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What voters are saying through BJP’s poll wins

Suhas Palshikar writes: In terms of structure of competition, India’s polity is deep into the framework of single-party dominance

Written by Suhas Palshikar |
Updated: March 12, 2022 12:35:19 pm
In terms of structure of competition, India’s polity is deep into the framework of single-party dominance. (C R Sasikumar)

It might take time for any analysis to approach a semblance of being comprehensive, but nothing can hide the comprehensiveness of the BJP’s success — and of the Congress’s complete failure — in the results of the assembly elections in five states. A similar comprehensiveness also marks the AAP’s success in Punjab. In the days to come, there will be a search for multiple factors, which may have influenced voters from different social backgrounds, and state-wise explanations of the outcome to complete the jigsaw puzzle that election outcomes often are.

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Results from the five states may be explained by two standard templates. It could be said that the electorate was “misled” or misguided by the BJP, barring in Punjab. This would involve a critique of the BJP campaign. On the other hand, it could be said that the BJP won riding on its governance record, including its welfare measures. This argument would ignore both the ideological assault by the BJP and the many limitations of its governance model. Both these arguments will surely possess an element of truth and yet miss the larger dimensions of these outcomes.

The dramatic victory of the AAP in Punjab, the dismal performance of the Congress and the decent showing by the BJP indicate that over and above complex templates of analysis, there is something simpler that needs to be stated and re-stated: In terms of structure of competition, India’s polity is deep into the framework of single-party dominance. Such is the dominance of the BJP that its politics of misguiding the electorate resonates with the voters and its limited achievements in the field of welfare provisioning constitute the centrepiece of its governance record.

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To grasp the significance of these outcomes, it is necessary to keep at a distance these temptingly plausible explanations. They surely have a certain explanatory value. But the larger point which should not be missed is about the fundamental shift that the BJP has been able to bring about. As this writer has been repeatedly arguing, the rise of the BJP in 2014 marked the rise of a new political culture in the making. With almost every election and every political controversy, this new culture is more clearly on display. No interpretation of an electoral outcome, therefore, would be complete without taking into consideration this new political culture.

There are at least three key aspects of this shift in the political culture of contemporary India. One, the average Hindu voter today appears more favourably inclined than ever to become part of a politically mobilised pro-Hindutva mass of voters. The BJP, over the past decade, has repeatedly displayed its ability to shape effective voter polarisation on the basis of religious identity. If one were not to be carried away by campaign claims about good governance and instead track the continuous and low-volume communal rhetoric appealing to Hindus to politically organise as Hindus, particularly against Muslims, it would be clear that in most states, a large chunk of the voters would be swayed by Hindutva.

Two, voters are willing to consider leadership and personality as the most important factors in making their political choices and determining their opinions on contentious issues. The BJP has taken the leadership factor or the personality cult to a new level. Voters are most likely now to perceive governmental authority in the form of the leader. Since 2014, the emphasis on personality and the audacious claim of “Modi hai toh mumkin hai (Anything is possible if Modi is there)” has meant that everything the governments achieve or claim to have achieved is invariably linked to the persona of Modi. While this is not the first time that we have seen such politics, the extent of the current claims and their durability surpasses not just state-level personality cults but also pushes into insignificance the efforts of Indira Gandhi to project herself as the saviour of the poor. As we continue to witness the marvels of Modi’s personality cult, a more systematic study of personalised authority under him is yet to happen. As such, the extraordinary shift this has brought to the game of electoral competition can only be imagined for the time being.

Both these factors have helped the BJP in overcoming the many shortcomings, particularly its monumental mishandling of the pandemic during the second wave. Once the electorate is deeply divided on religious basis and once the voters are convinced of the extraordinary powers and sincerity of The Leader, governance failures can be easily overlooked — in fact, their occurrence can be simply rejected as opposition canard. It is no wonder then that whether in UP or in Uttarakhand, voters chose not to be concerned about what happened during the pandemic or during a natural disaster. Hindutva mobilisation and personalised imagination of authority thus operate as an insurance against misgovernance.

Three, increasingly, voters are willing to endorse a proactive police state as protecting the national interest rather than demanding an institutionally moderated exercise of state powers. During the past eight years, the meanings of governance and statecraft have been entirely transformed. Extensive and consistent use of the repressive arm of the state have marked the polity. A truly hard and harsh state has been unleashed. What is more significant is that public opinion has uncritically upheld this avatar of the state. This point particularly helps us understand why the many accusations against the UP CM of being high-handed never cut much ice with the public.

Seen in the context of this three-pronged shift, which, of course, has not been a magical outcome that emerged in 2014 but has been in the making for quite some time, the victory of the BJP in the state assembly elections poses complicated choices for other political players. Anti-BJP politics, in the backdrop of the kind of single-party dominance that the BJP has shaped, faces two alternatives. An ambitious and long-term alternative, which almost seems impossible at the moment, is for anti-BJP parties (and there is a difference between non-BJP parties and anti-BJP parties) to reshape the consensus sketched above; it involves seeking to change the middle ground that the BJP has set as the framework of competitive politics. This route is not easy to take and, clearly, there are no takers.

The other alternative, a tame one, is that anti-BJP parties choose to operate within the space set by the BJP. Thus, for instance, the AAP or the TMC harps on personalisation of authority, the TRS does not bother about the hard state mechanisms it adopts or the AAP does not bother about the mobilisation of Hindus on the basis of Hindutva. The victories of the BJP, including in the key state of UP, only reiterate and alert non-BJP players of this bind: An impossible route or a route that will only strengthen the BJP in the long run.

The writer, based in Pune, taught political science and is currently Chief Editor of Studies in Indian Politics

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