By Mao Keji (Global Times, 16 December 2018) – In five state assembly elections that wrapped up earlier last week, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), led by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, suffered its worst defeat in recent years, trailing the rival Congress Party in three key states and losing as many as 100 legislative seats. While the Congress defeated the incumbent BJP regimes in both Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and emerged as the single largest party in Madhya Pradesh, regional parties carried the day in both Telangana and Mizoram. In just five months before national elections are due, the drubbing turned out to be a major setback for Modi’s party.
The grouse against BJP concerned economic issues as Modi was unable to deliver the promises he made during campaigning. His pledge to leapfrog the country into an advanced league and create millions of high-paying jobs did not see the light of day. While India’s annual growth rate has been over 7 percent since 2014, surpassing China’s, the country has not experienced a China-style surge toward industrialization. For example, the textiles industry – in which India boasts a huge comparative advantage due to its lower labor costs – recently saw widespread layoffs.
What prevent India from industrializing the Chinese way are institutional factors like its labor regulations and resistance to land acquisitions. Modi’s attempts at reforms were stymied by widespread protests forcing him to devolve to state governments his blueprint for change. In the absence of any comprehensive reform, the best Modi could do was to focus his business-friendly policies on urban and industrial enclaves catering mostly to the better-off classes in the country.
As a result, it was in these places that Modi made major inroads into initiatives like “Make in India” and “Digital India.” In a few years, cell-phone factories mushroomed across India, while overseas venture capital poured into India’s fledgling internet arena. But sadly, these successes failed to have an impact at the grassroots level. These glittering enterprises largely failed to tap into the country’s huge rural labor reserve and consumer market. Probably that’s why rural dismay, farmers’ distress and rising inequality were made the main issues during the election and the BJP did not fare well.
To shore up its stridently hard-line Hindutva (Hindu way of life) stance, the BJP deployed Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath to campaign for the elections. The monk-turned politician is known for his vitriolic anti-Muslims rhetoric. However, this tactic turned out to be a failure. Adityanath held more than 72 rallies in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, but failed to stir up religious sentiment among the electorate.
On the contrary, the Congress and others took this opportunity to accuse the BJP of indulging radical Hindu mobs to foment communal violence. After all, dozens of people – most of them Muslims and members of lower caste – have been killed in lynchings since BJP rose to power in 2014.
In fact, the rise of religious agenda was an interesting phenomenon in itself. In general, religious issues are less important than economic ones, but they tend to rise when parities on both sides of the political aisle fail to offer solutions on the economic front. When Modi’s economic reforms did not work, BJP chose to play the Hindutva card investing much of its political capital into religious mobilization. For example, the party has even reopened the explosive issue of building the vaunted Ram temple in Ayodhya where a 16th century mosque was demolished by Hindu zealots on December 6, 1992.
It was tellingly revealed that Indians voted for the BJP more out of its ability to deliver economic fruits than its religious stance. While the party has ruled Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh for three successive terms with a pretty established Hindutva agenda and even formed a dedicated “cow ministry” in Rajasthan, none of them delivered satisfactory election outcomes. The cow is considered holy by a majority of Hindus who don’t eat beef. Voters tired of religious propaganda in these states developed a strong anti-incumbency mood. Clearly, without economic growth to support it, Hindutva rhetoric did not resonate as much with the masses as an electoral issue in the past.
The election results have signaled that Modi is no longer infallible and laid the way for the Congress to forge a broad alliance with regional parties. But the Congress still has long way to go. It seems that the major opposition party has been granted a victory by the setbacks of BJP, not by its own organizational or ideological merits.
Depending mainly on the charisma of the Gandhi family, the Congress unfortunately lacks a powerful and coherent counter-narrative to the BJP, be it economic development or Hindutva.
The author is a researcher with the Pangoal Institution. [email protected]