What does nationalism mean in the context of Indian elections today? How are different social groups responding to the BJP’s rhetoric on nationalism? To what extent do economic issues impact the way people vote? How is social media shaping ideas and political behaviour? In this Explained Conversation held before the first phase of voting for the new Lok Sabha, veteran analyst and professor of politics Suhas Palshikar explained a range of issues and questions around the elections to The Indian Express editors Harish Damodaran and Ravish Tiwari, and a select group of the newspaper’s readers.
On whether the discourse around the economy will have an impact on the Indian election at a time when tensions with Pakistan are high; in the US, for example, Bush Sr lost to Clinton even after the Gulf War, the principal reason being the economy:
Yes, it will, and the Prime Minister seems to be arguing also that his government has done well on the economic front. The deciding factor would be the actual experience that voters have gone through in these past five years, whether they think that the government has delivered on the ‘Achchhe Din’ promise. In fact, polls have found that the popularity of both the Prime Minister and the government have fallen since early 2018. When asked the open-ended question ‘What is the country’s biggest problem?’, the answers were overwhelmingly related to the economy, unemployment being an example.
But there’s a caveat: questions regarding the economy can be trumped by the nationalist argument and a personality cult. The government being unsure of how effectively it would be able to convince voters of the success of its economic policy, would turn to non-economic factors. Until the [February 26] Balakot strikes, I believed that the paramount consideration for voters was the state of the economy.
Also, it is important to note that when we say that the economy matters, it is actually the perception of the economy that matters. It is the perception, and not objective data, which makes the difference. Both the government and opposition are mistaken if they think they can only rely on objective data to convince voters.
The end of the Modi government’s long honeymoon period, which survived even demonetisation, was spelt by an unfavourable perception of how things were going, and not by communal questions or incidents of lynching. It is the lived experience of the voter that is the most important.
On whether there is a parallel between the elections of 2019 and 2004, when too the opposition did not enjoy much credibility, and not many jobs had been generated; on whether Narendra Modi has something that Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not:
In 2004, surveys asked BJP voters whether they would vote for the party if Vajpayee was not on the ticket. Only 6% said that they would not vote for the BJP if Vajpayee was not the candidate. In striking contrast, 25% in 2014 said that it was the Modi factor that led them to vote for the party. It is indeed remarkable how this personality cult has been built. The efforts made to this end over the last five years have been unprecedented, and it is difficult to compare them even with those made by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s.
At the same time, as compared with today, the BJP was much weaker organizationally in 2004, as Vajpayee was too liberal to control the party in a top-down fashion.
On whether opposition parties would unite against the BJP over issues, as they did in 1977 or 1989:
There are reasons why opposition parties are not openly joining forces (against the BJP).
First, at this point of time, individual parties would want to expand their reach, and not give a chance to other rivals. For instance, the Congress, SP, and BSP would refrain from coming together (for the long term), even though the latter two have (done so for the Lok Sabha elections).
Second, it is noteworthy that while people today nurse a certain amount of dissatisfaction towards Modi, they are not completely disgusted with him. Grand coalitions happen only when people are completely disgusted by the party in power, and are waiting for a chance to throw it out. The Opposition should thus postpone the question of an alliance to after the elections. If the BJP lacks the numbers then, these parties can come together at that time to keep Mr Modi out of power.
It must also be taken into account that the BJP is now becoming a dominant all-India party. It is also becoming a hegemonic party in the sense that it is building the capacity to convince its voters that despite its flaws, the BJP is the only alternative. With the tremendous publicity campaign of the past five years, the party has been able to construct an image, which could persuade the people to vote for them.
On whether disenchanted farmers and the youth seeking jobs can still be convinced using cultural and nationalistic issues:
As opposed to economic problems, emotional issues always have a greater propensity to attract voters across social classes. We have seen that nationalism has been raised as an issue since 2014 not by the Opposition but by this government itself. There is now an understanding that nationalism means BJP, as people start believing that this is the only party that speaks of nationalism.
By constantly calling your opponents “anti-national” in order to win elections, you underscore a certain equation: that whenever there is a question of nationalism, we (the BJP) are there, and that the voter need not look elsewhere.
We have also been doing a study in over 21 states on politics and society in the period in between elections, in order to understand how people think about important issues in the absence of electoral fervour. We have seen from our data that while there are variations among states on emotive issues such as the slogan ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, there seems to a consensus emerging around the country over the mainstream Hindi-Hindu heartland fervour, with Kerala and Tamil Nadu being the outliers. Large numbers of respondents across states answered in the affirmative when asked whether the government should punish those who eat beef. The current government has been able to construct this cultural consensus.
A strong majoritarian culture had begun to emerge even before Modi came to power, between 2004 and 2014. But one in two are now amenable to appeals of nationalism as opposed to one in three earlier. Nationalism now means a personal identification with the leader. If the leader becomes the nation and nationalism its basis, voters express themselves by voting for the leader.
On whether this trend exists across castes, community groups, generations, and rural and urban divides; whether castes such as, say, the Marathas think of nationalism while voting, going beyond traditional agrarian issues:
Our generalized understanding leads us to believe that rural folk are more rooted. However, the urban-rural divide does not operate this way. The government’s campaign has had a penetrating effect, and even a gender divide in opinion does not seem to appear.
Caste does operate to the extent that the Adivasis still seem to keep away from this rhetoric. Whether decidedly or because of ignorance, we do not know, since several responses from them record ‘Don’t Know’. The SCs and STs are less keen to subscribe as well. In progressive circles, upper castes are bashed for all the ills facing the country. In fact, the middle peasantry communities are the ones subscribing to this rhetoric.
The links between data gathered show that the reason behind this is the state of the economy. Because one is so distressed economically, refuge has to be sought behind such ideological positions and ideas. Communities caught between the rich-poor argument find it much more necessary for their survival to go towards this kind of rhetoric.
I do not see the BJP as an upper caste party. 33% of the BJP’s voters today are upper caste, but 39% are OBC. The BJP would never have come to power, even in the 1990s, if not for the OBC vote. As far as choosing Chief Ministers is concerned, inner-party dynamics are involved. The caste of an individual CM is a very limiting sociological analysis. It is interesting and useful, but I would not play it too much in analyzing the BJP.
The difference between the 1980s (when Jat Sikhs who could not transition to a better economic future began to see the Indian state as the enemy) and now is that you did not at that time (in the 1980s) have such strong rhetoric coming from the government. Indira Gandhi tried to an extent, but it worked against her. The communities in question right now do not necessarily believe in the government, but it is the rhetoric that is binding them.
On whether a course correction is required in the light of the significant changes that have been brought in by new technological factors like social media, and whether the elections could themselves provide that opportunity:
Social media is expanding rapidly, and becoming the first point of receiving information. There are WhatsApp groups, which spread certain prejudices or even a sense of pride in a particular community. Communities are coming up with their own traditions and narratives. This dual levelling, first of the possibility of accessing information, and the second of being able to articulate, is becoming a major development in the construction of what we describe as the ‘public’, and its ideas.
It is not just newspapers and their readers who matter now, it is also those connected with social media, which has made vast amounts of information accessible to large masses, while also producing new prejudices, and attenuated new stereotypes. Stereotypes about Muslims, for instance, get circulated far more easily today than they would have a few years ago.
Technology by itself is neutral. It empowers you in a certain manner. Whenever the rawness in the minds of the people is likely to surface, it becomes the task in a democracy of its parties or the organized political structure, as well as the leadership, to steer the country in a way in which this rawness transforms itself into the possibility of a public conversation. The distance between shouting and conversation has to be bridged. It will not be bridged on its own; it has to be bridged by an external agency called politics. This is where our politics is failing. Instead of bridging this gap, our politics is capitalising on this gap, making use of it, and surviving on this gap itself.
I am not blaming only one party, although one party in particular is definitely doing this much more than the others. This is a larger failure of politics. There is always a sub-stratum of rawness in public opinion, which has to be converted into something more humane, civilized, and conversational, and that is where a closure is seen in our politics.
Elections by themselves have a very limited corrective mechanism. Because elections are after all like going to restaurants — the menus are pre-set. Voters cannot collectively go and say that they want better politics and order something better, which is not offered on the menu. Our politics, even during elections or otherwise, does not think about expanding this menu.
On whether, and to what extent, governance matters:
Governance is a term coined by the World Bank in the late 1990s, aiming to describe how institutions are functioning. Talking about governance has become important suddenly because the World Bank says it is important. In the Indian context, the way democracy here has evolved over the years, emotive issues still remain, and our political parties therefore, do not bring governance issues to the centre of electoral competition.
If good governance or government means that institutions perform and governments deliver, we can say that both of these things do not happen. In the global South, institutions cannot perform, and governments deliver in fits. I ridicule the term ‘governance’ because, once you look at the global North-South divide, the gap between the expectations of performance on one hand and the availability of recourses on the other is so vast that this kind of slippage of ‘governance’ is bound to happen. Therefore, the global North telling us that we are failing on this count smacks of cultural imperialism.
Democracy by itself is highly complex. Force can be exerted by leaders, or forces can act upon leaders themselves; these leaders then convert it into rhetoric. How this rhetoric is perceived depends on where you are located in the society.
(Edited excerpts from the Conversation. Transcribed by Om Marathe)
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