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View: Fundamental shifts in India's electoral politics witnessed in the 2019 poll battle

What once appeared to be unchallenged assumptions in Indian politics have now been altered.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: May 21, 2019, 06.20 AM IST
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If Election 2019 is any yardstick, more churns are in the offing, both across parties and political spaces.
Electoral politics has been witness to a significant shift. Regardless of which way the results go on May 23, Election 2019 would have only cemented the factors underpinning this shift. And, in doing so, it has subtly, yet firmly, redefined the matrix on which election strategies are usually drawn up.

Essentially, what once appeared to be unchallenged assumptions in Indian politics have now been altered, like the way it happened with the advent of regional caste-based parties in the post-Mandal era.

The first shift is marked by nationalism as a political argument making a strong comeback. This is not to say that nationalism did not have an appeal until now. It’s just that its predominance in, say, the Indira-Rajiv Gandhi era was overshadowed by regional aspirations represented usually by son-of-the-soil leaders at the helm of the backward classes movement.

Gradually, a new equilibrium was established where the federal character of India’s polity received its due attention and priority. The Centre itself derived its stability from the support of regional parties in this period — namely, of Samajwadi Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Trinamool Congress (TMC), among others.

This dynamic has now undergone a change. Regional parties have been forced to construct a national narrative. In these elections, this took the shape of an anti-Modi, pro-secular pitch aimed at protecting the Constitution for which even arch-rivals like Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati were willing to sink their differences to come together. In fact, the talk of a pan-India grand alliance was an effort to project a national agenda, where regional parties were willing to sacrifice old biases for a larger nationalist purpose.

While only the results will show whether they achieved any success, it was clearly a response to BJP’s own aggressive nationalist narrative — one that questioned vote-bank and minority appeasement politics of these parties.

It’s important to note here that BJP came from a standpoint where it could not be accused of being anti-federal, like Congress in the past. The 2014 elections were, in fact, a story of a four-time chief minister becoming prime minister on a campaign largely constructed around himself and the Gujarat model.

Nation First
In contrast, the 2019 campaign was constructed around Narendra Modi’s nationalist credentials built around events such as ‘surgical strikes’, the Balakot attack, and an all-encompassing social welfare model. What’s clear is that the pre-eminence of nationalism as a political narrative has made a strong comeback.

The second shift is the redefinition of caste. For long, we have moved with assumptions that Caste A votes for this party and Caste B votes for that outfit. Has that logic been deemed irrelevant? No. But the configurations and the proportion of the electorate voting on only caste loyalties have tangibly reduced. This also explains why disparate regional parties have sought to combine their old vote-banks to increase numbers. Add to that complication, there are now pure caste-based sub-regional parties looking to strike a deal with this party or the other.

The NDA government under Modi has sought to address this through economic intervention by following a more flexible ‘deprived category’ index developed with the help of the Socio-Economic Caste Census, as opposed to the old below poverty line (BPL) concept. The use of Aadhaar to pinpoint individuals within this category and transfer benefits electronically has allowed the government to create a class of beneficiaries that may come from different caste groups but with a similar economic profile.

Has this taken away caste from the equation? Absolutely not. However, it certainly has given value to the economic identity of smaller caste groups, which until now were hoping to corner benefits showing caste solidarity with dominant groups like Yadavs and Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh.

In other words, there are now workable, credible options to old caste alliances due to a new paradigm for accessing state resources. Old alliances will try and enforce loyalties. But the 2019 elections have shown that tolerance among younger voters to such assumptions is diminishing. Regardless of the outcome of these elections, political parties will have to start thinking differently on caste because old combinations are gradually fading away.

The final big shift is the total rejection of the sense of entitlement among the elite. Dynastic politicians, be it the Nehru-Gandhi family or those leading regional outfits, are facing a tough time. The campaign against the elite and the privileged has found resonance this time just as it did in 2014.

Shaken and Stirred
The anger against any sort of sense of entitlement is only going to grow as a more volatile, politically aware younger generation disrupts settled notions of social order. Political parties unable to reflect and accommodate this shift will struggle. This doesn’t mean that political dynasties will vanish. Dynasts will surely be around, but they will have to redefine their leadership.

Let’s not forget that in the past with every new member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, there was churning at the helm and the rungs below. Among the present lot, BJP witnessed such a churn when Modi and Amit Shah took charge. If General Election 2019 is any yardstick, more churns are in the offing, both across parties and political spaces.
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