In 2014, India went back to 1984.
A few days before the year 1984 came to a close, the Indian electorate gave Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress an unprecedented victory. The party won more than 400 Lok Sabha seats, a figure never before, or never since, matched. Opposition parties were more or less decimated. The second-largest group in the Lok Sabha was the Telugu Desam, with just 30 seats. Armed with a ringing mandate from the Awaam-e-Hind, Rajiv Gandhi took oath a second time on 31 December 1984.
A few days later, I wrote in The New York Times that “a conservative, Hindu revolution had swept India”: “…the Indian people have entrusted Rajiv Gandhi with safeguarding the country’s unity. He wrapped himself in the flag and sold himself as the political heir to Indira Gandhi, whose assassination by two Sikh security guards in October  became synonymous with an assault on the Indian state... The Congress Party’s triumph is frightening because Rajiv Gandhi depicted the assault on the state as the work of separatist Sikh fundamentalists. His campaign theme of “unity in danger” deeply touched many Hindus, appealing subtly to their historical fears and mistrust of non-Hindus.
“Rajiv Gandhi’s mandate can be summed up as a triumph of neo-Hinduism. Thousands of chauvinistic Hindus abandoned their traditional champion – right-wing parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party – to rally under his banner. And though those parties have been decimated, the right-wing constituency has in fact been strengthened and enlarged, putting the liberal, democratic fringe in mortal danger.”
In 2014, Narendra Modi reclaimed – brilliantly and imaginatively – that “right-wing constituency”, tickling its visceral mistrust of non- Hindus.
There is no easy answer as to how a deeply controversial and divisive political leader was able to entice the Indian voter into giving him an unlimited mandate.
By 2008, the alliance between the UPA and the Left had broken down over the Indo–US Nuclear Agreement; in the 2009 elections, voters had administered a sharp rebuke to Prakash Karat’s CPM; between 2009 and 2014, the Left was in no position to influence the course of Indian politics or its narrative; and, by 2014, neither the Left nor the “Third Front” parties had staged any kind of recovery on the national scene. Barring strong regional parties like the AIADMK, Biju Janata Dal and the Trinamool Congress in their respective states, the electoral contest had come down to a face-off between the BJP and the Congress. The BJP had positioned itself as the challenger and sold itself as an acceptable alternative. And then Narendra Modi imaginatively converted a parliamentary contest into a presidential- type face-off.
The Congress response to Narendra Modi’s campaign was uninspired. And there are a number of possible reasons why the Congress/the Nehru–Gandhi family failed to appreciate the challenge he posed to them and to the country.
First, the Congress did not think Narendra Modi could overcome the formidable resistance from the L.K. Advani–Sushma Swaraj– Shivraj Singh Chouhan camp. The Congress had calculated that the Advani camp would see to it that Narendra Modi did not become the BJP’s prime ministerial mascot.
Second, the Congress crowd was convinced that Narendra Modi would have no appeal outside of Gujarat, and other regional narratives would not allow him to break out of his home state.
Third, the Congress leadership was certain – and, perhaps, with good reason – that ten years of UPA rule had helped the country become irrevocably secular and irretrievably liberal, and that this new India would not countenance a “communal” Modi. The liberal / secular / progressive camp thought India had moved away from the allurements of Hindutva – after all, India did reject, first, a Modi-scarred Vajpayee in 2004 and then an Advani-led NDA in 2009. To the liberal, it was incomprehensible that Narendra Modi would get rehabilitated in the public esteem. The only comparable parallel in recent history was that of Richard Nixon resurrecting himself in 1968.
A Narendra Modi victory was possible in 2014 because India had changed, and changed dramatically – and he was in sync with the taste, temper and temptations of the times. He was crude, vulgar, cheap and coarse during his campaign – and he was in tune with coarsened Indian social manners and cultural tastes.
India, like all societies, was a changed place from what it had been ten years ago, when the UPA came to power, in 2004. The India of 2014 had different anxieties, unfulfilled ambitions and aspirations in a globalised world. Various streams of a two-decade-old process were converging to produce a new mood.
For some time now, a cheapening of popular culture had quietly and effortlessly been in the works. Popular culture – cinema, songs, pop music, comedy, television soaps – had made society feel at ease with a new coarseness. More pertinently, our popular culture had moved away from social concerns; our films no longer exhorted us to put our collective shoulder to the wheel to usher in a new social order; as a society, we were seduced into acquisitive values, rendering us perennially dissatisfied, discontented and angry. We were encouraged to look for a helmsman who would find solutions without making any demands on us.
This emerging cultural mood was further solidified because of new information technology. By the time the 2014 choice came upon us, we had become a “nation connected” – becoming more and more so each week. Ever-changing information technology equipped us to talk across differences of cultures and distances of geography; instant information, instant reactions and instant retaliations defined our collective and individual sense of ourselves. We became both ambiguous and insistent as to who we were, or want to be. This journey of self-definition and self-discovery remains a work in progress, susceptible to manipulations and machinations.
Since 1991, when India got sucked into global culture and its connectedness, more and more Indians have been encouraged to think of themselves in global terms. We felt confident enough to set global benchmarks for ourselves. For instance, Manmohan Singh himself as Prime Minister promised to make Mumbai a “Shanghai”.
Predictably, during the ten years of the UPA, the contrarian swadeshi argument got little play. Indians – the middle classes and lower-middle classes – were deemed to have become insistently aspirational. They became eager consumers of values, ideas and dreams that advertising creative teams ascribed to “brands”. We were initiated into a Fair & Lovely gullibility.
It all added up: Indian movies were, as a matter of routine, increasingly shot in foreign locales, whetting young Indians’ appetite for a good life denied to them earlier. We wanted a life definitely better than our forefathers.
Secondly, we also acquired a nationalistic edginess. We were quick to see an insult, and quick to take offence at the slightest pretext. Under prodding from our Diaspora, made easier by instant connectivity, we increasingly appointed ourselves as custodians of the honour and dignity of our fellow Indians overseas; our television media merrily got sucked into their anxieties and insecurities. A drunken brawl in a Melbourne bar, for example, got portrayed as a full-fledged assault on Indian pride.
Then, there were the new Indian business, legal and political elites, who were bonding differently and frequently with influential Indians in London and New York. On the other hand, super-rich NRIs – liquor tycoons and steel magnates – and Indian corporate leaders were in and out of Delhi and Mumbai at the drop of a hat, confabulating and socialising. New mobility and new affluence combined to produce a new national confidence.
In the first week of April 2013, the iconic American astronaut Sunita Williams visited India. We lapped her up. We appropriated her accomplishments in the foremost frontier of science and technology, her confident achievements in a merit-based competitive society. She became a role-model for aspiring middle-class Indians. And then, when she told us, “I took [with me to space] a copy of the Upanishads and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita to reflect and read”, she validated our Indian heritage and nationalistic pride; and when she said she ate “samosas in space”, we were immensely pleased to be confirmed in our inward-lookingness.
A few years before that, the nuclear deal had become a defining moment. The emotions, anxieties and ideas associated with that prolonged negotiation gave us a sense of “arrival” on the global stage. Manmohan Singh had become the symbol of that competence and confidence, our ability to protect and promote our national interests in an uncharitable world.
Thirdly, the Indian Diaspora was now on hourly call; it became our next-door neighbour. Revolutions in information technology emboldened them to indulge their American-centric right-wing ideologies with us. They could see for themselves that there was no shame – and, in fact, all the glory – in being a racist, bigot and right-wing loony in a post-9/11 America. They were eager to imitate and introduce to India the super-partisan, mudslinging, dirty-tricks department. It was only a matter of time before they began thinking they were entitled to intervene in affairs back home.
Fourthly, a subaltern narrative was being woven. Baba Ramdev, Asaram Bapu, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and other gurus were talking everyday to millions and millions of viewers – helping ordinary Indians make sense of a bewildering and confusing India. Even at their most enlightened self, these “spiritual” voices were not – could not be – enamoured of Nehruvian values. Religious figures were reinforcing the ordinary Hindu’s Hinduness for him, making him feel comfortable with religious paraphernalia. They dispensed medicine, wisdom and political partisanship. In the days following 2009, some of these “spiritual” voices became the Hindu Right’s valuable and formidable auxiliary phalanx that sneaked into civil society’s jihad against corruption.
Lastly, India could not remain unimpressed with the Arab Spring excitement. Indian middle classes watched with fascination as traditional societies in the Middle East experimented with a new grammar of defiance and interrogation. We in India felt reaffirmed in thinking that protest and dissent were politically correct; we came to believe that to be angry was “cool”. Thousands across our cities felt genuinely outraged and emboldened enough to raise their voice against seemingly never-ending civic injustices. By 2014, India was a remarkably confused land and was vulnerable to grand manipulations. It was ready to embrace the idea of challenging the orthodoxy. Questioning “authority” had become a fun and acceptable proposition.
In the midst of the 2014 elections (7 April 2014), Time magazine came out with a cover story that was headlined What India wants. The story ended with a quote by a Maharashtra resident who had felt nationalistic at the Wagah border ceremony of machismo: “I am ready for change. The government needs to start working for the nation, not for itself. Parties aren’t important. India is what’s important.”
Implicit in this sentiment was a cumulative, unconscious perception that the Congress, the UPA, Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and every Congress minister [like Salman Khurshid and Sriprakash Jaiswal] appeared to be interested only in making Rahul Gandhi the next king. What was more, the projected king himself did not behave like a king, nor did he assure the realm he was interested in learning his kingly duties.
In a global mood of subversion, questioning, defiance and interrogation, the idea of Rahul Gandhi’s entitlement to lead us was an intellectual and emotional oddity. He did not come across as a humble seeker, wanting a chance to serve the people and change the landscape. Rather, the Congress’s habitual preference for what the Chinese call pai ma pi (“patting the horse’s bottom”, an evolved ritual of sycophancy) ensured that the young man was seen by India as an unworthy usurper.
The Congress and its first family simply did not understand how changes in new information technology had mesmerised the citizens – each night, viewers became consumers of angry nationalism, enraged civic sensibilities, and spurious wisdom from spurious gurus – inducing in them a new sense of anger and power that insisted on a certain type of behaviour from the “authority”. Yet, within the Congress, the “family” matrix proceeded untroubled on the complacent assumptions of an India in the second half of the twentieth century, when a Nehru and an Indira Gandhi and then a Rajiv Gandhi had the answers and the responses to the ambitions and anxieties of the Indian nation. The family and its intellectual support networks neither understood nor anticipated the changes that had seeped into the Indian psyche.
It was Narendra Modi’s brilliance that he understood the gaping hole at the centre of the Congress argument – that the party was defending the very “idea of India”. Indeed, Nehru would have been vociferous in his opposition and denunciation of dynastic entitlement. Narendra Modi very subtly brought out the contradiction between a democratic and modern India and the Nehru–Gandhi family. And he brought with him a messianic intensity to this project. The Congress and the Modi campaigns were a study in contrast. The former remained subdued and restrained in its sales-pitch; Narendra Modi, on the other hand, was loud, brash and bragging. Sonia Gandhi was like Waheeda Rehman of Guide, graceful and gentle; Narendra Modi was Katrina Kaif from Dhoom 3, all energy, motion and perspiration.
He seemed to have made a strategic choice: to use negativity as a principal tactic. With his sneering pugnacity, he focused the spotlight at the dynasty’s feet of clay. He could generate public acceptance for himself by sporting a set of attitudes towards the family – of defiance [of the family], of departure from the NDA, and of denial [of 2002].
The Congress was ill-equipped – conceptually and intellectually – to understand, leave alone counter, the Modi ploy to turn the 2014 election into a referendum on the family, especially Rahul Gandhi.
This was not the first time that “Sonia Gandhi the foreigner”, or the Nehru–Gandhi family, had been sought to be made into a defining issue. In the 1999 and 2004 Lok Sabha elections, BJP leaders regularly and routinely made the family an issue. Narendra Modi was simply following the old script in 2014. However, he understood that India was prepared to listen to a soft-Hindutva song. He imaginatively plugged into other dominant sentiments – our edgy nationalism, the middle classes’ unsatisfied quest for the good life, the coarsened popular discourse – to weave a powerful anti- Family narrative, depicting the Congress president as the purveyor of shoddy secularism, that too at the expense of the Hindu majority. The UPA arrangement was shown up as a selfish project, designed to install Rahul Gandhi as a matter of a dynastic entitlement. Narendra Modi was at his creative best in showing up the Congress’s preoccupation with a family as proof of its non-Hindu credentials, disdainful of the interests and welfare of the majority of the people in India.
Above all, Narendra Modi and the Sangh Parivar sensed that India was once again experiencing a “Hindu moment”, à la 1984. In the Hindi heartland, BJP campaign managers struck just the right communal pitch – not too loud, not too aggressive – so as to ensure that the moderate Hindu was not driven away; the average Hindu was wooed in a communal idiom without making him feel that he was being sucked into an anti-Muslim vortex. Just as Rajiv Gandhi was able to pigeonhole all his political rivals as being soft on Sikh separatists, Narendra Modi managed to depict the Congress as a ‘ma-beta party’ that was inimical to Hindu interests, values and sentiments, and, by implication, to national security and well-being.
In 2013, Ashok Singhal of VHP had predicted that “after the 1990s, the time has come for another Hindu uprising. Those who oppose it will be vanquished.” In 2014, Narendra Modi succeeded in instigating another Hindu uprising to become Prime Minister.
Harish Khare is a senior journalist.
Excerpted with permission from How Modi Won It: Notes from the 2014 Election, Harish Khare, Hachette.
In 2014, India went back to 1984.