“The Gandhi family is finished. They are no longer a force in Indian politics. India has moved past them, they are history.” Strong words from Bharatiya Janata Party chief media spokesman Srikant Sharma. Certainly, he had a point, given that Indian voters had given the contending BJP an outright majority of 282 seats in the 543-seat lower house. It was the first party to have attained the feat since 1984, leaving Congress shattered to the tune of 47 or so seats, though a clawing effort may bring the final total to above 50.
Narendra Modi’s thrill had to be collectivised – his victory was not one for his own candidacy and the BJP. Indeed, it was India who had won, as he suggested on Twitter. The patriots have certainly gotten a boost in levels of pride.
The BJP’s aims against the Gandhi dynasts and the convenience of placing the corruption voodoo doll in one place was very tempting rhetoric. The BJP had certainly succeeded in part in placing rampant corruption in the hands of a few, keeping big business on side while giving the impression of being a force of stability. For a country that had prided itself on steady, even aggressive economic progress, a growth rate below 5 per cent was crippling. Adding to that the problems of stalled investments in infrastructure, and the picture looked even bleaker. (Whether Modi can, in fact, release such funding remains the big question.)
Modi’s polarising quality was minimised, though his party did accuse Rahul Gandhi and Congress for waging “a campaign full of fear and hate”. Gandhi had warned that a Muslim-Hindu debate only benefited one party: Pakistan. The “peace of the graveyard” that has prevailed in Gujarat, much of it a design of Modi while chief minister, suggests a disturbing precedent. There have been no trials and punishments of those in the infamous pogrom against Muslims in the state. Muslim families are isolated, treated with suspicion, seen as potential threats to security. Getting loans is problematic. The ghetto phenomenon has become all too apparent.
Modi has made no secret of the fact that Hindus coming into India are to be preferred. Before a rally in Silchar in south Assam during February, Modi claimed that Hindu migrants from Bangladesh took precedence over “infiltrating” Muslims, who should be sent back. “We have a responsibility toward Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. Where will they go? India is the only place for them. We will have to accommodate them here.”
Modi sees India as the beacon for the global Hindu community – those, for instance “harassed in Fiji”, or in Mauritius. He even makes reference to the United States and harassment of Hindus. “Naturally they will come to India.” Nationality, in the Modi argot, is seemingly a matter of religion more than citizenship.
Some of this politics was certainly strategic. Modi had his eye on votes from Bangladeshi Hindus in the Barak Valley, something which spurred him to scold the Election Commission into removing the tag of “doubtful” for all voters with Hindu names on Assam’s electoral rolls.
In the same month, Modi could also show that he can rattle the sabre if needed. Before a rally in Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh, an area that has been claimed at several stages by China, he proclaimed that, “No power on earth can take away even an inch from India. Moreover, the present world does not accept an expansionist attitude. Times have changed. China should give up its expansionist attitude and adopt a developmental mindset.”
Having manoeuvred the Congress party into a suitably demonic role, the BJP could become a platform of promises, to in fact impart the idea that Modi already had the election in the bag. So much so, in fact, that Modi, as Congress leader Rajiv Shukla explained, had promised both “Jupiter and Saturn”. Jayati Ghosh, writing for The Guardian (May 16), observed that “a massively funded and aggressive campaign” could, in fact, “make people choose a particular leader”.
The branding of Modi as national leader, without contest across a huge electorate of enormous variety, seemed to be classic advertising, heavy with repetition and bombarding images. It seemed, in many ways, to reflect the subliminal messages of consumerist advertising discussed by Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders (1957). The advertising lobby, and its dark arts, has well and truly arrived in India.
Personality cults of any sort are to be feared, though Modi will reveal, in time, whether cult and behaviour match. Democracies do not necessarily function well under the pressure of majoritarian sentiments, fuelled by populist impulses. There is, in fact, an argument that they weaken under such a strain. The BJP, and the prime minister-elect, would do well to remember that.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org