After months of a bruising election campaign, when the results to the Indian parliament elections were announced on May 23, showing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning a comfortable majority (302 seats out of 543 parliamentary seats) under the energetic leadership of Narendra Modi, silence descended on the national capital and other parts of the country. This was unusual for a party for which public display of exuberance comes easy- thrives as it does on religious celebrations and congregations.
There were no fireworks or spontaneous victory processions by the supporters of the party despite the phenomenal re-election and the margins with which its candidates won the polls. Bewildered journalists, political observers and rival parties searched for answers for this uncharacteristic restraint. Was the BJP leadership surprised by the results or was it expecting charges of electoral fraud that were being vociferously leveled during the run-up to the campaign by the opposition- to be leveled against them?
Within a few days after the results, it seems like business as usual. On May 30, Narendra Modi in a grand ceremony at the majestic forecourt of the illuminated Presidential Palace attended by several heads of states, diplomats and some 8000 supporters, was given the oath of office by President Ram Nath Kovind. His cabinet was also sworn in that included his confidante and party President the controversial Amit Shah, who had earlier been incarcerated for ordering custodial killings when he was an internal security minister in the state of Gujarat.
A former diplomat, S Jaisankar, was sworn in as the country’s Foreign Minister, and a woman Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman. Also included was a junior minister, whose spartan ways came for instant praise from social media, but he was later found to be a leader of a hate group, Bajrang Dal that was accused of killing Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons 20 years ago.
Unlike in 2014 when Modi promised jobs and better times, in 2019 his concerns were different. Instead of issues, he positioned himself as the only leader who could navigate India out of the variegated crises that it finds itself in. Turning the polls into a Presidential referendum rather than one that elects MP’s to the parliament, Modi through aggressive marketing of his persona during his first term where he projected himself as a cult benefactor of masses, who had raised the country’s profile and did not display timidity of the kind predecessor.
In fact Modi managed to convey to the Hindu masses that the country would not accept Islamic terrorism any longer and it would enter its enemy territory to smoke out terrorists. Facts became a casualty in this compelling narrative, and a large section of the population seemed ready to accept it.
Many wondered whether the BJP’s fantastic win and Congress’s stunning loss had to do with the Indian Air Force attack at an allegedly terrorist camp at Balakot, Pakistan. There were no reports of casualties from Pakistan although government friendly media put the loss at about 300 “terrorists”. But BJP supporters were primed to celebrate it as a show of muscular foreign policy that could put India in the category of the US and Israel. It’s a different matter that the Pakistan Air Force promptly retaliated and brought down an aircraft and an Indian chopper and six airmen were lost in a friendly fire.
Modi’s fawning supporters did not take cognizance of these setbacks, or perhaps these irritating facts were filtered out of the avalanche of Whatsapp messages that were sent to party supporters. An unquestioning TV media helped the government in this enterprise. So what became clear is that so high strung and switched on were the BJP supporters that if the Pulwama-Balakot episode had not taken place then they would have still voted for Mr. Modi and his party.
It was the BJP’s extraordinary win and the big margins with which its candidates won against the opposition that reinforced the belief in many that the Electronic Voting Machines(EVM) were spiked in their favor and there was a need to return ballot paper.
During the run up to the elections, there was a demand by all opposition parties and civil society activists that the Election Commission of India (ECI) should do a 100 percent audit of the paper trail of the votes cast. The ECI did not help its case as an objective arbiter of India’s democratic process and seemed to lean in favor the government.
The Supreme Court allowed a paper audit of only five EVMs out of 2000 in every assembly segment. Despite that, media reported a mismatch between votes polled and counted in more 300 parliamentary constituencies, but the opposition parties that had shown greater gusto before the polls for increased scrutiny of the EVM after their ignominious defeat were a demoralized lot. Congress’s attempt to get all the other opposition political parties to dwell on the reasons for this unexpected loss, failed to elicit any response.
The future is dark for the opposition. Parties of identity will find it difficult to survive after their supporters have found merit in voting for the BJP. The biggest challenge is for the Congress party. Led by Rahul Gandhi, the party had launched a spirited attack at Modi and the BJP, and exuded great confidence at the end of the campaign and claimed that it had managed to stop the ruling party from returning to power. This claim proved short lived.
A few days later, Congress, despite all the hard work by Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka, came up woefully short- winning just 52 seats in a house of 543 seats. In 2014, the party won 44. There is a demand that Rahul Gandhi should step down. He has shown willingness, but the party is in such a mess that there is a fear that in the absence of one of the Gandhis at the helm, it would just split in many parts. The BJP would wait for that moment.
What is the meaning of this mandate? Aggressive religious nationalism helped by pliant institutions trumps farm distress, job losses and devaluation in status of minorities. The big question is can such a mandate inspire hope amongst those who fear that majoritarian politics could leave them politically and economically disenfranchised?