Making sense of the 2019 election

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Edited excerpts from a panel discussion hosted by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) at the India International Centre (IIC) on 27 May 2019. CPR Fellows Rahul Verma and Neelanjan Sircar presented an analysis of what constituted the 2019 verdict. The panel discussion was moderated by Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive, CPR. The discussants were Yogendra Yadav, National President, Swaraj India, and psephologist, Delhi, Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor, ‘The Indian Express’, Delhi, Tariq Thachil, Associate Professor , Department of Political Science, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief, ‘The Print’, Delhi and G. Sampath, Social Affairs Editor, ‘The Hindu’, Chennai.


Speaking to the voter: finding a space for politics in India post-elections


I have said this many times that the 2019 election is about the very idea of India. I want to ask myself if there is any space left for politics in this country – but I think that is a fundamentally flawed reaction. The flaw is this: that we conflate consequences with intentions. The consequences of this verdict are disastrous for this country. The intentions that go into the making of this verdict are not diabolical at all. Unless we see this distinction, there is no space for politics. The critical thing is to distinguish four things: voters, their reasons and intentions, the larger historical causes, and finally the consequences that the 2019 elections results will lead to. We need to look at these things separately, because I want to discover if there is any space for the political left in this country after the 23rd of May.

The reasons are very plain and would have been available to us if we were to walk out and speak to anyone on the street. Voters tell you why they voted and the way they think – a voter is saying, ‘I want a strong country, a country that I can take pride in and somehow I trust this man more than anyone else to bring it about that.’ She (voter) is also saying ‘I don’t like this negativity about anti-Modi all the time.’ She is saying, ‘don’t assume that because I belong to this caste you have my vote in your pocket’ and she is saying, ‘when I look at your coalitions meant to defeat this man, I am more frightened by you than I am frightened by this man.’ That’s what an ordinary voter is telling us.

These are hard things to recognize but I would plead with everyone to please recognize this. More often than not, voters are self-centred. Only some voters vote in a way that rises above their self – ‘I am not waiting for myself I am waiting for something big.’ Strangely, ironically, painfully, this was the election where more people voted selflessly than they voted selfishly. Take a farmer who has spent the night on the field trying to protect the field from the menace of stray animals, caused directly by the Yogi government in Uttar Pradesh. He tells a journalist, ‘Vote toh Modi ji ko dunga. kissan ko dikkat to hai, lekin yeh chunaav desh ka chunaav hai’ (I’ll vote for Modi. Farmers are indeed in trouble, but this election is about the country).

These are the reasons. In terms of intentions, there is anxiety, there is resentment and there is an aspiration. Anxiety about what will happen to this country, resentment held by the majority community vis-ŕ-vis minorities. These are not people who are blood-thirsty, but who feel that ‘musalmano ka mann kuch zyada badh gaya tha, thoda theek karne ki zarurat hai’ (Muslims have gone a little too far, they should be kept in check).

At the level of causality some things are much beyond the voter, and an ordinary voter has no sense of these things. These are the 4M’s: Modi, Money, Media and Machine. I don’t know if any party in the world today has the kind of election machine that the BJP has. The media and media narrative is completely captured. Money at an unimaginable scale; I can’t even begin to think how much money was spent. Modi, not so much in terms of the person, the Modi cult, but also the sheer will to power. Among the opposition parties, you see ambitions colliding against each other, but in the BJP they are synchronised towards one purpose.

And finally, the consequences of this verdict. The consequence is electoral authoritarianism; namely that elections will happen, but that is the only democratic episode that may happen. Counting will take place, but that’s the only fair thing that may happen in elections. The concentration of power, the decline of autonomous institutions, all will occur under the people’s confidence. Electoral authoritarianism or competitive authoritarianism is not something new. This is happening in Russia, in Turkey and in Hungary. Are we about to join it?

The second consequence is non-theocratic majoritarianism. We would remain a secular republic but informally we would have two gradations of citizenship – makan malik (owner) and kirayedar (tenant). This is what the Citizenship Bill is about.

If we were to simply read intentions from consequences, then it leaves zero space politics in this country. But if you agree with me that there is a disjunction between the consequences and the intentions and reasons behind them – and you speak to a voter on the basis of their reasons – there is a lot of space for creative politics. Space for politics because what drives you is the larger picture of what’s happening to India, that is, almost a dismantling of the idea of India. The possibility that the public could be mobilized to dispute to undo the republic – that’s what we are witnessing. That’s my motivation for politics but that’s not how I would do it. Politics requires that we understand what people were doing and respond creatively to that. To my mind that would require the recovery of three elements – one, nationalism: nationalism is the currency of politics and surrendering it can be debilitating in politics, especially in a post-colonial country. The deepest irony is that the party which had the sole monopoly of this currency is not identified with this idea. The second is religion – I think we have been terribly negligent, indifferent, and contemptuous about religion and religious language; that needs to be recovered. And third, culture and language. In many ways, I really feel the Indian elite is like the 19th century Russian elite, which spoke French and often wondered why peasants were doing what they were doing. We need to give that up. We need to recover these three things and then speak to ordinary people. The RSS, whatever else it may have done, it worked very hard for 90 years. Can we work for 90 months? Are we prepared to do that?


A storyteller’s victory


THERE is no dobut that the BJP demonstrates a hunger for power that is not diminished by being in power. So, for the last five years they have been at it on the ground. It was very visible. The other thing most of us on the ground could see was that the BJP had a multifaceted story, and it was the storytellers’ victory in the end. Each of the stories was actually asking the citizen, to rise above himself, as Yogendra Yadav was describing, for a larger cause. First, Hindutva was very much a part of this election. I travelled through UP and Bihar and in every town that I went to, I was told about how the Ram Navami celebration and procession this time was different from the ones that had gone before. It was different in a series of ways – there were DJs and songs in the procession that sang of Pakistan and Kashmir. There were young men on motorcycles brandishing weapons, ‘shastra pradarshan’, in a way that was never done before. In fact, one person in Ghazipur sat down and actually plotted the procession on a piece of paper, and said the procession starts from here – which is a Hindu dominated area, after about 300 metres it goes into a Muslim dominated area and then from there it was taken back to a Hindu dominated area because the Muslim area is surrounded by the Hindu neighbourhood. And when it goes from the Hindu to the Muslim area, the DJ changes, the music changes, the song changes, the tone of the words changes.

Certainly, there was a Hindutva appeal, but there were those who were not seduced by it. They were given the Rashtra to identify with: there was Rashtriyahit (national interest), there was Rashtriya prathistha (national prestige) and there was Rashtra ka samman (nation’s honour). This is something we heard everywhere, that India’s prestige has increased under the Modi regime in the international arena. About how when earlier prime ministers went abroad, they were ignored, and now when Modi goes, all eyes are on him. He gets awards and support from international leaders.

The issue of Rashtriya suraksha (national security) remained pervasive. Everywhere one heard ‘desh asurakshit hai’ (the country is in danger) and it is Modi who is going to rescue it as he has taken the fight straight into Pakistan. If the voter is not won over even by that, then there is a scheme that will reach right inside your home, and if you are again not persuaded by that then he says, ‘I am this one leader who decides everything and on the other side there is a cabal, out of which you don’t know who is going to be your prime minister.’ So, he told multiple stories and on the other side, the opposition had only two things to counter that. One was that Modi is evil, his stories are wrong, and the other was ‘I am Yadav you are Yadav vote for me.’ It was a very barefaced caste appeal attached to a repudiation of the Modi story. So, you have a storyteller on one side telling multiple stories and on the other, you have no story to counter his. This was the broad ambit on which this election was taking place.

But I would like to focus on one particular part of this, which is the schemes with which the Modi government entered homes. These schemes are now being described as most important reason for the victory of the BJP. I think something new has happened in the elections and it is as follows. Every government has schemes, every government has successful schemes as well. I have covered several elections before this one in which if you ask voters what they’ve got, they will always tell you what they haven’t got. There is only one other election in my experience where voters actually sat me down and counted out things they had got. I am talking about the deepest villages in Bihar, the 2010 election, which Nitish won handsomely. But there is a difference between that and now. This election I had people telling me, ‘I get Ujjwala, I’ve got a toilet, I got the road and electricity’, but the difference was that if I pressed them at least half said ‘I did not get this, somebody in the next village did, or somebody in the next neighbourhood.’ If I pressed them further and asked how they knew this, they would say ‘TV me dekha hai’, or ‘I am told.’ I think what happened was that there has been a conversion of the citizen into the labharthi (beneficiary), and the labharthi into the voter. Like I said, it is not as if people did not benefit from schemes earlier. But the difference here is that, the BJP not only had beneficiaries, but also a labharthi pramukh, appointed by the party, for every 10 booths on the ground. The task of the labharthi pramukh in the team was to go to the people, get them photographed if benefited from a scheme, and put it out on social media, videos, media. So more importantly, if you didn’t get the scheme, they would say don’t worry, it is on its way.

The voter was telling us ‘itna mil gaya hai, itna ayegaa bhi’. This is a first where you see the coming together of the Sangathan with the Sarkar, the organization with the government, to make the citizen into a beneficiary and a beneficiary into a voter. I don’t think this has been done before. Nitish could not do it to this extent because he did not have a Sangathan to back him up. He could only do what the state could do. So I think this is a narrative dominance, communicative dominance, which is reinforced constantly by the fact that you have these organizations reaching out to you and establishing Modi’s imprint, saying this is personal gift from Modi to you and if it hasn’t come to you, don’t worry it will. The conversion of the citizen into a labharthi.


Rethinking the Modi effect: party or personality?


IN every national election our post-election commentary often tends to crystallize into one master narrative of what happened. In 2004 the BJP defeat was said to be due to the tone deficit of India Shining. In 2009, that is what I think was the last scheme election, the UPA’s win was often said to be due to the impact of various schemes including NREGA and farm loan waivers. I think as we delve through the numbers, we have the benefit of hindsight. Those narratives have ranged from flatly wrong, from India Shining, to the simplified narrative of 2009 schemes.

So, let me suggest that we collectively hit the pause button on what I read as the dominant emerging narrative of this election, that this is a pure Modi effect election: one in which the singular, unmediated popularity of one man has single-handedly won the national mandate for his party. Put bluntly, we need far more careful theorizing and empirical testing of what such a leader effect might be, how it might work and how it might interact with alternative factors at play. I was very dejected. I was intervening after Yogendra ji because he stole my 4Ms, but I think each of those Ms are interacting in some way. The other three Ms he talked about, Media, Money are all intersecting with the Modi effect in the ways we need to tease out.

First, what is the Modi effect? So far what I’ve seen of the typical statistics being jotted out is that 32% of BJP supporters would have voted for a different party if Modi had not been PM. The relevant figure was 27% in 2014, so even more so than in 2014, this was a Modi election. How do we read the significance of this number? For example, in 2004 when the BJP lost, according to Lokniti, 29% of BJP voters said the same thing about Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Second, as Sandeep Shastri has noted in his statistic, even if we take this, it doesn’t suggest that Modi’s effect was the pre-dominant effect in the states where the BJP has consolidated. The Modi effect is often invoked as an explanation without any evidence. For example, we have heard that this effect has overwhelmed the issues, notably the government’s spotty economic record. Now, most of the time this is because analysts saw the economy not doing especially well but Modi’s party won, ergo Modi trumps economic issues. Just because we’re surprised doesn’t make it compelling evidence.

How might we study the Modi effect? I think one interesting idea is that there was some analysis from the Lokniti Team which found that as the election approached, voters started giving less weight to economic concerns. As of March, 38% of voters in that Lokniti survey reported unemployment, rise in prices, poverty, wages, GST, demonetization, or one of these as their number one priority. This decreased in the post-poll survey to 25%. Now, may be this is evidence of a Modi effect, perhaps that voters just like Modi so are looking for an excuse to vote for him. As the election approached, they reduced emphasis given to issues on which he or his government may have been seen to have performed poorly to help justify their choice. This is what political psychologists might call motivated reasoning. I think that is a really interesting argument but one we cannot confirm. For example, it could be a sign of increasing attachment to the BJP, not to Modi. We can’t just assume that it is Modi.

And in India, we actually might be worried about this particularly because many of the people who say they value Modi above all else, are actually people whose profile exactly matches the BJP’s supporter. Upper castes are 18% more likely to say they value Modi above all else, educated people are more likely to say that they value BJP above all else. These are the people who are seen as the core constituency of BJP. So what might be happening is that the BJP’s partisanship is increasingly expressed as loyalty to Modi, and that might make sense in the context of a centralizing party and the other phenomenon that we have seen. But we have to able to dissociate the Modi effect from the BJP effect and the partisanship effect.

The second point – I think we need to do far better to theorize and test how the Modi effect related to various other factors that may be at play. So, here we come to the M’s – Money, Media Mobilizes. Perhaps the Modi effect compliments these other factors. Perhaps, it’s a substitute for them or perhaps it is an outcome of the factors suggesting the latter are in fact playing a preeminent role in explaining a vote that is in many ways been masked by the focus on Modi.

Again, we haven’t seen really compelling evidence teasing out which of these explanations holds. But just to give you an example, what if the Modi effect is really just a ‘leader of the richest and best organized party effect?’ For example, in 2014, an article by Pradeep Chhibber and Susan Ostermann found that even in that election, which was at that time described as a Modi wave, the BJP’s vote share was actually driven by the media, and by on the ground mobilizers. Where the BJP had on the ground mobilizers it did well. Such ground canvassing has been repeatedly found central to winning votes in US campaigns. In fact, we might even find that the mobilizers produce a leader effect. In 2004, the Vajpayee effect I talked about, was much higher among supporters who had been reached out to by party workers during the election, than those who had not. Finally, I think these effects, media and mobilizers themselves, both rest on a key BJP advantage that we discussed earlier – money. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), in the Financial Year 2017-18, the BJP received 74% of all declared income from India’s seven largest parties. It also captured 98% of electoral bonds and 99.8% of this were sums of either Rs 10 lakhs or one crore. For me, this suggests a period of crony capitalism. Why does this money matter? Money matters because we know it produces different kinds of advantages including mobilization. For ground workers from West Bengal, the BJP’s workers were paid three times more than those of the Trinamool Congress during the election campaign.

Money also helps projecting winnability – Chhibber and Ostermann found out who the mobilizers were. Mobilizers are drawn to the party not because they liked Mr Modi in 2014, but because they think the BJP has the best chance of winning. It was a strategic decision and one of the ways to project winnability is by spending a lot of money. We have to do a lot more thinking about how these different structural advantages are underpinning what we are terming the Modi effect.


Better product delivery, more buyers


THE game has not changed, and neither has politics. I think to analyse the 2019 election results, we have to first admit that Modi’s rise is not a fraud on India. He just had a better story and a better product. We choose our own explanations for any event that takes place. In 2004, everybody said, because it suited everybody around the Congress, that the BJP lost because of India Shining. Cut to numbers; the BJP just got nine seats less than the Congress. The BJP lost because of Gujarat 2002, because they could not fire Narendra Modi; so many regional parties which had earlier gone with BJP, were no longer willing to, including Mamata Banerjee and Chandrababu Naidu. But because the brigade around Mrs. Gandhi, and 10 Janpath, wanted to give credit to something else, they said it was India Shining, so now you should have inclusive growth. However, the government within a week was doing exactly what the previous government had done with the economy. In 2009, another mythology was spread. When the incumbent comes back with a larger majority than the previous one, who do you give the credit to? The reason it won 2009 with large numbers is because India had never seen years of continued high growth. But the intellectual establishment and political darbar of the Congress party was not willing to accept that. They undermined UPA 2, pushed it back. People got angry having gotten used to seeing growth, so they brought Narendra Modi in because they thought he, coming from Gujarat, would bring something similar. Whether he did or not, he hasn’t brought growth. That is what happened, and sometimes convenient analysis is the pitfall.

The most striking thing for me in this campaign was Modi getting away with saying that the history of this country begins in 2014. The previous 10 years had much better growth, India built an infrastructure – the airports of Delhi and Bombay were built during that period. Look at the way the global economic downturn was handled by India; it was a great international success story. But the amazing thing for me was that in the many days of campaigning I never heard Rahul Gandhi or anybody from the Congress party say anything good about what their own government had delivered under UPA II. They blamed Modi; they blamed the media. The only achievements the Congress party was willing to talk about were not even those of Rajiv Gandhi but about Indira Gandhi, with 80% people, voters of this country were born after Indira Gandhi had passed away.

You can blame the media, money and whatever else. In Haryana the BJP candidates got a 68% vote, while Haryana’s premier Jat party, INLD, Chautala’s party, got just 1.8%. That tells you another story. Somebody just had a much better product. People have been defeated despite the money. Look at Chandrababu Naidu, he was not short of money in Andhra. Nothing can stop people from building a big organization, but you have to have workers with commitment.

The second thing is the labharthi business. The voters in the country do not trust the Congress schemes. What the BJP government did was they used the direct benefit transfer. They used JAM Trinity – Jan Dhan account, Aadhaar and Mudra loans. I have to say this very honestly that we journalists compulsively try to deny this reality. ‘They’ve got a gas cylinder, but they can’t afford the next cylinder,’ but that is their problem, the fact is that they got one. ‘The next one is full price’ – it’s a lie, the next one is not full price, and regardless of that, once you have the gas connection, you are empowered. The fact is these people had never seen the delivery of anything, and even if they got a delivery, they had not seen the delivery of anything without having to pay bribes for it, including NREGA wages in most cases.

This is a big change. Like it or not, smart people are learning from it. KCR is doing the same in Telangana; Chandrababu did it, and now Jagan will do it. It is wrong to say this is only Hindutva. That has helped Modi consolidate the upper caste vote, so he has now got the largest caste vote bank in the country. Because they see that this PM has protected ‘merit’. He has also taken away all the other OBCs simply because caste based parties, OBC parties of the past, became family run parties, and because the SP and RJD became family run Yadav parties. The other OBCs fled because they did not feel empowered there. Similarly for Dalits, because of Mayawati Jatavs became so powerful, the rest fled. These are really important changes.

The Congress has to understand this and counter it. Every time Rahul spoke out saying ‘Chowkidaar Chor Hai’, a lot of people from the crowd say, ‘arey yeh aadha angrez aadmi hai ,pata nahi kahan se aya hai, jo humara shareef aadmi hai, desi aadmi hai, kaam kar raha hai, usko chor bol raha hai.’ This India hates elitism. Modi is now an elite, he dresses nicely, but people say he earned it, unlike you guys because your daddy gave it to you. So, it is a very different India.


An unequal playing field


I would focus on the structural and the strategic advantages the BJP had in this election. I will start with the structural reasons, because we haven’t focused on them in this discussion. I would say this particular election is unprecedented in Indian history in one respect – the sheer inequality in terms of fairness and a level playing field, and what we see today is the dominant system of the BJP. I would frame it differently, in the form of quasi-electoral political inequality. And if we want to study the data, maybe we should develop some kind of inequality index, so that we can capture that element.

I would argue that these inequalities are manifested on five axes. One is, of course, financial inequality where you have this phenomenon of electoral bonds that Tariq referred to briefly, which I think has happened for first time in an Indian election, or any election in the world. I doubt if any self-respecting democracy would let any political party get away with a scheme like that. But it has happened in this election in India and in two months we had a figure of 3600 crore coming into a political party, and that has had a big impact on the way a campaign was managed in terms of resources, access and so on. The second axis is, of course, human resources, and here we had other people talking about the boots on the ground lacking on the Congress side, and from other opposition parties. The BJP were able to motivate more people by giving more money for the groundwork. There is also the RSS factor, which counts in a major way for the BJP in terms of boots on the ground.

The third axis of inequality would be media power, which of course I don’t want to spend more time on as most people understand what I am talking about. The fourth is institutional inequality, institutional power. And here the big example would be the way the primary institution like the Election Commission conducted itself. I think there is a widespread perception, not without justification, that it has been partisan.

And finally, I would say the most important axis of inequality here has been communication power. The BJP/Modi combine has been able to display the power of communication premised on the preceding four inequalities – financial, institutional, media and so on. There are quite a few examples – the way Balakot air strikes were playing during the campaign. Even in the last phase, the entire Kedarnath trip, how it was used in different ways with the help of the media. I think it points very clearly to how these inequalities have played a big role in the electoral verdict.

Moving onto the strategic reasons, I think there are broadly four patterns or highlights I would like to point out. One, is that the opposition and particularly the Congress, had started its campaign very late, its manifesto coming out 15 days before the start of the polling and their brilliant manifesto hardly reached the public. Second, the opposition and in particular the Congress, had no answer to the BJP and Modi’s bogus nationalism. They didn’t seem to be interested in engaging with the kind of nationalistic rhetoric which was coming at them and they could have asked some tough questions. When so many Congress leaders were part of the freedom movement, why were they never invoked in their campaign? Or was Indian nationalism all about Savarkar; was it all about the RSS?

Number three, this was clearly a presidential election, in which the opposition did not have a presidential candidate. That became a huge disadvantage. The BJP had personified their campaign in the figure of Modi, but the opposition, for various reasons, couldn’t come up with a candidate who could personify their appeal. Even if the opposition could have come up with a united candidate, it could have created a big difference to voters who said, ‘If not Modi, then who?’

Lastly, the Congress and the opposition did not have a story. When Modi came on to the national stage in 2014 he had a story for the country. He had the Gujarat model – we may disagree in terms of how bogus, how untrue it was, but it was a story nonetheless. There was the story of having been a chaiwala, and how in the last five years the story of India had gained global prestige. So it was all about stories, of course on the back of a tremendously funded campaign. The Congress too could have had a story. It ruled some state governments and could have used its time in power to show performance on the ground, and take that story to the national level. They could have brought their own model to the campaign, but they didn’t. I think all these four factors played a major role in the way the whole election panned out.

But in combination with the structural factors, it was a complete walkover in terms of offering an alternative. The question that really interests me about this verdict is: what could the opposition have done differently so that the verdict would have been different? Is there anyone or anybody who could have done it, apart from the BJP? If the answer is no, then there is a big question mark because it takes one back to the question of whether we are becoming a managed democracy, like Russia is. In a managed democracy, you will have an electoral majority. I would call it authoritarian populism, which is a slightly different term. I think this is a danger we are looking at as we move forward.