJP’s Modi-centred campaign in Gujarat?

In Gujarat’s recent election, much before the AAP entered the electoral scene, BJP’s political communication machinery had already begun presenting Modi’s administrative record in Gujarat as a three-term chief minister and then as India’s two-term prime minister as a catalysing factor that should drive people to vote the incumbent back to power.

Tapping into Modi’s popularity as a national leader who amplifies Gujarat’s own asmita (pride), was used to entice more votes for the BJP, which subsequently worked.

In villages like Nironi, in Kutch, artists and craftsmen – like those practicing the Rogan art or Ajraki hand bloc print º fondly share images of Modi at their workshop showcasing how the leader is globalising their work at a national/international stage and is making Gujarati textile reach a higher pedestal.

Socio-economic issues are there but they do not matter enough to take the party’s vote away.

What the BJP party continued its campaign narrative in/across Gujarat was on projecting Modi’s ‘good’ record as an effective administrator, his achievements in developing the economy of the state (evidence of which is disputable), and his reputation as an honest leader who has not allowed corruption to flourish under his watch in Gujarat (even though Morbi incident raised serious questions against the incumbent government).

Still, the public perception of this previous record – that had less to do with the discontents of the current chief minister’s term – became the party’s best poll ally.

The Congress, which has often been the main opposition party to compete in Gujarat’s two-party contest, had to provide a better alternative to this “glorious past-present” campaign to punch holes in the campaign narrative of the BJP, which it miserably failed to do.

Even in random conversations with semi-urban and rural voters, the mention of the Congress as a credible party alternative to the BJP was hardly mentioned. The Grand Old Party seems not only out of place but also out of plans to stand any credible chance to win back people’s confidence.

In fact, the AAP, which did seem to have projected its own ‘personality of cult’ contest – between Kejriwal’s politics of welfare and the incumbent BJP’s recent governance track-record a few months before the election –  significantly dented into the Congress (vote-bank) strongholds within Gujarat.

Regionally though, as Neelanjan Sircar himself pointed out, the spatial distribution of votes for AAP does offer a ray of hope for the party, but a lot would have to be done by its cadre and local organisational networks to make serious inroads over the next five years, if it wants to present a strong challenge to BJP next time.

Not reading too much into the Congress’s Himachal Victory

In the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, it might be better not to read too much into the state’s electoral results as a probable positive for the Congress’ overall party position – either as a major national party that may threaten the BJP, or a party that may promise to continue holding a strong ground in the state it has just won.

Yes, Congress’s local organisation networks, being more robust in/across the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, worked well in tandem to fight the growing resentment against the BJP and its chief minister in the state due to issues of high inflation, poor jobs, ineffective covid-related relief provided to a badly hit tourism-revenue dependent state.

But Himachal Pradesh has traditionally voted out one party government to vote in another almost after every election over the past 20 years.

To say Congress won in the state because of the emergence of an ‘alternative ideology’ or a different ‘way of doing politics’ (something Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra may aim to do) will be to miss the point completely – one needs to explain/view its victory in HP more from an anti-incumbency factor than anything else.

Another key question arises: Do these state-results have any signalling effect for the upcoming 2024 national polls?

The answer to this (difficult) question may perhaps lie between a “maybe” and a “no”.

Since it is extremely difficult, quite often limited, analytical effort to predict anything in Indian politics, especially in mapping what happens in a state-election to a national-level election, still, being cautiously observant of what’s happening, it can be said that there is no clear opposition party (or face) present at the moment to fight BJP’s macro-politics of centralisation, backed with the support of voters’ vicharheen vishwaas in Modi and the BJP’s current (majoritarian) ideological disposition.

There are key lessons to be drawn though, from the recent elections for both, the Indian political opposition, and the ruling establishment winning streak:

a) For the Indian National Congress (INC), its failure to realise its own shortcomings remains baffling. It continues to function as a party clinging to grand old illusory bubbles while facing serious internal problems, a lack of local organisational networks inspiring party-cadre, an acute leadership crisis, and a lost cause-face. It’s total decimation, state after state, is likely to make the BJP stronger as a decadal alternative and its politics of centralisation (and ideological mobilisation) may well become the norm going forward (in some ways it already is);

b) For new parties like the AAP, its lack of ideology is its biggest strength and weakness. Beyond urban voters in certain state-level elections where the party contests, its projected of ‘politics of welfare’ built on better schooling, healthcare and cheap power will require a lot more evidence of lived experience to convince voters. AAP’s presence in the Kutch area of Gujarat, cutting into Congress votes, may appear to be a welcome sign for the party, but how well it does from hereon – in Gujarat’s rural and semi urban belts, and in its own state-assemblies like Punjab – will shape the party’s future electoral probability; and

c) For now, for the ruling establishment, the politics of vicharheen vishwaas and the cult of Modi, combined with a weakened opposition, may continue to chariot the BJP bandwagon and the party’s majoritarian agenda not only in 2024, but, perhaps much deeper into the next decade of India’s electoral political landscape-at least till the time Modi’s persona continues to dominate BJP’s electoral narrative.

Deepanshu Mohan is director of the Centre for New Economics Studies, OP Jindal University.