Of the many state elections since the general election of 2014, the just-concluded Gujarat election is the one that most needs a political science explanation. In the deeply polarised democracy of India today, where political wish gets mixed up with objective analysis such that we cannot tell them apart, the challenge is to offer an explanation of the election result sans political prejudice, which is ample, but also sans disinterest. The attempt here is to look at Gujarat 2017 from the perspective of Indian democracy. Something has happened in that state in the last 20 years that needs some explaining.
Let me begin by responding to the conventional explanations about this election. First is anti-incumbency. After four terms in government, the BJP should have been voted out especially since the state had a credible alternative in the Congress and since the expectation gap of the voter, between promise and performance, aspiration and delivery, always results in discontent with the party in power. This is the usual trend in most democracies. Where voters have a choice they vote out incumbents. Challengers are voted in on a platform of hope. This did not happen in Gujarat. The BJP’s fifth win in a row bucks this anti-incumbency trend.
Second relates to the new social coalition, based on the caste identities of the Patidars, Other Backward Castes and Dalits – a formation like KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) – that was supposed to be taking shape in 2017. It did not emerge. While there was youth mobilisation and community anger, these were insufficient to vote out the BJP, which seems to have retained the majority support within these so-called disaffected communities. The social coalition that was forming, based on the identity politics of caste, did not pick up enough steam; it remained feeble. Something seemed to be blocking the politics of caste identity from developing fully as had been forecast by many commentators on Indian politics.
Third concerns Modi’s charisma. This did play a significant role in the result. It cannot be denied. His intense campaigning turned the tide, especially in the last two weeks of the campaign. My twist to the charisma explanation is that Modi became the message. It is this message that needs deconstructing. Seeing it only as charisma is not enough for no charismatic leader can sustain a relationship of devotion with his followers for 20 years, for charisma, as the German sociologist Max Weber who introduced the term into political discourse argued, soon gets routinised and become either traditional or legal rational authority. Modi’s charisma survives in Gujarat because it has come to represent something else: Hindu majoritarianism, state muscularity, global recognition and nationalist assertiveness.
Fourth is the organisational resources of the BJP. This was certainly a factor in the BJP’s victory, for the party had at its disposal not just its own workers but also the large cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, present at every level, from the booth to the Union Cabinet, to mount an effective campaign. That the Congress could withstand the campaign blitzkrieg unleashed by the BJP, and improve its tally, is a measure of its resilience and its astute crafting of an intelligent campaign.
Fifth is the money and media power harnessed by the BJP. In this, the BJP had a huge advantage because of its proximity to the media, which set the terms of the election discourse. This it did, from running with the “neech aadmi” remark of Mani Shankar Aiyar to polarising the electorate by invoking the bogey of Pakistan and a Muslim chief minister.
Beyond the obvious
But the result tells us something more beyond the usual explanations of caste and identity politics, or the money power of the BJP vis-à-vis the Congress, or the organisational strength and depth of the Sangh Parivar, or Modi’s continuing charisma, or Congress’s revival, or Rahul’s emergence, or Amit Shah’s cunning, or even the success of the politics of polarisation. These factors were indeed important but they tell us only the obvious story of the result.
The deeper story was revealed to me by that perceptive analyst of half a century of Indian politics – especially of Gujarat – Dhirubhai Sheth. As someone who has looked at democracy in India through two lenses simultaneously – “What is democracy doing to India, and what is India doing to democracy?” – Sheth offered four propositions that need to be considered at length. He argued that the Gujarat election is illustrative of a systemic change taking place in Indian politics because of the deepening of democracy and because of the society-wide impact of economic growth.
The first proposition is that these two processes are changing the dynamic of Indian politics because they have produced both individuated citizens and a class of people with rising aspiration. Over the last 25 years, this class of people has entered modernity and cultivated global aspirations. This can be referred to as the process of classicisation, an inelegant term but in explanatory terms precise and appropriate. It refers to the emergence of a middle class with many fractions, from the lower middle that owns an Oppo mobile phone to the upper middle that speaks on an Apple phone. The emergence of this class means the identity politics of caste will soon hit a barrier of class, which is increasingly becoming the driver of social decision-making and, hence, of politics.
Every caste faces this barrier, from the Dalit to the OBC to the dominant Patidar. They all have within them a middle class. Caste and class interests there now have to be balanced by the voter when she makes her decision. Increasingly, it is class that determines the social decision of the person. To, therefore, see the Gujarat election only as a play of caste coalitions is to rely on old frameworks to explain a new reality.
Two, this classicisation is accompanied by a process of increasing individuation where group behaviour yields to individual behaviour, especially in political choices and action. This process of individuation exists across all social groups, and across all spaces, rural and urban, town and metropolis. It is also manifest among all genders. Women whose votes were earlier dictated by their menfolk are now increasingly making their own decisions. The same is true for youth. This fragmentation of the group vote into votes of individuals can be seen in the BJP’s victory in Gujarat but also in the victory of youth leaders who challenged the ruling party. Because Gujarat is the most urban of Indian states this factor is most pronounced here. Modi the message become relevant here.
OBCisation of Hinduism
Three, control over the Hindu symbolic world has shifted from the Brahmins to the OBCs. This is a major shift. So to see Hindutva as a reassertion of Brahminism is to miss the change that has occurred in the internal universe of Hinduism where the rising castes have taken hold of the rituals, symbols, identity markers and religious discourses of Hinduism. This shift to the OBC, because it constitutes a big voter base, has created a favourable ground for the BJP’s politics. You can see it in the endorsement of the BJP’s politics by various mathas and religious leaders as well as in the growth of religious festivals. It is a product of the changes that economic growth and citizenship rights have given to these socially upwardly castes. This OBCisation of Hinduism has been aided by both classicisation and politicisation. Politics has become an instrument to gain positional advantage in society. Popular religion has become its handmaiden.
Four, and this aspect is more structural, the party system in Gujarat seems to have developed from a two-party system into what Rajni Kothari – writing about the Congress system in 1964 – called the “one dominant party system”. Its fifth consecutive win suggests that all interests in Gujarat now find place in the BJP, which has become a catch-all party. The small shares of votes received by other parties, except the Congress, shows that the interests they represent from outside the BJP also find a presence within the BJP. In Kothari’s frame, these parties are, merely parties of pressure. The Congress, however, stands against this trend and can halt the slide into the “one dominant party system” and get the system to revert back to the two-party alternating system. For that it would need to take into account the processes of politicisation, classicisation and individuation; for that it would need to recognise that the centre of the symbolic universe has shifted.
On the conventional aspects discussed earlier, the Congress has actually done well. If Gujarat 2017 is a forerunner of India 2019, not in terms of result but in terms of understanding the changes that have taken place in India and crafting a political strategy accordingly, one needs to see which party will finesse its campaign keeping these processes in mind.
Peter Ronald deSouza is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.