What can the recent state elections tell us about Indian democracy today?

‘The Indian election results do not show that Modi’s days are numbered’

Mike Bloomberg (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What do the results of these state elections say about the future of Mr. Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism?

‘Hindu nationalism and India cannot sit easy at the same table anymore’ writes Arjun Sharma (Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, KU Leuven) after the elections held for the legislative assemblies of the 28 states and 3 out of 8 union territories comprising the Indian union.

As COVID-19 devastates India, international media has heaped criticism on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which is dominated by his Hindu nationalist party — BJP. Critics have particularly questioned the wisdom of Mr. Modi’s, along with his Home Minister and the erstwhile president of the BJP, Amit Shah’s, decision to conduct large election rallies, attended by hundreds of thousands, in the Indian state of West Bengal. Along with West Bengal, two other states in the south of India, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, also concluded elections for their state legislative assemblies earlier this month.

What do the results of these state elections say about the future of Mr. Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism?

Given that the voting populations of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, approximate that of Germany, France, and Poland, respectively, their importance to democracy, not just in India, but globally, cannot be overstated. The elections held for the legislative assemblies of the 28 states and 3 out of 8 union territories comprising the Indian union, provide the best indicators of emerging trends in Indian politics.

What do the results of these state elections say about the future of Mr. Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism?

Religion cannot trump region… Not yet

Hindu is a complex and fluid identity. Compared to a Hindu in Kerala or Tamil Nadu, a Hindu in West Bengal speaks a different language, belongs to different sects, has different ideas about caste, and different taboos about eating, dressing, and living. Mr. Modi’s idea of Hindu nationalism considers this a problem. According to him, in the past, this diversity has meant that groups belonging to monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity have used their (supposed) natural unity to exploit Hindus.

Since he came into power in 2014, Mr. Modi has tried to unite diverse Hindu groups, by pitting them against Muslims, as well as those Indians who believe that diversity and pluralism are the strength of Indian democracy, and that one group, no matter how big numerically, should not impose its beliefs on another. BJP’s significant victories in the 2014 and the 2019 national elections, have made many in India and across the world believe that the country is on its way to becoming a majoritarian state like its neighbors Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

However, the post-2019 state elections, including the ones just concluded in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, have shown that the Bengalis and Tamils, and their counterparts in other regions, are not yet willing to accept the one-size-fits-all version of Hindu identity promoted by Mr. Modi. In Bengal, the incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee from the regional TMC party, successfully used her Bengali credentials and knowledge of Bengali history and customs to paint Mr. Modi’s BJP as outsiders. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, Mr. MK Stalin, the leader of DMK, a party with strong local roots, used its rival AIADMK’s association with the BJP to handily defeat it in the state elections.

Women and minority votes matter

BJP’s divisive electoral campaign strategy has also caused it to develop a blind spot where women voters are concerned. Mr. Modi seems to assume that women will vote the same as men. But evidence from state elections held in the recent past suggest that women in India are not only beginning to vote in larger numbers, but have agendas that are different and sometimes at odds with men.

No matter how strong the support a party may have among the majority Hindu population, minority votes still count.

Similar to the current campaign in West Bengal, fresh from his first victory in the 2014 national elections, Mr. Modi aggressively mobilized the BJPs electoral machine to capture the north Indian state of Bihar, in 2015. However, his opponent, Mr. Nitish Kumar, targeted women voters by providing them benefits such as free sanitary napkins in government-run schools, bicycles for young girls, and a 35% reservation in village and municipal level elected government bodies. Mr. Kumar also controversially agreed to impose an alcohol ban in the state, which several women’s groups were campaigning for. This proved to be an effective strategy as Mr. Kumar and his allies were able to retain their majority in the Bihar state assembly. In West Bengal, Mr. Modi’s rival, Mamata Banerjee, used similar programs to woo women voters, which has played out in her favour.

Leading up to the election, Ms. Banerjee also actively courted Muslims - who form 27% of the electorate in Bengal — by providing state funding for key Muslim community organizations. Muslims in India do not vote as a bloc, but in West Bengal, the openly hostile tone of Mr. Modi’s campaign drove them to vote in large numbers for his rival. Overall, Ms. Banerjee’s electoral success suggests that it is possible to split the Hindu vote along gender lines, and that no matter how strong a support a party may have among the majority Hindu population, minority votes still count.

Think local, act local

There is an assumption in Indian politics that a party or coalition that had been in power for one or two terms, will be automatically replaced by its rivals. This is because local politicians often over-promise and under-deliver. So the average voter replaces one with the other in the hope that the next one will be slightly better. The Kerala and West Bengal state elections seem to upend this assumption. In West Bengal, Ms. Banerjee’s party was fighting for the third term. In Kerala, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) retained power, which is the first time this has happened in forty years. Other than the two factors already mentioned, a third factor that emerged from the elections was the need to focus on local issues. In Kerala, voters rewarded the LDF for its successful grassroots level management of recent emergencies, including floods and the first wave of the Coronavirus, where the Kerala government managed to mitigate damage by being decisive and providing a safety net to vulnerable groups. In West Bengal, despite battling allegations of corruption and nepotism, Ms. Banerjee was able to gain voters’ confidence by ensuring that underperforming candidates were not allowed to seek reelection on TMC’s ticket.

It is also becoming clear that for average voters in India, a number of whom are still poor, the provision of basic services such as working drainage, electricity, cooking fuel, free meals at government schools, and even bicycles, is more attractive than the promise of ambitious infrastructure or large scale development programs. They are also more likely to forgive corruption and nepotism, if the government is able to deliver services at the local level. In the on-going phase of the pandemic, a large number of preventable deaths have been caused due to lack of basic health care services, such as assured oxygen supply. Similarly, during the first wave, poor migrant labourers suffered enormously during the draconian lockdown imposed by the government. It is safe to assume that these experiences will likely form part of the platform for parties in the 2022 national elections.

If Modi stays the course, he may go the way of Mr. Trump in the 2020 US elections.

In themselves, these trends do not mean that Mr. Modi’s and the BJP’s days are numbered. As a leading political strategist observed, to win national elections in India today one needs a face, a narrative, and a machine. Coronavirus notwithstanding, Mr. Modi still enjoys a significant advantage over his rivals as far as the first and third are concerned. With regards to the narrative, right now he wears two hats: one of a politician’s, and the other of a Hindu nationalist’s.

As a politician, Mr. Modi has almost forty years of experience working at all levels of Indian politics. He also has undeniable acumen and passion for his vocation. As he has done in the past, he can learn from the recent state elections and change his narrative and policy focus. But like his populist fellow travelers Trump and Bolsonaro, his narcissism and delusion are causing him to double down on his macho Hindu nationalist identity. If he stays the course, he may go the way of Mr. Trump in the 2020 US elections. Either way, Hindu nationalism and India cannot sit easy at the same table anymore.

Arjun Sharma is a postdoctoral researcher at Modernity and Society 1800-2000 (MoSa) and a senior research fellow at the Centre for Global Governance (CGGS), at KU Leuven.

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