The results of the much awaited 2019 polls are finally out. We are assured of five more years of ‘Modi Sarkaar’. To say that the last five years in Indian politics were chaotic would be an understatement. Everything that we knew and assumed about Indian politics has been overturned. Congress is no longer India’s default (as one of its leaders had remarked) and BJP is no longer limited to 4–5 states in the Hindi heartland. Amidst all this, the blame games have begun, sadly India’s opposition and a section of its liberal class have refused to even attempt to understand the happenings.
Oversimplifications are often frowned upon and for good reason. Rarely is it that one variable has the power to explain and predict everything. Within months of losing three key Hindi heartland states, the BJP seems to have won a landslide in these very states. On the other hand, much of the love-hate relationship of the Shiv Sena and BJP turning foes to friends then again foes and to friends seems to be inexplicable. Add to that the steady decline of India’s Grand Old Party, the obituary of Indian Left Wing politics and all the way to TDP’s breaking up with the NDA.
But what if, there is one trend which can not only explain every election result since 2014 (maybe few elections even before that) but also help us predict accurately what awaits us in the future. This powerful realisation not only helps us understand the mind of the Indian voter and the rationale behind the results but also see the idea behind the seemingly bizarre moves and actions of our leaders. In fact, this idea is not new amd has been talked and written about in detail by commentators such as Morgan Stanley’s Head of Emerging Markets & Chief Global Strategist Ruchir Sharma. Mr Sharma has written about this in great detail in his book- ‘The Rise and Fall of Nations’. This is the trend of the world turning ‘anti-establishment’.
This anti-establishment wave in India was first visible in the ‘India-Against-Corruption’ movement led to Anna Hazare, when the entire nation virtually stood together against its leaders who had amassed huge amounts of wealth while conditions of ordinary people got worse. Inflation, a slump in economic growth, stagnation in key sectors of the economy, agrarian crisis, a falling rupee leading to woes of traders and lastly rising interest rates. The scene was set, people began loathing the ‘establishment’, which in this case was the Congress. It had all perks of the stereotypical Indian neta who is part of the status quo. The government had grown complacent, showed a lack of sensitivity towards the public, and lastly, decided to keep silent while one scam after another was unearthed. It dodged every question regarding its performance.
On the other hand, we saw an ambitious Narendra Modi grab this opportunity and project himself as the complete antithesis of the ‘establishment’. He boasted about economic growth and conditions under his watch in Gujarat, attacked Pakistan for border skirmishes even before he was anywhere near the PM’s chair, attacked the ‘first family’ of Indian politics, whose conditions and power had remained the same despite the woes of the citizens.
He went further with slogans like ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’. The neo-middle class which owes its standard of living to liberalisation and globalisation took this slogan as a change in the Nehruvian socialistic attitudes of the past. The chest thumping about public infrastructure in Gujarat vis-a-vis the poor governance record in much of the country and the personal Midas touch of his humble roots, made people look towards him as a leader who had emerged from their own ranks and thus understood their woes.
The result was clear, BJP swept one state after another in the run-up to the polls. In the general elections for the first time in 30 years, a party won a majority on its own. In the subsequent polls in long-standing Congress bastions such as Haryana and Maharashtra, the incumbents had to bite the dust. The only places where this juggernaut failed were Delhi and Punjab. In Delhi, it got beaten in its own game by ‘a more anti-establishment’ AAP. In Punjab, BJP was seen as part of establishment due to its proximity and alliance with the SAD(Shiromani Akali Dal).
In fact, every anti-establishment candidate tasted success in the few years to come. KCR in Telangana, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra, the Left Front in Kerala. In Bengal, the perpetual anti-establishment voice- Mamata Banerjee returned with a more astounding victory while the CPI(M) having ruled for 34 long years, sunk to the third position. The North-East which had shied away from the BJP became its bastion as people voted out the old guard. Lenin’s fall in Tripura was a symbolic representation of the change in guard.
A question that pops up every now and then is that- if Modi government has really worked, why does the BJP need to return to its Hindutva politics? Why does the PM return to attacking Congress veterans and figures every now and then? The answer is simple. The BJP and PM Modi wish to keep its anti-establishment image even after being the part of the establishment.
The PM has directly echoed this theme on several occasions, reiterating that he’s not part of the ‘Lutyens’ or the ‘Khan Market’ gang. PM Modi realises that in the minds of the voters, the image of these figures and issues such as ‘minority appeasement’ still remain entrenched as part and parcel of the ‘insensitive establishment’. Moreover, decisions like demonetisation, surgical strikes, and policies such as Ujjwal Bharat, GST, Jan Dhan Yojana whether good or bad, stand out as being ‘unprecedented’, thus chiselling his image as the ‘outsider’ who takes on the ‘establishment’
However, as it happens, one cannot keep this image for too long. In states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the response of the Central government to issues regarding federalism, NEET, response to natural calamities, etc made BJP the establishment in their eyes. On the other hand, DMK leading the charge against a dysfunctional and rattled ADMK, and the Left front not changing its ways and sticking to the old attitudes, inaccessible polit-bureau approach caused its sorry demise across India except in Kerala where it fought against the incumbent Congress.
Karnataka’s former CM Siddaramaiah realised this wave in the last year of his term. He tried weaving the image of an ‘anti-establishment’ crusader against BJP’s alleged disrespect to ‘Kannada ethos’. Instead, the people saw Mr Siddaramaiah as the establishment. In a similar pursuit, Andhra’s TDP realising a formidable challenge from YSRC due to its poor track record in government decided to break away from the NDA.
It made an effort to divert the anti-establishment image towards the ‘unsympathetic BJP government’ at the Centre. Too bad, Mr Naidu didn’t realise that while attempting to sow seeds of anti-incumbency against the BJP, he had joined hands with very people in place of whom he had been voted to power. The Shiv Sena which itself got hit during Maharashtra polls, decided to keep options open. Should anti-incumbency have shown up against the BJP, it too would’ve jumped the ship.
In the state elections that followed in the three key states- Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh. Congress returned to power with a much-needed boost before 2019. However, one had to be careful while understanding the results. In these states, the three incumbent CMs were seen as part of the establishment. With plenty of anti-incumbency and an image of their government as inaccessible, people choose Congress. Congress could’ve better its record by placing newer faces as CM.
Instead, the old guard, the same old ‘establishment’ candidates such as Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot were made CM. In states like Bengal, leaders like Mamata too began becoming ‘monotonous’ in their approach. When anarchy and street politics become an everyday affair, it too begins to be seen as part of ‘the establishment’. Coupled by governance issues, lack of law and order, lack of trust in police and state institutions, and the much infamous corruption scandals and falling bridges, BJP became the second largest party during panchayat polls. So it wasn’t surprising when India-Today’s Axis MyPoll survey indicated a whopping 19–23 seats for the BJP.
If one reads between the lines, it’s not surprising to why the final tally in 2019 turned out to be the way it is. On one hand, you had the anti-establishment image of Modi, while the opposition led by the Congress though tried its best, couldn’t rid itself of the baggage it carries.