In a democracy, narratives that work for a party at a certain time could turn on their head, especially during elections.
This looks like a possibility with the general elections scheduled for 2024. Much of the hype around the Bharatiya Janata Party’s popularity is centred around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personality. This government looks decisive and authoritative because Mr. Modi projects a larger-than-life image. When he was elected, he looked like a leader who could think out of the box and deliver tangible results. The appreciation for Mr. Modi’s imposing personality stemmed from expectations of quick and dramatic results from him and his government.
But now, closer to 2024, we would be hallucinating to think we are doing well. There have been no dramatic outcomes; opportunities have not increased as promised; and aspirations remain unfulfilled. The image that people have, of the Prime Minister being authoritative, could change into the perception that he is authoritarian. Decisiveness sometimes comes across as arrogance; an inability to carry people along. This is visible in the failure of cooperative federalism and the inability to achieve policy consensus by carrying along non-BJP Chief Ministers.
People always find justifications for why they thought the way they did in the past. Some might feel they went wrong in their assessment of Mr. Modi and begin to equate him with all other politicians. But the majority may say he is a well intentioned leader, just not as capable as they believed, or that he still intends to do good, but the coterie around him doesn’t allow him to and therefore we need to change the entire establishment to punish those around Mr. Modi, not Mr. Modi himself.
Just as the narrative around the leader may change, so might the narrative about mobilisation around Hindu identity. Under the BJP, being a Hindu for many means being aggressive against “unfairly pampered minorities”. Many think of themselves as victims in their own land. The regime has done well in terms of empowering the community psychologically, by mobilising castes and legitimising incivility through anti-elitist rhetoric. Now Hindus can no longer claim to be “weak, powerless and helpless” since “they” have been in power for close to 10 years.
However, the Modi regime keeps oscillating between portraying Hindus as being vulnerable (by creating a deep sense of insecurity among them) and being victorious (by urging them to fight against an ‘adversary’). The BJP advocated for “the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the land of their ancestors with full dignity, security and assured livelihood” in its 2014 election manifesto and “the safe return of Kashmiri Pandits” as a part of its 2019 election manifesto. But after the failure of demonetisation and of the dilution of Article 370 in defeating terrorism, we are witnessing a rise in militancy, and Kashmiri Pandits are feeling more insecure than before.
Hope and hysteria
The regime might have succeeded in marginalising Muslims, but it has not succeeded in making a majority of Hindus feel economically and physically secure, and socially mobile. In such a situation, asking Hindus to be proud or aggressive doesn’t work. Issues like the Ram Mandir may evoke emotions but not passion. The BJP’s campaign works when emotions are transformed into aggressive passion bordering on hysteria. The response to the incident at Balakot in 2019 and the party’s subsequent victories in elections was an example of this. For collective passion to take grip, people need a deep sense of hope (achche din). But trying to create such passion is not working despite the leaders’ best efforts and purportedly clean intentions.
We saw this during the Delhi Assembly elections. The last phase of the election campaign had turned particularly vituperative with BJP leaders calling anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters as “traitors” and demanding that they be shot dead, and the party trying to turn the election into yet another Hindu-Muslim battle. No amount of hysteria and fear mongering helped. In fact, as Home Minister Amit Shah said after the elections, getting hysterical may have even backfired for the BJP. Something similar happened during the Assembly elections in West Bengal. The BJP began with an advantage as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was trying hard to beat anti-incumbency. But after the first two rounds, the catcalls by the Prime Minister as part of the campaign, the slogan wars between the two parties pitting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ against ‘Jai Ma Kali’, and the polarisation campaign, among other reasons, made Bengalis edgy. They chose the familiar, even if not fully satisfied with it, over the unknown. With Muslims being made almost invisible, it is difficult to project them as potential threats and win elections.
Attitude towards Opposition
Finally, the Opposition parties continue to remain clueless without a narrative, but they are being hounded, implicated in cases, and humiliated in Parliament. When trust in the government is high, these acts seem like they are being done with the right purpose, even if they seem rather harsh. People even enjoy a good laugh at the cost of the leaders of the Opposition — it is their way of ridiculing the “social elites”. But when people begin to feel a kind of existential crisis, and questions of slipping standards of living arise, they begin to see the Opposition as being needlessly targeted. They feel a weakening Opposition weakens democracy. This feeling is beginning to emerge. Many were amused and the Opposition happy that JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar had rocked the NDA boat in Bihar.
People are still grappling with the reality that those whom they trusted have failed and those they don’t trust are promising something better. Promises are being kept to an extent by parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party. The results in the upcoming Assembly elections will be a pointer of things to come.
Ajay Gudavarthy is Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi