Modi Versus the Rest
In the coming months, more than eight-hundred million Indians will cast their votes in what will be the largest democratic exercise in the world. At stake will be the fate of Narendra Modi whose ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had secured a landslide victory in 2014 winning 282 out of 543 seats, the first party in thirty years to win an outright majority in India. Challenging him will be a broad yet loosely-knit coalition of parties led by a resurgent Indian National Congress (INC) under Rahul Gandhi. This alliance is popularized as the Mahagathbandhan, a caucus to unite different regional satraps who have little in common except for their shared aversion towards the Modi government. Particularly, this revulsion has stemmed from the BJP’s encroachment in areas which the regional parties consider to be their exclusive domains.
For instance, they have alleged that the BJP-led Central government has been unfavorable to the regional and social minorities which they claim to represent. This was most visible when the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), an erstwhile BJP ally broke away and switched sides on the pretext that the federal government had denied granting a special category status to the state of Andhra Pradesh where TDP is in power. Its charismatic leader, N Chandrababu Naidu accused the BJP of inciting regional movements in his state and has been most vocal in support of a federal front against the Modi government.
Last month, a plethora of opposition leaders were hosted by Mamata Banerjee, one of the earliest interlocutors of the Mahagathbandhan and Chief Minister (CM) of West Bengal state. The mega rally marked yet another show of strength and unity by opposition leaders at a single podium with each one of them explaining why Modi must not return in 2019. One such leader, Akhilesh Yadav, ex-CM of Uttar Pradesh castigated the BJP saying, “They said the Mahagathbandhan in UP [Uttar Pradesh] will never happen . . . but last week the impossible happened, all because of the BJP . . . because we have to defeat the BJP.” He was referring to the pre-poll alliance between his Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s BSP, a previous foe in UP. On the other hand, Modi and his supporters have been deriding the leaderless Mahagathbandhan as united only by their “greed of power.” The BJP has called the alliance opportunistic and lacking a coherent ideology. Yet there is visible restiveness in the BJP camp. After all, until just a year ago, it seemed certain that Modi would win a second term, boosted by his dominating presence in the national scene. However, his party suffered setbacks in the form of three unexpected losses in state elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh last December. Many critics termed the losses a referendum against the incumbent Modi government since the states are part of the Hindi heartland that propelled Narendra Modi to power in 2014.
What Went Wrong for Modi?
The campaign to hobble the Modi government has three main prongs.
First, the opposition alleges that the pro-business BJP has been averse to Indian peasants. Farmers who together make up about half of India’s 1.3 billion people have been struggling to cope with rising debts and declining returns on their produce. They have long demanded an unconditional loan waiver and minimum support price (MSP) for their crops. But except for a few populist measures, the government has been unable to fix the structural impediments in the agricultural sector, and this seems to have been picked well by the opposition.
Particularly, the INC has tried to project the elections in terms of “peasant-industrialist” binary. After dethroning the BJP in the state elections of December, the INC has tried to show itself as a messiah of farmers by announcing massive farm loan waivers in these states. With growing discontent among farmers who voted extensively for Modi in 2014, this constituency may just topple the government which they voted for previously.
In addition to the peasantry, India’s huge informal economy has also suffered due to measures like demonetization and the flawed implementation of the Good and Services Tax (GST). Both steps drastically hurt the small business and workers in the informal sector. There is a growing feeling of anti-incumbency against the government and resentment strongly resonates with the small-scale businesses which have withered due to the radical economic policies of the government.
Second, upper caste Hindus who have been the traditional vote bank of the BJP are increasingly turning against it. In caste-ridden Indian politics, parties have to maintain a fine line where they do not upset their traditional support base. Yet the Modi government has not been successful on this front either. Ever since Modi ascended the power in 2014, several upper castes most notably the Patidars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra, and Jats in Haryana have protested to obtain reservations in education and government jobs. Interestingly, the demands of upper castes are interwoven with the farmer distress in India since the upper castes form the bulk of landowning class and represent a considerable part of agriculturists. With the agricultural sector becoming less attractive, these communities have insisted on quotas in employment opportunities.
However, what is more scathing for the BJP is the possible support from these communities for anti-BJP forces. The Patidar leader, Hardik Patel, formed an alliance with the INC in the 2017 Gujarat state elections—which later emerged as a blueprint for the anti-BJP coalition. Earlier this year, to quell this discontent among upper castes, the government introduced the 124th Constitution Amendment Act which allows a 10 percent reservation for the economically backward classes. Analysts believe that this move was brought specifically to court the upper castes, but at the same time enough damage has already been done to the BJP’s credentials as a sympathizer of upper castes. The legislation exhibits the desperation in the Modi camp with its core base being eroded, and at best can be described as too little, too late. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, an Indian research institute, suggested that more than one in two upper caste voters cast their vote in favor of the BJP in 2014. As such, the opposition will be eager to cash in the popular discontent among India’s upper castes and deprive Modi of his core voter base.
Third, the BJP’s Hindutva pitch and religious nationalism-based agenda seems to be overstretched and simply unsustainable. It is no secret that the BJP was conceptualized as a political vehicle of the Hindu fringe and has often benefited from invoking religious appeals. Critics have often complained of the tacit approval given by party bosses to bolster religious bigotry and hatred. The allegations reached its peak when Modi appointed Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu cleric, to lead India’s most populous state. Ever since, Yogi Adityanath has played second fiddle to Modi and has campaigned state to state invoking religious idioms and cultism. However, this tactic has failed to win voters with the BJP now facing several defeats despite their star campaigner spewing fire.
Should Modi Worry?
So, how will this possibly play out on the ground? Does the Mahagathbandhan have a pan-Indian resonance or as Omar Abdullah, leader of the National Conference (another plank in the anti-BJP caucus) warned, “When we make it look like we are all ganging up against Prime Minister Modi, we are actually playing to his advantage. It allows him to be the victim. It is the biggest favor that we can do him.” Abdullah further added, “I don’t think it helps our case when fourteen to sixteen of us sit together on a stage and then blast him. It would be much better strategically if we did this state-wise.” One alarm bell triggered by such advice is whether, rather than advancing a pan-Indian outcry against the Modi government, the opposition should engage the BJP in smaller statewide battles. Through these, the opposition will be able to localize the electoral contest and bleed the BJP through a thousand cuts.
In fact, this idea has been put into practice. Take, for example, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with more than two-hundred million inhabitants. The state contributes eighty seats to the Indian Parliament out of which the BJP won seventy-three in the previous elections. To counter the dominance of the BJP in the state, once arch-rivals the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) decided to join hands. This electoral calculus is based on a simple geometric principle that the sum of two sides in any triangle is greater than the third.
Interestingly, the two parties left the INC out of its alliance even though the latter is perceived as an overarching force in the anti-BJP coalition. However, this is not hard to explain. A lone ranger Congress might divide the upper caste Hindu vote share of the BJP and thus leave the SP-BSP alliance with enough to secure victory in a then two-way fight between the BJP and the SP-BSP tie-up. This experiment suggests a change in strategy by the Mahagathbandhan. The idea is to use local electoral calculus to erode the base on which Modi’s superstructure stands.