PRIME Minister Narendra Modi has emerged as India’s most popular political leader in more than three decades after winning in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the most populous and politically significant state, having given nine prime ministers.
His charisma matches that of former prime minister Indira Gandhi of the rival Congress Party, who ruled the country for 11 years until 1984.
Modi and his supporters are unlikely to admit to the uncanny resemblance between the two in getting connected with the people, using oratory to the hilt, appropriating others’ symbols and slogans, and berating opponents.
Nor will the Congress like this comparison. In winning a pan-Indian stature for himself and for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi has trounced Congress, currently headed by Indira’s ailing Italy-born daughter-in-law, Sonia.
Grandson Rahul, despite 13 years in politics and parliament, has failed to make the grade. India’s grand old party is definitely in dire stress. But, parties and ideologies do not easily disappear.
The Congress scored a resounding win inPunjab, thanks to personal popularity of Amarinder Singh, Maharajah of the erstwhile princely Patiala state, but that is its sole consolation prize. It bagged more seats than the BJP in Goa on the Arabian Sea and in Manipur, India’s eastern-most state.
But, the BJP won over independents and winners from regional parties in bid to form new governments.
Like Indira did in the 1970s and 1980s, Modi has won the war of perceptions. He was the mascot in the vast bellweather electoral battleground with a staggering 200 million population.
Displaying unmatched stamina amid government work — like Indira again — he addressed several rallies. His combination of oratory and aggression with holding out promises worked to win a staggering 324 seats in a house or 403.
India watchers fear the absence of a strong opposition needed for democracy to sustain and grow. For, not just the Congress that had aligned with the ruling Samajwadi (socialist) party, the BJP also trounced the Bahujan Samaj Party of four-times chief minister Mayawati that champions the cause of Dalits, the untouchables who form a fifth of UP’s population.
In sum, the opposition sought to meet Modi’s aggression with its own, levelling personal criticism.
It failed to come up with an alternative narrative.
It remained divided, dividing what were anti-BJP votes. For instance, Mayawati’s vote share has indeed risen in this election, but her party won only 17 seats.
More significantly, another fifth of UP’s population, the Muslims, appear to have shed their traditional anti-BJP pattern and voted for Modi’s plank of more jobs and education.
This was despite incidents of sectarian violence allegedly involving cadres of the BJP and its affiliate outfits, and the fact that theBJP did not field a single Muslim candidate. The party could have problems finding a Muslim for a ministerial post in the new government.
This is unprecedented.
Like the Muslims and Dalits, other groups, each numbering millions, also appear to have shed identity politics in favour of aspirations. The young, who form a huge chunk of the electorate, did so in 2012 to vote the socialists, who had distributed laptops and promised jobs.
But they have voted for the BJP after Akhilesh Yadav’s government was perceived as favouring only the Yadavs and was unable to ensure rule of law. Akhilesh’s comment at defeat is symbolic: those he expected to vote for the highway he constructed have opted for the “bullet train”, for which the Modi government has signed with the Japanese.
This round of elections was a referendum of sort on demonetisation enforced last November.
Modi has won despite several weeks of suffering by people of all sections and stunting of economic activity.
This remains one of the many inexplicables of this election. Analysts attribute this to the sentiment that Modi was targeting hoarders of unaccounted wealth, those engaged in money laundering and generating fake currency — “traitors” all. It jelled well with the current ultra-nationalist hype.
This hype may continue as Modi prepares to retain hold over Gujarat, his home state and that of his principal political strategist, BJP president Amit Shah.
Polls are due in November.
The BJP now controls two-thirds of India’s population. It appears to have successfully forged a coalition of upper, middle-ranking and lower castes to be able to manipulate the social arithmetic of Indian elections, neutralising many adversarial forces.
It has also avoided being seen as doling out reckless patronage to a caste or group.
Working 18 hours daily, Modi is seen as decisive—critics say his is a one-man show. It is different from the Manmohan Singh decade that waffled for lack of political will and cohesion, and parliamentary majority that Modi enjoys.
Governments have favourites — so has Modi’s. Granting that graft takes time to surface, no scam has surfaced in the last 30 months.
The balance of power in India has decisively swung in BJP’s favour. It can get a majority in Rajya Sabha, Parliament’s upper house. That would facilitate legislation delayed for long, including a nationwide tax rationalisation regime.
India will have a new president in July and vice-president in August.
They will be Modi’s choices. The political gains have come to Modi when he is halfway through his tenure as the premier.
He is widely perceived as one who could get re-elected to a second term in 2019.
But, predictions can go wrong in India’s diverse and vast polity. Rajiv Gandhi was voted out in 1989, losing a huge parliamentary majority. A BJP-led government surprisingly lost in 2004.
This summer, Modi appears unassailable. Where he could make the difference is his decisiveness and his ability — so far — to keep the development agenda safely above contentious and divisive issues that the conservatives demand. He will have to continue to walk the tightrope.
Mahendra Ved, NST's New Delhi correspondent, is the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association 2016-2018 and a consultant with ‘Power Politics’ monthly magazine