A common way of thinking about forthcoming general elections in India is by analogy to past elections. Ever since the formation of the mahagathbandan or grand alliance in the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party have, like Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, dismissed new Opposition alliances as cynical arrangements motivated only by the desire to unseat Modi. In recent months, Modi’s rhetoric has moved especially close to that used by Gandhi in the election campaign of 1971, when she contrasted her slogan of Garibi Hatao with the Opposition’s Indira Hatao.
Writing in The Wire, Raghu Karnad directs us instead to 1977, the election the BJP “are hoping we don’t remember”. 1977, he writes, showed how an allegedly “unholy” alliance can win power, and has both resonances with and lessons for the present.
Karnad acknowledges some limitations to the analogy between 1977 and 2019. But when it comes to 2019, all such analogies hold little explanatory value. Their value is narrative: they allow politicians and commentators to deploy the past to construct a rhetorically useful image of the present.
Those who support the BJP or believe it is likely to be re-elected this year can point to 1971, when an alliance almost as broad as that of 1977 was soundly defeated, or to 2009, when the incumbent Congress-led United Progressive Alliance won an unexpectedly comfortable re-election. Those who favour the prospects of the grand alliance can look, besides 1977, to 1989 – wave followed by repudiation – and to 2004, when agrarian distress was commonly cited as a contributor to the BJP’s defeat.
Every such analogy falls on closer inspection. Take 1977, for instance. The resentment against the BJP’s policies – whether demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax, or gau rakshak violence – is nowhere near as intense as the resentment against forced sterilisation and slum clearance in the North India that year (the resilience of the BJP’s voteshare in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh attests to this). In 1977, Indira Gandhi actually lost from Rae Bareli as Sanjay Gandhi did from Amethi. Narendra Modi will lose no sleep over threats to his own re-election this year, whether he contests from Varanasi or somewhere else.
In 1977, the Congress was abandoned on a large scale by two of its long-time core constituencies: Muslims and Scheduled Castes. There is another key difference related to the Scheduled Castes. In 1977, the late defection of Jagjivan Ram, who took with him a chunk of Dalit votes, helped swing the election in the Opposition’s favour. Similarly, in 1989, VP Singh’s defection doomed Rajiv Gandhi’s chances of re-election. Ram and Singh were among the most prominent and influential ministers of their governments at the time they quit. The BJP, in 2019, has suffered no such desertion (Vajpayee-era ministers who were denied posts in 2014 hardly count). The ideological coherence of the Sangh Parivar makes disaffected senior leaders more likely to stick it out than leave the party. Jagjivan Ram’s defection was likely motivated by his reading of the political current. This time, his fellow Dalit leader from Bihar and the renowned weathercock, Ram Vilas Paswan, is staying with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
The salutary lesson of 1977 for 2019 may lie not in the elections themselves, but in what followed. The Janata government collapsed within three years under the weight of its personal rivalries and ideological contradictions. The electorate did more than forgive Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi: they returned in a landslide. If the grand alliance wins power but is unable to construct a coherent government with an identity that is more than not-Modi, it is likely to meet with a similar fate.
No single story for 2019
A general case can be made against one-to-one analogies between elections. But the particular nature of 2019 makes such analogies particularly unhelpful. 2019 is simply not an election that can be summarised by a single story.
There is no “Modi wave” this time, but nor is there a discernible rejection of Modi’s leadership. This election is not “Modi vs Rahul”, because despite the BJP’s best efforts, the Congress refuses to define it as such, and there are many other prime ministerial aspirants. But nor is it coalition vs coalition, in the manner of elections in the 1990s and 2000s. Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s brand of coalition adharma, in which they attempt to eat their allies’ voteshare from the inside in the hope of eventually supplanting them, has frayed coalition unity to such an extent that some allies openly hope that the BJP wins fewer than 200 seats.
There is no dominant national narrative, but nor is it a mere aggregation of state-level contests, because of the ubiquity of the prime minister – this is the first government since Rajiv Gandhi’s to be nominatively identified with an individual rather than party or coalition.
The complexity of 2019 arises from a period of rapid political change. 2014 was indeed – at least in Hindi-speaking and western India – a “Modi wave”. But the three years from the general election that year to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election constitute a broader realignment of Indian politics. The wave may have eased, but the realignment persists: a system with two national parties, with the BJP as clear frontrunner, competitive in many more states and constituencies.
Many aspects of this realignment will play out in the general elections and their aftermath. The BJP’s majority licenced it to become the party of unfettered Hindutva. This makes it harder for potential allies who are structurally dependent on minority votes in their states to join a BJP-led coalition. For instance, without the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Trinamool Congress and Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, the BJP could not have formed a government at the Centre in 1999. BJP supporters who today regard Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as a promoter of Islamism and “demographic warfare”, and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah as an agent of Pakistan, conveniently overlook the fact that they served, quite happily, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Now such parties are off the table as allies. Nor, for similar reasons, will it be as easy as some assume for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi to join a government led by Modi.
If the NDA loses its majority, Modi’s transformation of the BJP into a Caesarist party will come up against the desire of many allies and some within the BJP to see a change of prime minister and party president. And in no recent election has the BJP held such a pronounced financial advantage over the Congress. 2019 will be as good a case study as any for the electoral effectiveness of money power.
Yet 2019 may also reveal that this supposed realignment was only temporary. With the exception of Gujarat, all the BJP’s victories under Modi and Shah have come in states where the party was in opposition or, as Print editor Shekhar Gupta puts it, through “mergers and acquisitions”. The party’s financial and organisational strength are undeniable. Its ability to satisfy voter expectations is a less resolved matter.
As inconvenient as it may be for columnists, to the extent that “the story” of this election can ever be known, it will only be known in retrospect.