2019: A Centennial Shift In Indian Democratic History

Venu Gopal Narayanan

May 29, 2019, 09:35 AM | Updated 09:35 AM IST

Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi. 
Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi. 
  • History has played out again, if we study the 2019 poll results.
  • A colonial master has been told to stay out, and Indian self-rule has been re-asserted.
  • And that, is to be celebrated.
  • A soft summer rain fell on an eager Delhi dusk, as Narendra Modi’s motorcade sped over a wet tarmac. A billion Indians had just handed the man a renewed mandate, and he was en route to his party’s headquarters, to make a victorious speech of thanks.

    In the traditions of Modi’s ethos, rain was a good omen, a harbinger of bountiful harvests to come, and this Thursday evening, it fell with the grace of hope. Those watching the stream of flashing lights didn’t miss the symbolism, while elsewhere across this ancient land, others were already busy harvesting the fruits of this verdict. It was a mixed platter.

    Large parts of the results were as much about numbers as anything else. In most of the Republic’s larger states, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies notched up half the popular vote or more, thereby enforcing a thumping sweep in those provinces. Opposition parties who had spent months constructing formidable caste matrices, were left picking up scraps, as millions of citizens blithely chose dreams for a better tomorrow, over restrictive community identities which served no material purpose.

    West Bengal survived the worst political violence seen in decades, but the Communist party didn’t; voters effectively wiped the Marxists off the electoral map, while handing almost half the state’s seats to the BJP.

    Big Losers: Gang of Intellectuals

    Most members of the Congress Party’s shouting brigade, also part of their president Rahul Gandhi’s core circle, and who had been at the forefront of a shrill, virulent election campaign, lost. So too did Mr. Gandhi, from his family’s hitherto-impregnable citadel of Amethi, in the Hindi heartland. The angst over that emblematic loss was particularly palpable.

    But just as much, the results also indicated a deeper, centennial shift, even if those indicators were temporarily muted by the frenzy of an amazing triumph. Still, now that the rain has fallen, what remains beyond the number-crunching and esoteric electoral analysis, is the impact; hence this effort to unravel the true meaning of the 2019 elections. Few will grasp it, and fewer still will accept it, but the truth is that while it is easy to demonise Modi, it is a lot more difficult to understand him – or, more importantly, what he stands for.

    Privilege, The New Loss

    For example, cynical urbanites and the old privileged elites (often the same thing) are blessed with a congenital inability to differentiate between European-style ‘secular’ identities of an Abrahamic, Westphalian origin, which were designed for another era in another land, and a much older, home-grown tradition of truth and duty as a way of life.

    Part of this stems from a continued, rigid adherence to cardinal tenets of dead white men, laid down as scripture during the formative years of Nehruvian socialism. That unfortunately makes them poorly suited for objective socio-political analysis. Naturally, they would then be the segment most wracked by an extended bout of discomfiture, at any talk of paradigm shifts.

    Those cats, who grew fat on the milk of public largesse, might shudder at the 2019 mandate, and squirm at the prospects of having to face such a horrendous, millenarian eventuality, for, if the unthinkable can happen, if even Amethi can fall, then what next?

    It must have been galling beyond words, to watch the numbers rumble and tumble, making their pet favourites fumble and stumble, as an India they didn’t understand, handed out a verdict they couldn’t comprehend. So much hope had been vested in the electoral fortunes of an ugly, final effort at vile caste combinations in the Gangetic basin, all of which came to naught.

    Public intellectuals actively campaigned on every available forum, for candidates of pure nihilist breeding like Kanhaiya Kumar, Prakash Raj and Atishi Marlena; they all lost. So, when the rain fell that heady Thursday evening in Delhi, it was on a deeper truth – that the passing of an era was now fully and finally at hand; that an existential, centennial shift, embodied in the popular mandate, was here to stay. Thus, must we ask: what form has this shift taken?

    Historical View

    For that, look at history first: a hundred years ago, India stepped out of the Great War, on the back of a century of fragmented efforts at social reform, and a promise of limited self-rule under the British Crown. She got the repressive Rowlatt Act and Jallianwala Bagh instead.

    Mahatma Gandhi’s response was to launch the Non-Cooperation movement, corralling local disaffection with a pan-Islamic agitation against the abolishment of the Caliphate in Turkey. It was an unmitigated disaster, which resulted in widespread Hindu-Muslim riots across the subcontinent, and sowed the seeds of future partition.

    Religious divides widened with toxic purulence, giving rise to the perverse, if frankly-pragmatic, assessment that an acceptable status quo could be maintained, as long as Hindus remained riven by caste, and power lay in foreign hands.

    In one form or another, this view remained the driving force of successful politics for a good hundred years.

    A Different World, Today

    A century later, by 2014, India was a different world. A series of caste-based political experiments in the name of social justice had ended as abject failures. They cost the exchequer deeply. Advancement was demonstrably stymied. Vital years of progress were lost. And yet, at another level, the parallels with the early 20th century were uncanny. Religious divides remained, and once again, the continued alienation of the Muslim community began to take on alarming proportions.

    It didn’t help that a Prime Minister could callously proclaim that minorities had the first claim on this nation’s resources; or, that he could sit silently by, while an unconscionable, almost-criminal moral equivalence fashioned a fantastic bogey of Hindu terror.

    The perfidy of rent-seekers, and the pelf they accumulated, became not just the talk of the town, but was diligently quantified and presented to citizens as subventions that might otherwise have been available to the treasury, for disbursement, for public good.

    Indian Is In, Italian Is Out

    An image grew, of an unfeeling, uncaring Ancien Régime, interested solely in its own electoral prospects, and as alien and distanced from this land, its people, and reality, as the British had once been.

    Having an Italian woman at the head of such a grouping, then, only completed the picture with ironic, historical likeness: of foreign colonialists looting India by a divide-and-rule policy, and denying Indians their due. There was even a new caliphate in Asia Minor, albeit stillborn in its birthing. Only the Rowlatt Act was missing!

    It is at this point that the difference between a colony and a sovereign entity manifested itself: first in 2014 and then again in 2019, the collective will of a free people assertively announced that the old ways simply wouldn’t do. By that fiat, new ground rules were instituted after almost a century.

    Once upon a time, elections were won almost to exclusion by vote banking and caste math – the archetype being Uttar Pradesh. This was aided by a little surreptitious gerrymandering here and there, making it appear as if the 1930 Simon Commission plan for separate electorates had indeed been implemented.

    Muslim Votebase, Irrelevant

    But not anymore; now, the near-irrelevance of the Muslim bloc-vote has been repeatedly demonstrated. Karnataka Congressman Roshan Baig’s recent outburst then, must be taken as representative of this centennial shift (He called his colleague a buffoon and said it was time for Muslims to support the BJP!).

    In addition, and specifically in Uttar Pradesh, in 2019, it was shown that the ugliest, crassest aspects of casteist politics could actually be rejected by the vote. Truth be told, we should have seen this coming, from the manner in which the citizens of Gujarat reacted during the Assembly elections of 2017.

    There, the Congress strategy was to promote caste-based agitators as a counter to the BJP. It nearly worked, confusing wide swathes in the process. Yet today, Alpesh Thakor finds it difficult to hold on to his position within the Congress party, and Jignesh Mewani has become an object of popular scorn.

    Once upon a time, a wearied political class might have had the luxury of compromising with itself, and accepting the partition of this land; not anymore. Today, Kashmir is an article of faith, and no further compromise is acceptable. Once was enough. That is why the ‘Line of Control’ is now recognised as a war zone. That is why efforts to give up the Siachen Glacier, under a shameful, and frankly execrable Manmohan-Musharraf formula, never saw the light of day.

    False, Unsaleable Kashmir Narrative

    And that is why stone-pelters in the Valley now run the risk of having to pay heavily for their sins. This shift is best exemplified by the lack of any real response to the ‘Pellet Art’ campaign run by a small group of bleeding-hearts. For a brief while, media platforms were filled with images of sad faces hideously disfigured by deep pock marks. They were meant to represent the ‘victims’ of pellet-firing by riot police, and intended to invoke sympathy for stone-pelters (don’t ask why!).

    The campaign ran, but all it received in return from the establishment was a selection of deeply condescending platitudes.

    Once upon a time, National Security might have been a whimsical pastime, and National Interest a victim of studied disinterest. Forget not, that suicidal ‘Ashokan Decade’ of the 1950s. Forget not, that the marvelous military achievements of 1971 were frittered away at Shimla the next year. Forget not, that after 70 years, India is still unable to make a jet engine. And the less said about our age-old energy policy, the better. But not anymore.

    Today, the brutal game of diplomatic compromise is played as hard as it should be, and a core strategic principle, of power only respecting power, has been firmly incused onto our bureaucratic substratum. People see this, appreciate it, and respond. Look for example, at how scathingly Rahul Gandhi was derided, for meeting the Chinese envoy during the peak of the Doklam standoff. Times certainly have changed!

    Politicians For The People, Not The Reverse

    Once upon a time, government handouts reeking of paternalistic noblesse oblige might have done the trick; not anymore. Now, people expected amenities to be provided as a fundamental right. If not La Dolce Vita, then at least basics, which improved their quality of living while they strived to get out of the rut they had been stuck in for generations. No wonder people applauded when Modi mocked MNREGA, the Congress’ flagship rural employment scheme, and then proceeded to vote for the man again.

    There are countless other examples, but the point is made. This is change – real, irreversible, paradigmatic change, introduced and instituted by the will of the people; and that ‘will’, as everyone knows, is sacred. So, it is possible that Modi and the BJP may not have lived up to the sizzling expectations they generated in 2014.

    It is also entirely possible that they might not fare as expected in the coming five years. Alarmism and fear-mongering could see a surge. We cannot rule out either, the chances of the BJP losing the next general election. But these are all meaningless analyses, and quite beside the actual point.

    What is more important, and what must be recognised, is that an elemental, centennial shift has set in, and it will not go away for a long while, even if the BJP does. A summer rain has fallen.

    Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.

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