Something very important happened in this general election. Sadly for our opposition leaders, they have not noticed. So their analysis of why they have nearly all ended up on the wrong side of history ranges from the petulant to the bizarre. In the petulant category are those who have convinced themselves that Narendra Modi has become prime minister again only because he spread so much hatred between Hindus and Muslims that Hindutva triumphed over the ‘idea of India’. In the bizarre category are those spreading rumours about EVM fraud on such a scale that the entire election was stolen. Not even a magician could do this.
If they want to survive to fight another day it is time our opposition leaders tried to address what actually happened. The Prime Minister described it in one of his speeches as the triumph of chemistry over arithmetic and there was a bit of that. But, something else happened as well. Indian voters have shown in this election that they can no longer be fooled by appeals to caste, charisma, creed or dynasty. They have also shown that they have seen through the veils of secularism and socialism that have been used by most opposition leaders to disguise their real reasons for entering public life. It is no accident that in that bastion of casteism — Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — casteist parties who have ruled like potentates for decades now barely have any seats in Parliament. It is no accident that those political parties who built their political ideology around dynastic succession have also been wiped out.
This has happened because millions of Indian voters are no longer poor and illiterate but middle class and aspirational. If they voted Modi back for a second term, it was because they see him as someone who has understood this. The opposition leaders have been too busy sulking to sit down and do some real analysis of how much the Indian voter has changed so it was ironically a BJP leader who drew my attention to this.
Last week I went to see Arun Jaitley. He is one of the few politicians whom I respect. I have known him from the time I was a junior reporter and can say honestly that he is one of a handful of politicians who is not in politics for personal gain but for public service. He is in the process of moving out of the house in Lutyens’ Delhi that was allotted to him as a senior minister. While waiting to see him I noticed blank spaces on the walls where pictures have been taken down. His decision to surrender his government house as soon as he demitted office is remarkable in itself. I know millionaires and maharajahs who have to be physically evicted.
Arun looked frail. He is thinner than usual. But, his mind remains as sharp as ever. When I asked if he had expected that the BJP alone would win more than 300 seats he said that he had never been in any doubt and that he had said as much in interviews to journalists. It was then that he pointed out that 40 percent of India’s voters now
are middle class. And, he added, by 2030, half of India’s population would count as middle class. It was these
new middle class voters, he said, who saw Modi as a man who understands their aspirations.
So the old India is dead. And, this is a very good thing. Having covered every general election since 1977, I have seen Indian democracy transition through many phases. In the seventies and eighties, India’s voters were nearly
all poor and illiterate and entirely in the thrall of the charisma of our Imperial Dynasty. In the nineties, the Dynasty’s appeal lessened mostly because the vote banks that the Congress Party had so assiduously built were broken by political parties that offered people the lure of caste. Casteist chieftains in our electorally most important states were so powerful that Mayawati’s voters never abandoned her even when corruption tainted her image. And, it was possible for Lalu Yadav to hand Bihar to his semi-literate wife, Rabri Devi, before being sent to jail. His popularity did not wane.
This election is proof that the old equations have changed. The only people who appear not to have noticed are our opposition leaders who refuse to acknowledge that the reason why they lost so badly is because they were stuck in a complacent little rut while India’s voters moved on. If they want to remain relevant they will need to accept that their socialist feudalism is not acceptable today. They can no longer hand their political parties to their children. They can no longer rely on the charisma of family names and the divisions of caste. From the vantage point of an Indian voter, nothing better could have happened.
This article first appeared in the June 16, 2019 print edition under the title ‘A Failed Opposition’