Indian Politics: — Modi Returns!

Image Credit: Reuters

by Nilofar Suhrawardy 25 May 2019

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s stunning victory in Indian parliamentary elections marking return of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister have raised apprehensions of it spelling danger signals for Indian secularism as well as democracy. Undeniably, Modi’s term, from 2014 to present, has been marked by saffronization of certain institutions and targeting of minorities as well as secular Indians. Saffronization refers to attempts made by right-winged Hindu extremists, known as saffron brigade, to spread their communal drive in the name of promoting their aims of converting India into a Hindu state. A simple illustration of this was fervor displayed to change names of places and roads linked with Muslim celebrities with names associated with Hinduism. In addition, rise in targeting Muslims, allegedly for using cow-meat, cannot be side-lined. The latter are known as cow-lynching cases. Cow is viewed as a religious animal by Hindus and its slaughter is legally banned in India. There have been cases of Hindu extremists resorting to communal violence against Muslims on mere suspicion of their using cows illegally. 

Clearly, there prevails the fear that Modi’s return is likely to encourage the same elements to continue their communal drive with greater fervor. There is yet another side to this bitter truth. It cannot be ignored, these incidents have not escaped media’s attention, nationally and at the global level. Also, opposition voiced against targeting of minorities, through cow-lynching and other incidents, bears a definite secular stance. Presence of Hindus in demonstrations and other functions opposing communal drive of saffron brigade has outnumbered that of Muslims by around 90 percent. This point has been deliberately made to state that Modi’s return does not spell turning of the entire Indian community into anti-Muslim extremists. If this was really the case, India would not have been home to even a percent of minorities’ population. India has the second largest population of Muslims, with Indonesia taking the lead.

This also demands deliberation on communication strategy exercised by Modi and his party to ensure BJP’s return to power. It is worth noting that though attempt was made by saffron brigade and its communal associates to play on the Ayodhya-card, they were forced to abandon it as an electoral tool. Ayodhya-card refers to plan of Hindu extremists to build a temple at the site where there was once a mosque. The mosque was demolished on 6th December 1992 by Hindu extremists. Since then, the dispute has not been resolved as yet. Late last year, several functions were held at Ayodhya (a town in Uttar Pradesh), with extremists pronouncing their plans to build a temple at the disputed site at the earliest possible. The common Indians rejected their plans, describing them as nothing but an electoral gimmick. The reality that noise was made over the dispute just towards the end of Modi’s term in office did not escape people’s attention. If temple was really the key issue, why didn’t the same leaders talk about it earlier, asked Indians in general.

Clearly, the preceding points suggest that Modi was well aware of the limited appeal of communal card for the people as an electoral tool. This is further substantiated by his decision to don the secular mask while campaigning for 2014 parliamentary tools. Undeniably, he chose not to don the secular mask for his recent campaign. In fact, the difference in the communication strategy exercised by Modi and his team during 2014 and 2019 polls needs to be taken note of. In 2014, Modi fought from two constituencies. In all probability, earlier, Modi was not too confident about his and/or his party’s victory. Here, it may be pointed out that opinions have been voiced about tampering of EVMs (electronic voting machines) as being responsible for this victory. Whatever is credibility of these elections, the electoral verdict has been pronounced and now begins the real test. The hard reality is that “people’s judgment” cannot but be accepted and now it is pertinent to pay greater attention to strengthen secular and democratic spirit of India the country and Indians, the national community.

Seriously speaking, whatever reservations be entertained about the new government, several hard-hitting facts cannot be ignored. Prospects of Modi returning to power were strong. It is a different question that BJP has won a much greater number of seats and votes than expected. The issue of BJP’s victory resting on the party having gained seats by a marginal number of votes also does not bear merit. Against the backdrop of turn-out of voters during these elections in comparison to their past turn-out, this factor also lacks strength in deliberating over failure of anti-BJP parties. The turn-out has been described as higher than in previous elections. Statistical analyses of these factors cannot and does not question the massive mandate secured by BJP. Considering that hype initially raised about Modi-wave had begun to fade and even media had started displaying lesser importance than before to his image, it is imperative to deliberate on how did he succeed? It is equally important to briefly refer to where did his key rivals err?

Clearly, BJP’s electoral campaign, marked by its advertisements, paid maximum attention to one and only factor that India had no choice but to elect Modi again. This issue may have had limited impact if the campaign had not paid attention to two key issues. One, was its anti-Pak stance, with Modi almost all prepared for a war with the neighboring country. Secondly, undue emphasis was given to Modi’s government having accomplished what was not achieved in preceding 70 years. These two points seem to have totally brain-washed voters who decided to vote for BJP. Convinced by these points, they chose to push economic grievances caused by this government, including demonetization, to the back-burner. And herein is where Congress-campaign and that of other rival parties failed.

During its campaign, Congress did refer to negative impact of Modi’s policy of demonetization. However, the party leaders failed to pay substantial attention to accomplishments of their party when it led the central government. Also, the party did not pay due attention to anti-Pak rhetoric of BJP. The greater part of Congress-campaign laid stress on its promises for the future. It seems, Congress leaders seemed convinced by substantial media coverage accorded to their campaigns. Media certainly earned publicity for Congress leaders. However, as results indicate, the same was not translated into votes. Also, with respect to electoral claims of Congress, let us accept it, people have considerably ceased being taken for a ride by whatever is promised by politicians in the electoral-race. Modi had a definite reason not to repeat his promise of “better days” (achche din), which was partly responsible for his 2014 victory. Prospects of it having any appeal for the people during the present phase were extremely limited. He was apparently well-aware of this and chose not to touch on the same rhetoric.

Modi’s victory in these elections is not symbolic of history being repeated. He was given a chance in 2014. This time, he has been brought back to power. His return rests, as mentioned earlier, on BJP campaign having considerably brainwashed voters into believing that they had no option but to vote for Modi. This communication strategy also included targeting Congress leaders, including late prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were also not spared. In fact, even before campaign-frenzy had picked up, the word was spread about Rahul being a “weak” leader. Anti-Rajiv campaign surfaced towards the end. This helped in promoting campaign in favor of Modi.

Clearly, BJP’s communication strategy about convincing people of Congress leaders being of no competition to Modi had begun being worked upon at the ground level for quite some time. Campaign of other anti-BJP parties, including Congress, had picked up pace only recently. Also, it cannot be ignored that though a lot of noise was made earlier about an anti-BJP grand alliance, this failed to bring all opposition parties to one platform. This may be partly because they paid little attention to communication strategies being worked upon by BJP leaders.  This is where Congress leaders and other anti-BJP parties faltered miserably. It is not simply the question of their communication strategies having failed. They focused primarily on their strategies but little on countering attempts made by BJP to brainwash voters. The last point suggests that though hype raised about Modi being the only “strong” leader is responsible for BJP’s return to power with him as prime minister for the second-term, the whole process cannot be described as a one-man show. Democratically, BJP’s victory with Modi at helm has been made possible because of the majority being brainwashed into displaying their electoral support for him and his party.

It is as yet too early to state that BJP’s victory rests on its having secured the Hindu-vote. This point can be debated upon endlessly. However, in brief, the fact that majority of anti-BJP parties are dominated by Hindus erases notions being floated about BJP’s victory spelling polarization of votes along religious lines. This is the era of communication boom and greater attention needs to be paid communication strategies which have succeeded as well as failed in unfolding of the present electoral drama in India!