There are times in the life of a democracy when the heady winds of popular power turn into their opposite: The deification and personification of one man. Democracy displays a will to simplicity when the answer to every question, the remedy for anxiety becomes one man, and one man alone. The only authentic analysis of this election is two words: Narendra Modi. Everything else is irrelevant. Modi convinced the voters that he could write India’s destiny. And they were glad to outsource their destiny to him. Anybody who doubted that this was going to be the outcome, including this columnist, should eat humble pie.
All our normal categories of political analysis and statistical jugglery come to nought when they are faced with Narendra Modi. This is because, he more than any politician in modern history, has grasped three things. First, he is the purest distillation of the idea of politics. For him political reality is not given, it is created; while other parties twiddle thumbs trying to get sociological arithmetic right, he goes about the task of producing a total identification with his persona. And he deploys undefeatable energy to do so. Second, he has fully grasped the potential of a dangerous idea in democracy: That even evil that has a whiff of a larger cause about it has the power to move more than civility that is tainted with pettiness. And third, and most importantly, he has crafted a way of being everywhere: He managed to colonise our imaginations, our fantasies, hopes and fears, to the point where even resistance to him seemed to be entirely in his thrall. Has there been any other figure in the annals of democratic politics who makes you think about him almost every second of your existence? He can literally make himself the object of attention every second of public discourse. Many leaders win because the public does not see an alternative. Modi won because he made an alternative unthinkable.
It is difficult to argue with the claim that the opposition did not, in any way merit victory. In these times, civility is a rare commodity and the Congress can be granted that. It is also easy to blame control of institutions, media and money for the BJP’s electoral firepower. Some of that is true, but to attribute the BJP’s victory to that would be to deny political reality. Even in a moment of grave national crisis, the Opposition’s inability to come together was above all, evidence of their pettiness and myopia. Even when the Congress knew that the battering ram Modi was using against the Congress was that Congress was dynastic and corrupt, Congress could not change the face of its leadership. Modi relentlessly campaigned that all of India’s other parties — from SP and BSP, to the Congress — are corrupt family enterprises. He was the scimitar, slashing away at the old order, which was still holding India back
Modi deserves his victory. But this is also a moment of dread for Indian democracy. Let us be clear. This is the greatest concentration of power in modern Indian history. Never has a force emerged, not even the Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, where a leader had such unchallenged power in the party, a party organisation this energised, complete control over capital, and a vast set of civil society organisations that are poised for dominance in every institution in every corner of the country. India’s fate is now truly in his hands. This victory puts an imprimatur on the idea that India has given up on the central tenets of its politics. In both its institutional and aesthetic form, this is a victory for electoral Caesarism pure and simple, where the power of every institution, from business to religious institutions, will revolve around one man. In ideological terms, it is a victory for majoritarianism, a desire to openly marginalise minorities and assert the cultural hegemony of Hindutva. In sociological terms, this is yet another blow to those who peddle illusions about the power of caste and regional politics. Those identities are breaking down, and ripe for appropriation for the larger project of Hindutva. It is probably also the case that despite the cult of toxic masculinity that characterises BJP’s ideological discourse, Modi upended the politics of gender in new and creative ways. There are now no barriers to the Hindutva project that we take for granted that emanate from social structure. This is a victory for the politics of unreality. The Modi government has several successes to its credit. It certainly managed to create a sense that some of its schemes touched the lives of more people than ever before. But let us be clear: Modi has not won because of his economic success; he has won despite his economic failures. The economy is tottering at a growth rate that feels closer to four or four-and-a-half per cent. That this election was almost entirely bereft of a serious economic narrative of hope does not portend well. To be fair, the Opposition did not have any eye-catching ideas either. Indian elites are now compensating for a faltering India story, a make believe world where our explanation of our failures is the fragmentation of power. If only we gave one man more power, he would do wonders: Nationalism became a refuge for us, because participating in it seems to vicariously lift us, even though it does not do anything to secure India’s future. This is also, finally, a victory of the politics of fear and hate. In 2014, Modi struck a hopeful chord; perhaps it was easier as an outsider. But this campaign was a relentlessly negative one, full of mendacity and hate. This is not a poison that is easy to roll back.
All this is not to take away from Modi’s political achievement. As a purely political phenomenon. he has scripted another glorious victory. But the magnitude of his political achievement is made even greater by understanding how staggering his dominance is. What kind of an alchemy is it where a leader produces not just a sense that he is better than the other, but a sense of deep identification? His political achievement becomes even more creditable because it is not built on a secure foundation of economic achievement or national security. People were looking for an excuse to vote for him despite his failures, and nationalism gave them the fig leaf. But to give Modi credit: He won because India identifies with him. What that says about India is something we will figure out over the next five years.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 24, 2019 under the title ‘Staggering dominance’. The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University. Views are personal.