One factor stands out in the verdict of the 2019 general election — the ringing endorsement of a single leader, Narendra Modi. It was Mr Modi all the way except in some states of the South where his party, the BJP, has no presence and where his Hindi oratory is ineffectual. Across the rest of India, the voters wanted someone who made them feel secure. No one else inspired similar trust — not Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, N. Chandrababau Naidu, K. Chandrasekhar Rao and not even a Sharad Pawar.
What were the fears driving the voter and where did they originate? The structural origins of these fears can be traced to the less than robust liberal revolution that India experienced over the past seven decades. The liberal push in India led to a forced restructuring of society through an ever-expanding agitation for granting special rights not only to dalits, tribals, minorities and the other backward classes, but also to women, the disabled, gays and transgenders. Such restructuring was not very successful, nor consistent, yet it threatened traditional social, cultural, religious hierarchies.
The liberal reshaping of India was resisted at every step. Counter-revolutionary social forces were always waiting in the wings. They took various forms from the periodic cow protection agitations led by sadhus to the movement for the destruction of the Babri Masjid and construction of a Ram Temple at the site, to the lynching of cow traders and beef-eaters.
The counter-revolution against the liberal push did not always have a religious form. Initially, the failed experiment of the Swatantra Party was also tried.
However, its most persistent form was the Hindu nationalist parties that evolved from the Hindu Mahasabha, the Praja Parishad and the Jan Sangh into the BJP. The Swatantra Party failed because it posited itself as purely a right-wing alternative to Nehru’s liberal and socialist vision. Today, the BJP combines far-right positions on the economy with populism and Hindu majoritarianism.
To say that Rahul Gandhi was no match for Mr Modi begs the real question. Rahul Gandhi and the OBC parties offered the protection and continuation of an evolving liberal vision. They may have different perspectives and horizons of operationalising this vision, but they were broadly for the ongoing expansion of the rights of marginalised sections of society. This election was against that vision in all its forms.
The counter-revolution taps into fear. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tapped into the fears that the liberals aroused. First and foremost, he tapped into the fear of the Hindu majority that they were being marginalised in their “own country” and their privileges were shrinking because of the expanded rights of others. The latter was addressed directly by Prime Minister Modi by announcing a 10 per cent job quota for the upper castes.
He probably knew that his pronouncement that a Hindu could never be terrorist may sound like pure rhetoric, but it assuaged many of his listeners that their religion was better than others and it was time that other religious communities recognised it.
The fear that Hindu cultural and religious institutions were being ignored by was addressed by Prime Minister Modi through a variety of means — from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organising dharm sansads (“religious parliament”) and the government sponsoring the Ardh Kumbh religious celebrations at Prayagraj into a mega-event, where he himself took a much-publicised early morning dip, and occupying media space on the last voting day with his display of religiosity at the Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines.
By constantly rubbishing the metropolitan elite, his wordsmiths consistently coined new phrases to denigrate and criminalise them (Lutyens’ gang, Half-Maoists, Urban Naxals, Khan Market gang, etc), and Prime Minister Modi tapped into the fear that the system was being manipulated to partisan ends by a small urban elite. By constantly hammering that Indian liberals were friends of Pakistan (and therefore anti-national), he created the fear that they not only underestimated Islamic terror, but by speaking out for the minorities, starting a dialogue with Kashmiri leaders or better relations with Pakistan, they encouraged terrorism. On the eastern borders of India, he heightened the existing anxiety about Muslim illegal immigrants (potential recruits for Islamic terror) outnumbering Hindus and promised citizenship to Hindu immigrants. Many of these fears exist historically across India, especially because of the lingering trauma of Partition.
While this was not by any means a revolt of the subalterns from small towns and villages of India against a privileged liberal urban elite, the anti-intellectualism through which the spirit of fear was stoked has an air of provinciality about it. The way he successfully sold raw common sense over educated and informed analysis was epitomised by his now-controversial statement on how clouds would help aircraft avoid detection by enemy radar. He became the last bulwark against the tide of irreligious, irreverent and haughty liberalism, and the “Chowkidar chor hai” campaign did not quite take off as he was seen as a victim of unjust condemnation. Most important, he projected himself as someone who stood firmly for opening up the political sphere by resisting dynastic politics.
In the end, it did not matter to the voter that his fight against terrorism went hand in hand with massive intelligence failures. It did not matter to the rest of India that under his rule, the killing of youngsters in Kashmir increased, leading to both more recruits to terrorist organisations and greater local sympathy for extremist politics. Prime Minister Modi managed to present these failures as a nation at war with terrorism and his “valour” in defending India by the bombing of Balakot.
In the end, he did not need to promote a better India in this election. He offered consolation and reassurance to Indians through his hyper-masculine persona. He promised a continuing retreat from a fussy, moral and political liberalism that he managed to portray as ineffective, effeminate and infantile. The counter-revolution he led can result in a tectonic shift in Indian politics.