2014 saw a wave. 2019 witnessed a tsunami. Counting began at 8am, but by midday, it was game-over. Narendra Modi, India’s incumbent Prime Minister, scripted one of the greatest electoral victories in the history of modern politics. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), labelled across the world as the “Hindu Nationalist” party of the subcontinent, singlehandedly achieved a resounding majority in the elections to the House of the People (Lok Sabha). Combined with their pre-poll alliance partners, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) decimated the competition, reducing the Indian National Congress to a distant and undistinguished runner-up.
The 2019 General Elections were nothing short of a marathon. 7 phases, 542 seats, more registered voters than any many nations combined. Ultimately the plank of development, decisive leadership and national security concerns triumphed over the united opposition’s stance that focused on one “electoral” issue – the removal of Modi. This ended up being the greatest error committed by “national” leaders like Rahul Gandhi, regional satraps such as N. Chandrababu Naidu and Mamata Banerjee, and so-called “youth leaders” who campaigned on the issue of government oppression. For the crown prince of the Congress, this election saw him losing his family bastion of Amethi to the BJP’s Smriti Irani. The candidates may have lost face, but for the vocal minority – the English-speaking intelligentsia – this signalled an equal and perhaps greater loss.
Pankaj Mishra’s New York Times article perhaps summed up the collective feeling of an entitled lot that felt cheated. The common question on the minds of the so-called left-liberal section of society was - how could India truly believe in this ‘lunatic’? This in itself was the greatest folly of those that looked back fondly at the period of Congress dominance in India. Their voice no longer being heard, they now take to caustic rhetoric to vent their frustration. Mishra’s piece was one such attempt, attributing a campaign of “envy and hate” to the BJP’s victory. In an effort to characterise the BJP’s brand of politics as damaging to Indian society, he has once again taken the route opted for by most left-liberal intellectuals – to use notions of Modi and the BJP as harbingers of a Hindutva-fuelled hatred as a method to hide their own disdain, distrust and discomfort of the average Indian.
Being left-liberal has always been the preserve of the more privileged sections of Indian society. These are the folks that balk at open religiosity of the majority faith, sceptically believe all policies of the present government are driven at the behest of power-hungry corporations, and that democracy only works when their idea of India prevails. 2014 was the year they were put on notice from the power circles of the Indian government. 2019 is now the eviction they so desperately feared – the aspirations and ambitions of a resurgent India are not in their hands. What Mishra characterized as Modi’s agenda of creating popular sentiment in opposition to the “country’s old urban elites” was really just a message from the voters of India to the guardians of the status quo. India may be a grossly unequal society, but that state of affairs has been perpetuated by those claiming to be the voice of liberal sanity. Aspirational India took on the intellectual elite, and it is clear whose voice was loudest and most resounding.
What left-liberal India fails to acknowledge is its own intolerance. The English-speaking intelligentsia of the nation watched demurely as their hopes of a BJP-defeat were dashed. And all the while, they were unaware of the fact that they forgot the rules to their own game. Without any regard for alternative viewpoints, representatives of India’s privileged elite went on a campaign of unilateral denouncement. Starting with the unproven hacking of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and moving on to attacks on institutions for alleged partisanship, there was no room left for opposing voices. This was not a new ploy, but they did not factor in the most significant changes in Indian society.
In the India of the 21st century, the internet is a great leveller. Interconnectedness spawned rigorous and vibrant debate, and the erstwhile Lutyens-dominated conversations had new participants. Modi’s ability to engage with the aspirational India, armed with smartphones and strong views, was a gamechanger. The losers in this skirmish of viewpoints were the elites of yesteryear, whose access to the corridors of power was unceremoniously revoked. Those claiming to be upholders of free speech and liberty now engaged in a turf war with the emerging voice of a bold new India. The tactics, however, changed. It was no longer about meaningful debate, but rather about reclaiming lost territory. In the process, the left-liberal voice became the most illiberal.
Modi’s ability to tap into the frustration of a nation that earlier had no say destabilized certain unspoken truths – that nationalist rhetoric had gone out of fashion with Indira Gandhi in 1971, and that the intelligentsia had a monopoly over public discourse. Unprivileged India was finally getting a say, and this opportunity was not going to slip by. Decency as a parameter was changing, and appeasement politics was no longer going to be considered decent. It became easy, therefore, for the English-speaking elites to deride Modi’s strong stance on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, or even his attack on the cash-based economy. Couple that with the follies of the principal opposition, whose lacklustre campaign focussed less on being an alternative and more on being the lesser of two evils. This form of negative campaigning did not sit well with the voters. Gandhi’s own decision to contest from two seats instead of focusing on his family-seat of Amethi was met with a backlash that resulted in his losing the seat. He will still be a member of the Lok Sabha from Wayanad, but it is doubtful that we will be able to live down this defeat.
The Congress Party’s meeting to introspect on the loss was a further indication of a Party that refuses to shed its entitlement. Gandhi apparently tendered his resignation, which was unanimously rejected by the Congress Working Committee. The sycophants of the Gandhi family, as a result, have ensured that the death of the erstwhile dominant political force in Indian politics picks up speed. Instead of focusing on taking lessons from the 2014 loss, the party chose to imagine that 2019 was bound to be different. It was different – 2014 was a mandate against corruption and the Gandhi family, 2019 was a clarion call to those who did not learn their lesson.
It is no longer a question of introspection for the Congress Party. The effective organisational prowess of the BJP, the charisma of their Prime Ministerial candidate, and a track-record that resonated with the average voter despite criticism from the opposition, was too much to handle for the ill-equipped campaign of the Congress. As for the Nehru-Gandhi family, it has successfully come full-circle. Under Pandit Nehru, the Congress established its dominance in the early years of independent India. Indira Gandhi, barring the period of Emergency, ushered in the idea of the Congress as a party of the masses. With Rajiv Gandhi, the party’s fortunes began to wane due to the importance of caste-politics and excessive cronyism. Sonia Gandhi oversaw what was once considered the resurgence of the party but ended up being the pinnacle of high-level corruption. Finally, Rahul Gandhi has taken the party which he considers his birth right to lead into the chasm of insignificance.
The left-liberal intelligentsia played an equally pivotal role in this decline, refusing to see the writing on the wall and claiming that an India in their image was the only way forward. Their arrogance became their ultimate downfall. With the roar of the BJP-juggernaut as loud as ever, will there be a way out for the Congress party and their pocket intellectuals? Only time will tell.
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