More than two weeks after the results, the many who had thought that Modi would be weakened if not defeated are understandably still trying to figure out what happened.
Partha Chatterjee offers a detailed and persuasive explanation in the new journal, India Forum. In summary, Chatterjee’s analysis, which should be read in full (www.theindiaforum.in), is that the Modi triumph was ‘built on two projects: one, the representation of Modi as the unquestioned populist leader who could be trusted to defend the nation’s security, and two, the long-term project of a nationalism defined by the Hindu majority’.
To back up his analysis, Chatterjee speaks of Modi’s exploitation of Pulwama and Balakot, capture of all forms of old and new media, and effective pitch to new voters. He underlines the BJP’s projection of Modi’s foes as anti-national and also the opposition parties’ failure, in an election that had become ‘presidential’, to name their alternative to Modi.
Chatterjee might have added that a mix of populism and nationalism, spiced by religion, enjoys global success today. Also, that many Indian voters had bought the questionable line that Modi had raised India’s standing in the world.
As to the future, Chatterjee thinks that ‘pluralism’ by itself is not strong enough for challenging religious nationalism. Noting the BJP’s failures in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra, he sees in ‘federalism’ a stronger force for preventing the Indian state from sliding towards a centralized theocracy.
Rahul Gandhi’s apparent refusal to change his mind on giving up the Congress presidency continues to trouble many. Articulating what many in the party must be thinking, a senior Congress leader from Karnataka, Veerappa Moily, says:
People [inside the Congress] are raising voices in some states and discipline is being broken. In such a time, the party cannot remain relaxed. Rahul Gandhi is still the president and he will have to take a tough stance. Even if he wants to leave, he will have to make sure he hands the role to the right person.
Earlier, criticizing Rahul’s resignation, Lalu Yadav, Bihar’s seasoned politician and a Congress ally, had warned that even as a former chief of the Congress Rahul would remain the BJP’s target. Modi and Shah would dub anyone replacing him a puppet.
He took total responsibility, Rahul declared, for the Congress’s dismal showing; to resign was an inescapable corollary. Claiming that without him at the helm the Congress would go to pieces, several Congress leaders have pressed Rahul to take back the resignation, or to install his sister Priyanka or mother Sonia. ‘Don’t drag them into this,’ Rahul has apparently replied.
Can opposition politics in India survive the withering away of the Congress, which just obtained a more than respectable 20 percent of the national vote? Equally, however, what is a party worth if its survival depends on members of one family?
How the dilemma is resolved will tell us something about the Congress and also about Indian politics in general.
Rahul Gandhi is hardly the perfect politician. In electoral terms, he proved a failure as Modi’s sole national challenger, even a miserable failure. Viewed from another angle, however, Rahul showed individual Indians how to challenge a gigantic steamroller.
Steered by a tireless, shrewd and resourceful Narendra Modi, the steamroller was backed by a phalanx of powerful vehicles, including the party, the media and the RSS. After Balakot, the steamroller had air cover as well.
Much of India loved and cheered the steamroller, the vehicles around it, and the planes over it. It seemed the nationalist thing to do. But Rahul’s nonchalant defiance of the steamroller and its convoy won the admiration of a great number of Indians, including critics.
Rahul showed that an unarmed citizen could stand up to a strong and scary national tide. His utterances during the weeks of campaigning were candid; at times they were repetitive; on occasion they may have been injudicious. Yet they were fear-free and also hate-free, and they breathed a love for the people of India.
His party stood by Rahul Gandhi across India. In Punjab the Congress won. Allied parties, or parties as opposed to the tide as the Congress, also put up a spirited fight, which proved successful in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra, Telangana and Odisha, and, considering all the circumstances, impressive enough in West Bengal.
For a nation facing heightened risks of coercion and intolerance, Rahul Gandhi has provided a much-needed, one hopes infectious, example of frank dissent. Now he faces another difficult challenge: rescuing his party from a critical dilemma he could not avoid causing.