Colombo Telegraph

A Landslide In The Bovine-Belt

By Kumar David

Dr. Kumar David

This essay argues that despite the victory of a right-wing Hindutva party and leader, Indian democracy and secularism are secure. The landslide was in an extended cow-belt; let me call it the bovine-belt. Cow-belt refers to the solid Hindi speaking cluster (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Delhi). To expand it to the bovine-belt I add Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Orissa. Interestingly less than 40% of India’s 1.2 billion live in the so defined cow-belt; expand it to the bovine-belt and that adds another 300 million souls. If the cow-belt is the Hindi heartland, then the larger bovine-belt is the current Hindutva heartland. Here you will find the 2014 base support of the BJP, the RSS and Shiv Sena (Maharashtra only).

The parliamentary seats won by the BJP (NDA) in the 2014 elections were 282 (336), but 264 (320) of these were in the bovine-belt; that is to say the BJP/NDA performed appallingly in Kerala (0 out of 20 seats), West Bengal (2/42), Tamil Nadu (2/39), Telangana (2/17), Orissa (1/21) and did not do well in most small states in the North East and elsewhere. This is a bovine-belt landslide, not an all India triumph for Modi and the BJP. Since India employs a first-past-the-post system, even in the heart of the cow-belt, Utter Pradesh, India’s most populous state with 80 seats where the BJP carried 71, its vote share was 42%. Only in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra (BJP-Shiv Sena combine) did it poll over 50%. (The UP numbers in the table are slightly inexact). The biggest landslide was in the bovine-belt beyond the core cow-belt. Nationally, the percentage polls were; NDA, that is BJP+, 39%; Congress+ 24%; Others 37%.

The BJP’s poor performance in Orissa tells the story of how Naveen Patnaik’s secular Biju Janata Dal tactically played along with the BJP without joining the NDA and carried the state (20 out of 21), losing just one seat to the BJP. A sad story is Bihar, where Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal party lost badly (2 seats to NDA’s 31) since it opposed the BJP’s nomination of Modi as prime ministerial candidate. Nitish Kumar is one of India’s best Chief Ministers, but the juggernaut overwhelmed him. As an Indian commentator put it, “This is a fight about who will be PM, not who will be CM; in this fight, Nitish has no place, Modi has the edge”.

The landslide in perspective

India’s first-past-the-post parliamentary system is no stranger to huge electoral victories. In the 1951, 1957 and 1962 elections Nehru led Congress to resounding victories securing between 360 and 370 out of 490 seats and 44% to 48% of the popular vote. In 1967 Indira Gandhi secured 289 of 520 seats and 41% of the popular vote. She climbed back to 350 seats and 44% in 1971. There is however a far more crucial difference between these victories and 2014; all of them were all-India based. Congress won decisive endorsement, figuratively speaking from Srinagar to Kanya Kumari and Calcutta to Amritsar. It was no cow-belt story; it was an all-India phenomenon. Indira was defeated in 1977 because of her 1975-77 emergency folly but she too lost to an all-India alliance of several parties. (Congress still held on to 189 seats and 41% of the vote). I emphasise this to assert that Indian democracy and secularism are secure; a bovine-belt phenomenon has no national transformative prospect in such matters.

Indira swept back in 1980 in a Nehru style victory, and in 1984, after her assassination, Rajiv Gandhi, secured the largest victory in Lok Sabha history (414 seats and 49% of the votes). Both times support was spread throughout India. Starting with the 1989 Lok Sabha, it has been a run of minority governments but since they were based on India wide alliances the government had an all-India complexion. For example the just outgoing UPA government included major parties from Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and the North East, in addition of course to cow-belt parties.

This time the logistics are remarkably different; the landslide is limited to the bovine-belt. This reduces the BJP’s room for manoeuvre. It can, technically, govern without the support of its main NDA allies Shiv Sena and Telegu Desam Party, but this unlikely because the former provides storm-troopers and the latter gives it some semblance of respectability in the south. It is this narrowness of constituency that warrants confidence that Modi and the BJP will not step out of line provoking communalism or smothering democracy despite pressure from extremist quarters. They do not want the other half of India and the country’s 180 million Muslims to mobilise against what in a very real sense is a minority government. This is one reason for my confidence that BJP-Modi cannot threaten Indian democracy or secularism in a serious way. The other reason is programmatic.

Governance and economy

The Modi Wave was not about Muslim baiting. During the campaign the BJP and Modi were at pains to hide Modi’s allegedly anti-Muslim past in Gujerat; the demolition of Babri Majid mosque was an embarrassment best forgotten. The simple fact is that the Modi Wave to the masses meant “There will be electricity in every dwelling place, all will be wonderful like heavenly Gujarat (sic), there will be jobs, the light will shine in the darkness and this time the darkness will comprehend it”. The upper classes want a determined business friendly government. Educated and/or computer literate youth crawling out of business schools, IT courses and high schools are not looking for the next Muslim to slaughter; they are waiting for Modi to bring Silicon Valley and neon signs to their vicinity. The government cannot satisfy all three groups; it will please the business classes and the spill over will indulge upwardly mobile young people, not only the much sneered at yuppies. The masses, waiting for the dawn of a new era, will have to wait for another dawn.

The point of these remarks is that this campaign and victory in no way projected an anti-Muslim or an autocratic regime; it was about the economy and governance. Yes Modi is a decisive and determined leader, he may be able to cut through regulation-raj, but let him try playing with protest politics – communalism, worker’s rights or press freedom – and he will face a tornado, the honeymoon will evaporate. But neither Modi nor the BJP hunger for evaporation. India’s secular, mass democratic and intellectual traditions are strong; very strong; much stronger than Lanka’s.

Economic and governance issues will take pole-position in the government’s action plans – no time for Hindutva or Muslim bashing since these will cut across this strategy. India’s Economic Times says that stalwart figures like Arun Jaitley, Ragnath Singh, Arun Shourie and Sushma Swraj will take key cabinet positions. (Arin Jaitly lost his seat, I think, so he will have to be brought into the Cabinet through the Raja Sabha). The journal says that if this materialises it would signal a pro-corporate, pro-Western government, an unswerving continuation in foreign policy and US aligned strategic policy, and an unchanged attitude to Lanka on human rights and ethnic issues. The BJP-Modi government has a choice, either economic strategy; capitalist reforms, relationship to global capital, better governance and curbs on populism. Or it can make itself into an extremist, ideologically decorated, Hindutva fest. I am certain it will have to be the former, give or take isolated incidents.

The Aam Aadmi factor

The AAP’s impact was far greater than the number of seats it won; all the people it went after lost their seats. Its campaign contributed to the BJP victory by destroying the legitimacy of Congress. Its own performance was not bad for a new entrant; 3.4 million votes (24%) in the Punjab, 2.7 million (33%) in Delhi, 1.1 million in Maharashtra, 0.8 million in UP, half a million in Haryana and 0.3 million in Madhya Pradesh. It won four seats, all in the Punjab. This is how some defeated AAP candidates fared; not bad at all.

A big factor in the success of the BJP is that it motivated its supporters to come out and vote.  While the national turnout went up from 58% to 62%, in the six big states (previous table) where the BJP won big, the turnout was noticeably higher. The increase was partly due to the mobilisation of social-media savvy young people who want a dynamic economy. They will resist constraints on democracy and the secular ethos in which they have been raised. I am instinctively anti BJP, but it is true Congress had to go. In that case a BJP-Modi term in office is not too high a price to pay since in any case Indian democratic secularism is as secure as Fort Knox.

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