In Mumbai on Marine Drive days before the election results came, I was on my morning walk when I noticed what looked like a carnival. Young girls in red with Priyanka Gandhi’s slogan ‘ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon’ written on their shirts were gathered around a stage from which a man kept yelling, ‘Give it up for the girls. They are now coming in thick and fast.’ It was a marathon organised to show that the Congress party was behind the cause of empowering women and, if anyone missed this, they needed only to look at the huge posters of Indira Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu and other Congress ladies, to be certain that this was a promotion for the cause Priyanka had identified with in the hope of winning Uttar Pradesh.
It was not a bad slogan and indeed a worthy cause, but the tenor of the gathering indicated that it came from an old Congress playbook from a time when the language of political power was English. There was a fake, brittle quality to the event and I was mulling over this when I heard cries of ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Jai Shri Ram’ from another part of Marine Drive. Here there was a yoga class coming to an end and the chants that marked its conclusion were spontaneous and natural. These were not BJP partisans, but they related to Modi’s ‘new’ India. This India was born in 2014. Before then we were ruled by leaders who spoke English and whose main purpose for being in politics was to ensure that their progeny inherited their constituencies and their political parties.
It is true that there are people like this in Modi’s BJP, but in his election speeches this time it was not accidental that he kept repeating that this was a fight between his kind of politics and ‘parivarvaad’ or dynastic democracy. Akhilesh Yadav tried often during the campaign to mock the Prime Minister for not having a family. He dismissed his ‘parivaarvaad’ charge as a distraction. The main issues, he said, were unemployment, poverty, broken promises to farmers and a general economic decline. Yes. These are the real issues, but somehow India’s voters believe that the old political parties that are run like family firms will never be able to find solutions. They believe this because they have failed them in the past and appear to have learned nothing new in the seven years in which Narendra Modi has towered over the political landscape like a Colossus.
Modi has proved that in the ‘new’ India, it is he who will decide what the narrative should be, and that this narrative will include hyper-nationalism, Hindutva, self-reliance and massive investment in welfare schemes and infrastructure. He has made it clear that this is what he stands for and shown that even when he makes mistakes, as he did during the second, lethal upsurge of the pandemic last summer, he can rectify them and move on. When it was discovered that his government had failed to order enough vaccinations on time, he covered this up by massive propaganda about India having set in motion the ‘largest vaccination programme in the world’.
In sharp contrast, our ‘secular’ political parties have not been able to explain to voters what it is they stand for. The Congress party’s two main leaders seem to have no idea at all what they should stand for. Rahul Gandhi devotes most of his speeches to yelling about Modi being a thief who works only for the interests of his ‘four rich friends’. His sister Priyanka seems to believe that the only contribution she can make is to keep talking about the glories and sacrifices of her father and grandmother. She seems not to have noticed yet that most Indian voters are too young to remember them. When all else fails, Rahul and Priyanka end up emulating Modi by going off to some temple and ensuring that TV reporters record every worshipful moment.
The message to me personally from the results that came from Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa is that people are willing to give Modi chance after chance because they see no alternative at all. Modi’s political and economic failures have been staggering since his second term began. The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the farm laws were handled disastrously and there have been no dazzling achievements in the handling of Covid or the economy. The state of national security can be gauged from China’s land grab in Ladakh. The manner in which Hindutva is spreading has caused deep divisions between Hindus and Muslims. But, somehow India has changed into a country in which ordinary people who did not believe their leaders were made of the same cloth and culture as themselves now seem to believe that Modi can be trusted.
He seems to them to represent change, and change is what they want. Nowhere is this more evident than in Punjab. As a fellow Jat Sikh said to me, ‘We are giving AAP a chance because the others have all let us down.’ In Uttar Pradesh voters have been disappointed with Yogi Adityanath, but they are willing to give him a second chance because they know that Akhilesh Yadav may be young, energetic, and charismatic, but that Modi is right when he charged him with representing that old disease of ‘parivarvaad’.