BY: Pradeep K. Chhibber and Susan Ostermann
This election is the victory of a socially conservative, small-town ethos — one that most of India lives in.
Narendra Modi’s swearing-in certainly represents a vote for change by an aspirational India, but it is also more than that: his victory signals a turning of the tide in the ongoing struggle over the idea of India. With this election, the well-known notion of an enlightened India led by a Western-oriented urban elite has been overturned as Indians have voted to power politicians closer to their roots, politicians who represent small-town, socially conservative values.
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This is not a new struggle. It has been ongoing since Independence, and before. The election of a government led by a cultural Hindu nationalist, Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), combined with the electoral success of regional parties — the leaders of which run their states like strongmen — is a direct challenge to the notion of India that is often associated with an elite that sees India as secular, liberal and discrete in its use of raw political power.
The secular challenge is most widely known. It stems from the history of the BJP, its and Modi’s ties to Hindu nationalist groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the riots against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 that occurred when Modi was the chief minister of that state. These facts lend some credence to claims that the rise of a Modi-led BJP will lead to the resurgence of a Hindu right that will marginalise religious minorities — Muslims, in particular — promote social conservatism and, sometimes literally, rewrite history.
The outcome of the 2014 general election in India also challenges the liberal idea of India. The parties that voters have elected into office — the BJP and the many regional parties that now have more seats collectively than the Congress party — represent a different vision of India, one that is socially conservative, business-friendly and unabashed in its use of political power. This social conservatism, coupled with more business-friendly government, has deep historical roots. It was a small but powerful part of the Congress party at Independence in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, favoured a more liberal, plural, and socialist vision. This was challenged from within the Congress party by the more socially and economically conservative nationalist vision of Sardar Patel who, like Modi, hailed from the state of Gujarat and was responsible for merging the many princely states in British India into the Indian state, often through coercion and/ or force.
Sukhamoy Chakravarti, a doyen among Indian economists, has written that Nehru did not want economic development led by the private sector because it could have accrued greater power to Patel. This debate reappeared in the late 1960s when the “Syndicate,” in which Morarji Desai was a key player, lost to Indira Gandhi. Gujarati conservatism has a long lineage in Indian politics and not surprisingly Modi, in his recent campaign, has deliberately adopted the mantle of Sardar Patel. It is Patel’s brand of socially conservative and aggressive nationalism — not that of another Gujarati, M.K. Gandhi — that serves as Modi’s model.
But Patel’s social conservatism is not the only reason Modi has chosen him as his ideological guru. Patel also favoured the decisive use of political power and the fact that Modi presents himself as a strong leader challenges the tradition Indian politicians have adopted of being discrete in their use of political power. Modi’s speeches on the campaign trail have been noteworthy because of their aggressive tone, presenting him as a decisive leader who does not shy away from disparaging others, notably the Congress party’s Gandhi dynasty. The idea of a muscular leader, a leader who takes quick and firm decisions and is not necessarily inclusive, plays well in small-town and rural India, which is deeply socially conservative and values strong leadership, not least because this is what it is accustomed to. Violence in these areas is an acceptable political currency.
Indeed, all of the regional parties that have done well in these elections are headed by local politicians (Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad) who share important traits with Modi — they are socially conservative. All these regional politicians are associated with the unabashed use of power as the currency of politics. The newly assertive small town and rural India does not nod to institutional politics in the same way that the urban elite does. In turn, this suave urban elite, which has thus far dominated the intellectual discourse in India, often looks down upon the often less well-educated, seemingly less sophisticated small-town politicians. The Congress and the urban elite are deeply disturbed by the tone of Modi’s campaign, but the English language “chatterati” seems to forget that it is a tone that resonates in small town and rural India and has now met with indisputable electoral success.
In celebrating India’s democracy, those in Delhi often overlook the fact that at the local level politics remains violent. While national elections are, by and large, free of this type of coercion, local elections are certainly not.
Even the communists stayed in power in the Indian state of West Bengal by means of local-level manipulation and force. Thus, it is fair to say that this election marks the victory of an India that has persisted in the face of the accommodating and deliberative democracy purveyed by India’s liberal, Westernised elite. Though the elite would rather not acknowledge the bulk of the Indian population, a population, which is socially conservative and continues to dwell in small towns and rural areas where political power is exercised freely and often without constraint, a liberal democratic process has now forced them to do so.
This is a triumph of electoral democracy and not a failure, in that it has finally brought the majority to power, however rural and socially conservative they may be. For the first time in Indian history, a local politician, Narendra Modi, has successfully led a national campaign. However much the Indian urban intellectuals would like to disassociate the two, a liberal process and its conservative ends, India’s recent election serves as yet another reminder that democracy does not necessarily privilege liberal ideas and can just as capably provide political openings for conservative ones.
The writers are at the Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkley, US