Electoral losses for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in five Indian states have shattered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aura of invincibility ahead of the April 2019 general election. It also marks the failure of his agenda of promoting hardline Hindu politics and a revival of fortunes for the Congress, the oldest party of India.
The elections in crucial heartland Indian states, where Narendra Modi had scored significant victories in the 2014 election, show a huge drop in support for his party. The results have laid bare weaknesses in the ruling party, which is overwhelmingly dependent on Modi to win elections. The party is seen as having been transformed into a one-man outfit from a cadre-based institution. Modi is overexposed and failed to fulfill his promises. The incumbency factor also led to his party’s drubbing. Minorities, especially Muslims, are deeply annoyed with his policies to promote Hindu extremism.
According to a recent report in the Washington Post, Modi’s India is a living nightmare for Muslims. “Anti-Muslim hate crimes are not just encouraged but also rewarded by those in power. According to a report on hate crimes released by Fact Checker, 76 percent of victims of hate crimes in India over the past 10 years have been Muslims. Ninety percent of these attacks have occurred since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was voted into power in 2014. By labeling Muslims as beef eaters and expanding bans on the consumption of beef by putting in place new rules to curtail cow slaughter that disadvantage Muslim and lower-caste Hindus, the Hindu nationalist BJP is encouraging young Hindu men to become so-called cow vigilantes, who brandish their patriotism and faith by physically attacking Muslims. Even a rumor that a Muslim family ate beef for dinner, or a Muslim man ferried a cow to a slaughterhouse, can prove fatal in the hinterlands today. When Muslims are not being lynched for bovine-related reasons, they are attacked for marrying Hindu girls, for sporting a beard, or for wearing a skullcap or other symbols of religious identity. They are berated on popular, state-favored news channels for being ungrateful betrayers and traitors,” it noted.
Prime Minister Modi’s party lost to the main opposition Congress party in the Hindi-speaking heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, all of which it previously governed. Local parties swept up the other two states – Telangana and Mizoram – putting the BJP in a tough place ahead of the general elections. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) noted the losses in the five states led to speculation that the BJP’s agenda of promoting Hindutva has backfired. “It appears that after winning no less than 13 state elections since coming to power in 2014, the BJP’s seemingly invincible electoral juggernaut is losing steam,” it observed.
The election results mark the revival of the Congress, in less than five years, from being reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha and no hope for the future. Under a novice Rahul Gandhi, the party has emerged a major player and tough competitor in just a year. Many observers believe the BJP’s defeats are because the party deviated from the development agenda that swept it to power. The pursuit of Hindutva has backfired, they say. But others insist that it is actually the opposite that is true. The way people feel disenchanted with the economic policies of the government, they have also lost faith in the government’s commitment to build the Ram temple at Ayodhya, they say. Modi has never openly supported hardline elements, but his silence on issues, such as an increasing number of attacks on Muslims, is interpreted as a tacit approval for muscular Hindu politics.
His government leads a lacklustre economy. And this renewed pressure to recommit to Hindutva, despite its apparent failure as an electoral agenda, puts Modi’s government in a difficult place. There is also the fact that the Hindu hardliner Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) played a vital role in the BJP’s 2014 election victory by mobilising and galvanising voters. It is also credited for Modi’s rise from state chief minister to a national figure. Besides spearheading a sophisticated online and digital campaign in his favour, it also held 600 district-level meetings across the country to make Modi a familiar name among the rural population. Clearly, they cannot be ignored or offended. So even as the liberals suggest that Hindutva has backfired and demand that the government refocus on the economy, there are voices within the BJP which are demanding a more strident return to the party’s “core” agenda – including the construction of the Ram temple and renewed focus on efforts to protect cows – to reassure their base that the BJP has not abandoned them. The less-than-satisfactory economic performance will also make the Hindutva agenda more important, they say.
Local analysts say the Modi government invested more in infrastructure and city services. Investment bolstered economic growth that allowed India to surpass France to become the world’s sixth largest economy in July. People, who work in industries like manufacturing and services, benefitted most from the growth. But for farmers the truth was different. They accused the government of investing too little in agriculture and rural areas. The infrastructure for agriculture in India is less developed and many farmers still make a living depending on weather and climate. Farmers’ lives have become harder under the BJP government as the price of produce decreased while the cost of inputs, like seeds and fertilizers, kept rising.
The opposition accuses the government of being too close to corporate houses and ignoring the interests of the middle and lower classes. India’s youth unemployment rate has been high at about 15 percent. The government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the general election in 2004, because his policies failed to benefit the middle and lower classes. History could repeat itself in the 2019 elections.