After a first visit to Dhaka several years ago, a Singaporean diplomat told me that Bangladesh would forge ahead sooner than India because it is ethnically and culturally homogenous. If that is truly an advantage, India may be said to have caught up with the present Lok Sabha election results suggesting an affirmation of the Hindu identity of 73 per cent of Indian voters. But at what cost to social harmony?
This might be an over-simplification. Each state has its own dynamics in this land of diversity and dissent. As used to be said in England, one Indian meant a political party, two Indians meant a party and an opposition, and three indicated a split or defection. Moreover, voters don’t base their decision on a single reason. Many factors are taken into account. Some cancel others. Some may have a modifying effect. Some supplement other reasons. But there are certain overwhelming considerations that dwarf all other factors, and that is where things like identity and security matter at least as much as jobs or corruption.
Undeniably, the Congress put up a good fight. But it didn’t start early enough and it didn’t devote enough attention and resources to building up a nationwide network of party cadres. I am not sure either that the Nehru-Gandhi heritage was entirely an asset since it gave critics a handle and an excuse for cheap jibes. The Congress needed to work extra hard as it was pitted against a Prime Minister who is probably the most astute tactician we have ever seen and who is probably less burdened with scruples than any other Indian politician. Narendra Modi even cleverly twisted Rahul Gandhi’s “Chowkidar Chor Hai” slogan to his own advantage. The four points that Mr Gandhi tried to hammer home — jobs, agrarian distress, the economic slump in general and corruption as allegedly reflected in the Rafale deal — were valid in themselves. They should have ceaselessly been hammered home by every Congress activist in the land. Instead, the Congress seems to have given up in state after state as it gave up in Tamil Nadu in 1967 after the DMK’s C.N. Annadurai replaced M. Bhaktivatsalam, who succeeded K. Kamaraj. Even the issues that the Congress posed, though valid in a normal electoral contest, lacked the emotional appeal of the security issue that the Pulwama tragedy threw into Narendra Modi’s lap. When a TV anchor suggested that Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress had vandalised the bust of the social reformer, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, in Kolkata during Amit Shah’s turbulent roadshow, in order to mobilise Bengali opinion against the BJP, I retorted that he might as well accuse the BJP of staging the Pulwama massacre to unite the country behind the Prime Minister against Jammu and Kashmir terrorists and their sponsors and mentors in Pakistan. These are questions that must remain unanswered. But there is no denying that no political leader until now has harnessed the military into his campaign as Mr Modi did over the much-talked-of surgical strike in Pakistan. Nor has any political leader so flamboyantly distracted attention from all the other candidates and focused it entirely on himself.
Call it presidential if you like, but this was Mr Modi’s election. It appealed to the monarchical instinct in Indians who may boast of running the world’s largest democracy, but are far from democratic in instinct and practice. The spectacle of Mr Modi in showy attire spewing bombast might offend discerning viewers but they are few in India. He presents an image that the hoi polloi laps up, not only in the Hindi belt but now also in states like West Bengal and Odisha that had previously resisted the saffron wave.
If the victory is to be shared with anyone, it has to be with Mr Shah, credited with many electoral strategies and presumably destined to take over the home portfolio in the next government. But Mr Modi’s stellar role was highlighted when his aged mother, a rustic Hindu widow in white, was trundled out in front of the crowd with the television cameras trained on her as she made a seemingly demure “namaste”. This could not have happened without her son’s explicit sanction. Had it been left to the media, they would have probably produced his wife. Since that didn’t happen for obvious reasons, his mother’s appearance, however brief, emphasised the personal nature of Mr Modi’s victory. It was the monarchical link again.
The task of the future — and this is something that no matter how great its majority, the BJP needs to appreciate as much as the Opposition — is to ensure a sense of balance. Nearly 200 million Muslims can’t be brushed under the carpet, or brushed into the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. When Atal Behari Vajpayee spoke of “coalition dharma”, he touched on a principle that the National Democratic Alliance cannot afford to ignore if it wishes to rule by consensus. Nominating Pragya Singh Thakur, for instance, was not a healthy augury for the future. Giving Adityanath his head in Uttar Pradesh wouldn’t be a happy development either. Extremist factions must be restrained in the interests of overall progress.
True, the scale of the BJP’s victory might appear to entitle it to ride roughshod over minority susceptibilities on the road to creating a uniform national society. But the consequent social dislocation would hold back the economic progress India needs to make if it is not to lag behind Bangladesh as my Singaporean friend feared. For although Mr Modi has won a famous victory, that victory has not yet addressed the real task of national reconstruction that India so desperately needs. The BJP needs to create jobs, attend to agrarian distress, consider falling foreign direct investment and revitalise the moribund “Make in India” programme. His electoral triumph has provided Mr Modi the opportunity to take up some of the commitments in the Congress manifesto.