Modi, media and the middle class
AS elections approach, there are often contending claims about which party (or coalition) will win and form the next government. It may be worthwhile, however, to set aside that immediate concern, though a relevant and challenging task in itself, and try to look beyond. Elections 2014 thus, promise to be exciting – not because there are many surprises about what the formal outcome would be. The excitement is more about what shape the structure of competition will take post-election, about which factors will weigh more heavily in the shaping of the electoral outcome, and about the larger impact the electoral contest may have on the legitimacy of the democratic polity.
Outcomes of elections during the last twenty five years have sometimes been mainly the function of electoral arithmetic (during and after elections). Such arithmetic could spring surprises this time as well – imagine NDA ending up winning 230 seats and then failing to get adequate partners to form a government because of the limited acceptability of its designated candidate for the post of prime minister. This is not beyond imagination. Nor for that matter is it impossible, though improbable, that Congress and the ‘third front’ turn the post-election negotiation table into a non-BJP platform overcoming the anti-Congressism of BJD and JDU and the idiosyncrasies of the Trinamool Congress and BSP. That could still transform a political victory for the BJP into a temporary wilderness. But suppose we were not inclined to gaze into the crystal ball only to know what arithmetic will take shape by end of May, and instead wanted to project political trends, then what does the present political moment indicate?
This question becomes legitimate because competitive politics and the electoral arena in India refuse to settle down. As the dust settled on the decline of the Congress and a post-Congress polity began to shape through the late nineties, we are yet again poised for internal adjustments within a post-Congress polity. Ever since the Congress was soundly defeated in 1977, electoral politics has gone through different but interlinked phases: first the Congress lost its hegemony (1975) and also lost power (in hindsight, therefore, the period of 1975-1989 needs to be recognized as one during which a post-Congress polity started shaping in the first place); then the Congress kept losing power and also its central position leading to political instability and a free-for-all (1989-99). Subsequently, that second phase of a post-Congress polity appeared to be giving rise to a multiparty bipolarity over the last decade and a half (thus, the second phase extends from 1989 to the present moment). As the post-Congress polity now enters a third phase, there are whispers about the lowest ever performance of the Congress party and roars of ‘Congress-mukt rajneeti’. So, in 2014, are we set to witness any further shifts in a post-Congress polity?
One could profitably watch four arenas in which shifts may occur – these could be minor, but they might have relevance to the shaping of democratic politics in the next decade or so. These four arenas are: (a) structure of party competition; (b) theatre of politics; (c) drivers of political contestations; and (d) rise of a new politics.
If the trends which took shape over the last two decades were to continue without much change, we could expect the combined strength of the Congress and BJP together to remain limited to around 325 seats at the most; state parties would continue to play a crucial role in shaping the outcome as also in the post-election scenario; this will necessitate alliance making skills and cross-party connections; leadership, though important, might not be a factor to sway the outcome nationally; and each state will produce a different script, leaving it to the political actors and observers to make sense of what the outcome signifies at the national level. These features have dominated the outcomes of elections almost since 1989. However, we must also remember that these features themselves were produced by a combination of factors obtaining in the late eighties and early nineties. If those factors no longer enjoy the salience they once did, it is likely that the features they produced will also fade away, giving way to new features.
Party competition at the all-India level in the past two decades has been governed by a bipolarity that kept the many smaller parties at bay – they were either forced to join one of the two coalitions or were rendered less relevant at the national level. Within a broader structural stability, other parties had to adapt themselves to the bipolarity shaped by and through the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). This feature of competitive politics may continue, but within that continuity there will be a shift. As we approach the parliamentary elections, the future of two sets of equilibrium will be keenly watched. They relate to seat shares of different parties and intra-alliance relationship among partners. Since 1996, non-Congress and non-BJP parties have won at least forty per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha, leaving a maximum of sixty per cent seats for the two larger parties together. This trend will stay although the net tally of parties other than Congress and BJP may drop.
The other equilibrium relates to the compulsion of coalition making. Both the Congress and BJP have been forced to enter into multiple alliances at the state level. The crucial question about the coming parliamentary election is about the internal dynamics of the two main coalitions. While the NDA has gained in strength because of the addition of some new partners in Bihar, Maharashtra, UP and so on, the UPA is on the verge of a collapse due to the exit of many of its partners. However, as the experience of UPA-II indicates, the strength of the larger partner in the coalition unsettles its relationship with the smaller allies. It will now be the turn of the NDA to witness that internal imbalance. This will be both because within NDA, the share of BJP may be rather high and because the new leadership of the BJP is likely to have less patience with negotiated settlements than was the case in the Vajpayee-Advani era. Thus, the success of the larger party within the alliance tends to undermine the internal equilibrium within the alliance and opens up possibilities of reshaping the structure of competition.
More specifically, parties with national ambitions, such as the BSP, AIADMK and Trinamool Congress, will perhaps find themselves stranded in a post-election scenario while the DMK, TDP, BJD, JDU and SP have already got trapped in the issue of state level survival. For the first time since 1989, many state level and/or smaller parties see a glimmer of political advantage and yet with limited possibility of realizing that advantage. The short-lived alliance of AIADMK with the left parties and the weak attempts to strengthen a Third Front are symptomatic of this paradox.
The nineties saw the emergence of states as a major theatre of politics due to many factors. Some states had already seen the logic of state specificity, as was the case of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Assam. Indeed, the decline of the Congress and its inability to hold onto its constituents was a major factor in strengthening the regionalization of political competition since the late eighties. The Congress’ limitations gave rise to many state level Congress parties, augmenting the theatre of the state during the nineties, and at least two of them – Trinamool Congress and Nationalist Congress Party – continue to play an important role in West Bengal and Maharashtra. The absence of a towering ‘national’ leader further contributed to the increased importance of the state as an arena of competitive politics. The regionalization of politics of the North Indian states took place as a fallout of the Mandal factor. In Odisha and West Bengal, local political compulsion of contesting the claims of a dominant party produced state specificity. During much of the nineties, political exigencies of failed majorities ensured that each state would gradually evolve its own independent electoral cycle, allowing for local issues to dominate electoral competition there.
By 2009, already, there were mixed signals regarding the continued salience of the states as the dominant theatre of politics. Yet, both the NDA and UPA had to work within the logic of state specificity at the time of the last Lok Sabha election. And within the party itself, the Congress learnt its lesson the hard way when it failed to understand the scale of the YSR phenomenon in Andhra Pradesh and consequently, practically lost the state to the YSR Congress – not so much because it decided to go ahead with the bifurcation of the state, but more because of a failure to gauge the adverse impact of driving out Jaganmohan Reddy. The BJP too learnt its lesson in Karnataka when it allowed Yediyurappa to leave the party – only to readmit him after the debacle in the last assembly election.
But it is not just about the unfulfilled ambitions of state level heavyweights that the state theatre is confined to; it is also about the way issues are framed and filtered. Whether it is corruption or foreign policy, these issues filter through the prism of the state (as in Tamil Nadu). It is not only in Andhra Pradesh that state specificity is palpable due to the very emotive issue of bifurcation of the state; the fact that Nitish Kumar sits on a dharna for more favourable central treatment of Bihar and Shivraj Singh Chouhan threatens a statewide bandh on the issue of central aid, indicates that issues of political contestation become salient only when they are laced with state specificity.
Will states retain this salience? As we shall see below, in its efforts to win 200-plus seats (and possibly a clear majority), Modi’s BJP is keen to undermine this salience. But more than that, ideologically, Modi’s pitch is at variance with the logic of state specificity. Therefore, the coming elections present an undercurrent of political contestation beyond party political contestation: between the ‘all-India’ vs. the regional/state level. (Ironically, though, in his efforts to homogenize the terrain of competitive politics, Modi resorts to stressing state level ‘evidence’ – from Gujarat!) This would be BJP’s second attempt to bring in the ‘all-India’ as the reference point for political competition. First, in the nineties, the party invoked Hindutva (the mandir issue) to build an all-India terrain. This time around, the contest seems to be shaping between ‘Desh ka vikas’ (development of the nation) and ‘Rajya ka vikas’ (development of a state).
Perhaps the most watched and talked about aspect of this election is the rise of Narendra Modi. Since 1989, elections in India – at least parliamentary elections – had lost their plebiscitary character. No leader could turn elections into a plebiscite over his/her personal leadership; nor could any leader sway the election outcomes during this period. (This is not to say that the plebiscitary element disappeared from the political arena altogether; it simply transferred itself to the states instead of operating at the all-India level.) Vajpayee was a popular leader, but he did not win a victory for his party on the strength of his own leadership. Although the slogan ‘Ab ki bari Atal Behari’ did make the rounds (1996), the elections did not by any means revolve around his personal leadership and popularity.
This non-plebiscitary nature of elections is now set to change. Modi seems to have almost succeeded in ensuring that the election would be around his personality, his image, his achievements; he would be the decisive factor in shaping voter choice almost irrespective of party affiliation. Pre-election polls by Lokniti have indicated, for instance, that Modi is acceptable to greater numbers beyond BJP voters (in July 2013 and also in January 2014, one in every five Modi-supporters for prime ministership was a non-BJP voter). This means that voters beyond BJP may be attracted to Modi and consequently, his popularity would possibly bring many more votes to BJP than the party could otherwise poll.
In a span of one year from winning the Gujarat assembly election (2012), Modi strategically placed himself in a position from where, at least for his opponents, he became an almost fictional ‘he-who-must-not-be-named’ and an indispensable vote getter for his party. While this move appears to impose presidentialism on the electoral system, in reality it is more akin to forcing a plebiscite on one leader.
The Modi factor pushes the electoral arena to the Indira years where plebiscitary leadership was at the centre of competitive politics. In July 2013, a Lokniti-CNN-IBN survey found that if voters were pushed to choosing between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, 31 per cent would have chosen Rahul and 33 Narendra Modi. Without prompting any names, 19 per cent mentioned Modi as their preferred candidate to be prime minister and 12 per cent mentioned Rahul Gandhi. By January 2014, however, this scenario had changed considerably. Without prompting, 15 per cent expressed a preference for Rahul Gandhi and 34 per cent for Modi. When asked to choose only between these two leaders, 25 per cent would have chosen Rahul Gandhi and 42 per cent Narendra Modi.1
Whatever its electoral implications, this development is in stark contrast to the past twenty five years and, if it sustains, is set to change the structure of competitive politics. One, the emergence of a Modi factor would mean competition for the plebiscitary space between Modi and state level leaders in a number of states (such as West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha), possibly altering the nature of the electoral game there. Second, the plebiscitary dynamics of the BJP would also force the Congress to engage in a similar politics of a personality cult. If those claims remain muted during this election, the Congress is bound to resort to the same strategy in the future. Third, with two all-India parties engaging in plebiscitary politics, the state level theatre would shrink, giving way to the ‘national’ to dominate political contestations. It is in this sense that Modi represents a new driver of politics – the leadership factor. How strong is this driver? Some sobering evidence is available through the opinion poll mentioned above: when asked who they would prefer as the next prime minister, 27 per cent of the respondents did not/could not give any name; in all, only a little less than half the respondents (49 per cent) mentioned either Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi and the rest (24 per cent) mentioned various other names. When pushed to choose only between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, one in every five (19 per cent) did not give an answer.
This takes us to the other ‘driver’ of current politics: the media. The role of media is not exactly new. Since Rajiv Gandhi’s time, and more particularly since the 1989 elections, politics in India increasingly became ‘mediated’, but this aspect of politics has not been adequately considered, nor researched, in the Indian context. Through the nineties, the intervention of the media has become frequent and direct. But this election is probably set to become a much more substantially mediatized election. At least three aspects of mediatization would be visible this time around: simplification and personalization of the contest; agenda setting by the media and political actors adapting themselves to the ‘media logic’.2
In the Indian context, we need to note at least three things in order to gauge the extent of media impact on politics: one is the rise of the electronic media as practically the most important source of political information (the latest survey by Lokniti shows that 43 per cent watch TV daily for news whereas only 28 per cent rely on newspapers for news3 ); the extent of ‘live’ coverage of political rallies, particularly in non-English media and third, the growing link between political interests and ownership of media houses. With an expansion of media penetration, the power of the media to frame electoral issues has become crucial during elections. Moreover, the trend towards projection of personalities and transforming elections into an image contest is too evident to require comment.
If the coming parliamentary election is turned into an image contest between two leaders, that would be a development mutually agreeable to both media and the leader(s) concerned. The attempt by Rahul Gandhi to take on the media by giving an extended interview to a television channel was perhaps an instance of succumbing to the media logic and pushing politics (political logic) to a secondary position. In this sense, the media moment seems to have arrived with two actors being more than willing to oblige (Modi and Kejriwal) and one reluctant player (Rahul Gandhi). So, this election gets mediatized in that it remains restricted to personalities and also in the way issues are framed and presented.
Partly arising from media glare, but an important development that may stay after the elections, will be the craving for a ‘new politics’. This agenda has been put forth by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and seems to have implications beyond the fate of the AAP in this election. The AAP is tapping multiple constituencies – among which one important segment consists of voters who are against the ‘establishment’ parties. These voters are fed up with the existing parties and leaders believing that all of them are hands in glove with each other. But besides this critical attitude to politics and politicians, there is also an expectation about qualitative change in the content of politics. This expectation is understandably often fuzzy, it does not have a well defined agenda of reforming politics, but only a deep-seated suspicion of existing power hierarchies.
Political corruption has so far been the central focus of this craving for a new politics, but those who have taken it upon themselves to become the vehicle of a new politics have a much more serious and far-reaching vision of new politics. Through its dramatic rise in the Delhi assembly election, the AAP has convinced many that such new politics is possible in the near future. In the politics of rigged ideas and agendas, this insistence on new ideas, including the more problematic ideas of radical democracy (about which I have commented separately earlier4 ) have a definite attraction for new and young voters, for the politically aware among the poor and for the self-righteous members of the middle class.
The way AAP conducted itself in Delhi also has resonance among the more impatient sections who are not so concerned with niceties of procedure but more keen on visible outcomes, even if they are rather theatrical. Ironically, this theatrical nature suits the media in its effort to transform politics into a spectacle. Thus, the new politics of AAP not only has many and diverse takers, but it also has unlikely and unwilling allies.
This surely does not mean that AAP would make very deep electoral inroads in this election; nor does it mean that new politics is around the horizon. It is only a reminder that as the post-Congress polity becomes ‘normal’,5 it will also produce its own counter, its own other, which will have a small but voluble constituency punctuating the language of established politics.
The politics of new politics will also have other consequences that may not be visible during this election. These will be in the realm of shaping the organization of the political party. It is not only the AAP from where this impetus will arise. While one could see it as an act of desperation, the leadership of the Congress has also indicated its willingness to experiment with the organization and functioning of the party. This is of course not the first time Congress has indicated such a desire – Rajiv Gandhi too wanted to reorient the Congress party to new ways of functioning. While it may seem ironical and incongruous, both the Congress’ attempts and the AAP initiatives have a common social base that is exercised about this experiment in party organization. It comes mainly from well meaning middle class activists who want to join politics and run the party in a more professional, but also transparent and rule bound manner.
The Congress already faces tough internal battles between the old style actors and pro-changers. In the defeat of the Congress party, there will perhaps be a renewed cry for going back to the old style unless party leaders act in a top-heavy manner for changing the party. Whatever shape that change may take, in the near future the party is bound to face turmoil over the issue of internal reorganization. In this sense, new politics will have an eminently destabilizing effect: the efforts of AAP will destabilize established mores of politics; the efforts of Congress would destabilize established power structures within the party and the pressures of new politics will also haunt other parties at least in terms of candidate selection.
New politics represents the yearning of the middle classes for a clean, sanitized, public spirited political activity. It is also the search for a politics that is not too ‘politicized’. The middle classes also feel that the prevalence of criminal elements disincentivizes their own participation in active politics. In this sense, though its proponents would contest this formulation, new politics is driven by the middle classes and stands to benefit them in their search for a central position in politics. Given the fact that politics is the arena of the clumsy and the complex, we now have a middle class poised for a more active and decisive role – a middle class that not only craves for new politics, but whose new politics oftentimes would also include the rise of Modi. Therefore, new politics would have multiple trajectories and possibilities. Thus understood, this election and its aftermath are characterized by three ‘Ms’ – replacing the Ms of the nineties: Modi, Media and the Middle classes.
1. CSDS Data Unit, Lokniti Tracker Poll, January 2014.
2. Stromback Jesper, ‘Four Phases of Mediatization: An Analysis of Meditization of Politics’, The International Journal of Press/Politics 13(3), July 2008, pp. 228-46; esp. pp. 233-34.
3. CSDS Data Unit, op cit.
4. Suhas Palshikar, ‘Of Radical Democracy and Anti-Partyism’, Economic and Political Weekly XLVIII(10), 9 March 2013, pp. 10-13.
5. Suhas Palshikar, K.C. Suri and Yogendra Yadav, ‘Normalization of the Post-Congress Polity’ in Suhas Palshikar, K.C. Suri and Yogendra Yadav (eds.), Party Competition in Indian States: Electoral Politics in Post-Congress Polity. Oxford University Press, Delhi, pp. 1-41 (forthcoming, May 2014).