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View: What this overwhelming mandate for Modi is actually all about

Voters have offered Modi a near-carte blanche for a New India. That is what his detractors find frightening.

Updated: May 26, 2019, 12.06 PM IST
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The curmudgeonly lament immediately after the declaration of results in May 2014, that the BJP had won a majority in the Lok Sabha on the strength of just 31 per cent of the popular vote is unlikely to be heard in the coming five years. Last Thursday, the Indian electorate delivered a verdict that was so resoundingly emphatic that — apart from the small band of EVM conspiracy theorists — no questions are likely to be raised on the legitimacy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term. With 303 MPs and a vote tally of 41 per cent plus another 47 MPs of allied parties with a further seven per cent votes, the BJP was a clear winner of the 2019 election.

That the sheer scale of the endorsement of Modi took many pundits by horrific surprise had nothing to do with voter silence. Always a noisy country given to hyperbole, there were enough indications of a gathering political storm. Insulated in echo chambers, a section of the commentariat chose to be wilfully blinded by their Modi-phobia. This may explain why they now equate the resounding verdict with a betrayal of the ‘idea of India’ and its Constitution. What is in effect an emphatic rejection of fragile coalitions and dynastic politics is being cast as a mesmerised people’s repudiation of righteousness. The haughtiness with which Rahul Gandhi conceded the battle of Amethi, even before the counting of votes was over, was less magnanimity and more a show of disgust with a bunch of ingrates.

The electoral uprising for a strong leader and a strong and rooted nation is understandably a novel experience. For nearly 25 years after the fall of Rajiv Gandhi, India that had not only become accustomed to simply plodding along but had elevated it into a national philosophy. In the past five years, Modi challenged this casualness frontally. The political management of demonetisation, GST and the anti-corruption drive was always daunting and may have deterred more risk-averse leaders. Likewise, in dealing with a rogue neighbourhood, the pretence of diplomatic overdrive was always seen to be preferable to exercising more robust options. Modi had a deep sense of India’s manifest destiny and in the past five years — to use his telling campaign slogan — showed that the impossible was also achievable. He whetted the popular appetite — first aroused by Indira Gandhi in 1971 — for determined governance. They voted in droves for more.

In hindsight, the magnitude of Modi’s victory, including the ability to ward off formidable alliances and the penetration into new territories in eastern India, may be attributed to the BJP’s well-oiled election machinery. Traditionally, incumbent governments have been loath to focus their energies on political outreach and have preferred governance through officialdom. Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose governance record was impressive, epitomised this approach. Modi — backed by Amit Shah — sought to inject the excitement of change into political mobilisation. The party complemented the government, a project made easier by Modi’s cult status, particularly among younger voters. But a political machine has its limits. All the anecdotal evidence and the staggering majorities in the states where the BJP already had a meaningful presence suggested that this was an election where spontaneity easily overrode mobilisation. This would certainly explain the 40 per cent popular vote and the 18 seats the BJP won in West Bengal, despite the violence and a ramshackle party organisation.

In the end it was all about hope and national pride. The Balakot air strikes and Modi’s threat to pursue the terrorists to their sanctuaries across the border certainly added some nationalist machismo into the proceedings. But vigorous flag-waving would not have broken down existing political alignments and caste-based voting blocs had it not been supplemented by actual performance over the past five years. Modi offered hope, not merely as a promise that politicians are accustomed to making, but on the strength of what had been achieved. The BJP election manifesto was not replete with promises and was in sharp contrast to the Congress commitment to dole out Rs 72,000. This restraint did not cost the BJP politically because it was offset by an endorsement of the government’s existing approach. Modi asked voters to judge his niyat (intentions) and they judged him well.

It is hazardous to envisage the future on the strength of one resounding mandate. In effect, voters have offered Modi a near-carte blanche for a New India. That is what his detractors find frightening. But that is the faith he must live up to. He will be judged on his success in making India a better place.

Views expressed here are the author's own, and not Economictimes.com's
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