NEW DELHI — The great Indian electoral war of 2019 ended with Narendra Modi securing a historic mandate to rule India for another five years. The divided opposition should not have expected anything better as it had no national narrative, no credible agenda and no alternative leadership to contain a colossal opponent like Modi.
It is ironic that in a parliamentary democracy like India, people have voted for the "leader" Modi, rather than members of parliament. No doubt, the president of his BJP party, Amit Shah displayed a shrewd strategy that helped secure this victory. Yet he still has a hyphenated identity —the "master strategist" has value as the "Modi-Shah combine," i.e. as an appendage to Modi rather than as an autonomous entity or propellant.
Further, the entire campaign was only about "NaMo" – as Modi is known — both on and off the ground. The BJP sought votes only in the name of Modi, even in social media campaigns like "nri4 Namo" to "academics4 namo." Thus, in a real sense, people have voted neither for their representatives, nor even for the BJP, but only for Narendra Modi.
What made matters even more difficult for the opposition is that the 2019 election was not only substantially presidential, but also significantly cultic. The Modi cult overshadowed every other political leader and political party, from his own to the opposition. It has also dominated every constitutional and democratic institution due to his sheer political weight. And now with resounding popular approval, this cult has been legitimized as all powerful.
The Modi cult — "Moditva" — which sprouted in Gujarat, harping on Hindutva and "Gujarati Asmita," came out of its regional cocoon in 2014 and was launched with fanfare in Varanasi, with the chanting of "Har Har Modi." Later, systematically crafting an enigmatic persona, with astute use of the media, it slowly acquired a large national following.
Using modern technologies of communication and governance, Prime Minister Modi reached out to a large national constituency, primarily Hindu, cutting across region, class, caste, and even gender. While he came to power with a narrative of development targeting the burgeoning aspirational class, particularly the youth, he went on to introduce a plethora of development schemes promising to bring changes in the lives of marginalized sections, the middle class, rural women and the urban poor. True, his economic misadventures like demonetization had disastrous effects on the nation's economy and on people's lives. Yet, he could overcome the negative economic fall-out politically, as many did not doubt his good intentions.
Modi is an incredible political campaigner.
While one side of the cult was shaped around development, the other side was a narrative on aggressive Hindu nationalism and national security: anti-terrorism, Pakistan, Kashmir, secularism, "appeasement," "tukde-tukde gang" and now, the latest, "Khan Market gang." Whenever the development narrative appeared weak for some reason, the cult did not face any setback as the latter side was too powerful to absorb any shock.
The main opposition Congress party, under Rahul Gandhi's leadership, tried to build a bold narrative to counter Modi. He tried to pin down Modi on the Rafale fighter jet deal, rising unemployment, farmers' distress and autonomy of institutions. This failed miserably as the moribund party organization, factionalism, and a trying leadership were no match to Modi and the BJP.
Modi is an incredible political campaigner. Though he follows a script, he can shift with precision the nature of discourse anytime if he anticipates adversity and a swing in public mood. Of course, he utilized the Pulwama terror attack to push his failings on the economic front into the background. His response to Pulwama — the Balakot airstrike — changed the entire discourse, making everything else less relevant for many. Nationalism became the mantra and the NaMo cult became unrivaled in many states. Modi's campaign on aggressive nationalism, national security, and anti-terrorism greatly convinced a large part of the electorate that only a strong leader like him could defend India's national interest.
Despite his cultic status, Modi did not take the people for granted, and worked hard to earn this huge win. He emerged as the only national leader as others look markedly provincial. The Congress has again failed to secure the requisite number seats needed to claim the status of Opposition in parliament. Similarly, the BJP also emerged as the only party with an extensive national outreach; the Congress again failed to open its account in more than half of the states. With such a scenario, all powers will obviously be concentrated with Narendra Modi. As critics have warned, this win is a death bell for Indian democracy. India, which is already divided, will be divided further. Modi will promote majoritarianism and undermine the constitution and all institutions which are meant to serve as checks and balances on the exercise of executive authority.
Modi acknowledges that this historic win bestows on him a great responsibility. As an astute politician, after victory, he has extended an olive branch to his opponents, and has asked his followers to accept this victory with all humility. He also knows his exalted status will be quickly compromised by the pursuit of a divisive agenda. Perhaps he understands that nationalism and divisiveness will not guarantee another victory if he fails to win the trust of the people by meeting their aspirations this time around.