How History Was Made
By: M. J. Akbar
What do we mean when we suggest that history has been made? History has to be something more than just another event; beyond a day’s or even a week’s headlines. History is a miser. It applauds only a pivotal moment that turns a nation’s course.
There has already been much comment on the fact that this is the first election since 1984 to deliver a simple majority for a single party. One might, in theory, go back further. If Mrs. Indira Gandhi had not been assassinated in 1984, the subsequent Parliament would have been woefully fractured, with Congress short of a majority, and non-Congress parties still in wild disarray after the searing implosion of Janata in 1979. We might well have seen the first UPA in 1985. Be that as it may, Narendra Modi has inspired a mandate that is still beyond the belief of Delhi’s elite drawing room squads which led a motivated and nasty offensive against him.
Congress’ annihilation has been compared by its spokespersons to 1977, not to highlight the reasons for burial but to hold out the promise of resurrection. This argument is punctured by facts. In 1977, Mrs. Gandhi lost power in Delhi, but won a handsome 150-odd seats in Lok Sabha from the south. She had a very firm base from where to construct her recovery. In 2014, Congress has been smashed everywhere, unable to achieve double digits in any state. No matter who won – Modi, Jayalalitha, Mamata Banerjee or Naveen Patnaik – Congress lost.
Which, in turn, brings us to the second deeply significant fact: this is the first since 1947 that a non-Congress party has won a simple majority. Nor is the BJP’s triumph geographically limited. Its vote share has leapt up even in states where it did not get seats. Bengal is an obvious instance. BJP was less than a marginal political fact before the Modi campaign. It established a lead in 40 Assembly constituencies, and even polled 185 votes more than Mamata Banerjee in her own seat, Bhowanipore. Where BJP is not in power, it is now in contention. It has become a national party in the true sense of the term.
The reason is Narendra Modi. He lifted electoral politics from a language generated in the 19th and 20th centuries, of vote banks capitalized through demographic fault lines, and placed it on the one platform that every Indian could share beyond the divisive breach of factional identity: a better economy that could end the curse of poverty through good, honest, accountable governance. He broke governance into component parts that the citizen, and particularly the voter mired in the worst poverty, understood: electricity, water, jobs. An end to corruption. He snubbed any reference to the politics of the past, if it came from Congress and its explicit or implicit allies; and stopped it if it arose from his own ranks. He was absolutely focused from start to final polling day: this election was about the stomach, and about bringing light [literally] into areas of darkness. Congress had nothing to offer as counterpoint except a fading dynasty, represented by Rahul Gandhi, who seemed to live on a planet of his own, and Robert Vadra, whose rapid accumulation of wealth could have become a case study in business schools if it had been done honestly. If anything, the voter was more tired of this dynasty than of Congress.
Mrs. Indira Gandhi justified her right to sit in her father’s chair by promising, in 1971, to end poverty. A child born in 1971 is middle aged now, having outlived the dreams of youth. The substantive majority of today’s voters are children of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, three lost decades in the annals of India’s economy. This year, Narendra Modi fused the negative undercurrent of anger against Congress with a positive power of hope to create an electrical storm. The crowds are chanting “Modi” because for them it is synonymous with aspiration. The poor trust Modi because they know he comes from their background. For Modi, poverty is not a tourist’s destination. It is the mental anguish and physical deprivation from which he has emerged to become Prime Minister of India.
Understandably, such volatile aspirations come lined with impatience. The young want Modi to shift into top gear from his first week in office. They will not have much patience with politics as usual, because they have delivered an unusual mandate. The BJP’s simple majority strengthens Modi immeasurably, but it also eliminates the comfort zone that is home to many an alibi.
This is the stuff of history because Modi’s dialectic has made a return to the politics of identity almost impossible for a mainline political party. Fringe parties might continue to feed from an old trough, but their diet will restrict them to the margins of India.
M. J. Akbar is an eminent Indian journalist. Write to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org