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The view from Lanka: A landslide in the bovine-belt

Paper No. 5706                                        Dated 21-May-2014

Guest column by Dr Kumar David

This essay argues that despite a right-wing Hindutva victory democracy and secularism are secure, and secondly that Indian foreign policy and policy towards Lanka will hardly change.

On both internal secular-democracy and foreign policy, Prime Minister designate Narendra Modi, despite his parliamentary victory, has little room for alternatives even if he is so inclined. What will be new in the Modi-BJP administration is a drive to Indian style neo-liberal economics, though this will be resisted by mass politics which will recover and remobilise within the year if anti-populist austerity measures are on the agenda? The new government, despite its parliamentary margin, is not all that strong; it has Achilles heels on both legs.

The landslide was in an extended cow-belt; let me call it the bovine-belt. To Lankans cow-belt refers to the Hindi speaking cluster (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Delhi). To expand it to the bovine-belt, add Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Interestingly, less than 40% of India’s 1.2 billion live in the cow-belt thus defined; 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 presently the Hindutva heartland.

The parliamentary seats won by the BJP (NDA) 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), Tamil Nadu (1/39), West Bengal (2/42), Telangana (2/17), Orissa (1/21) and it 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. Since India employs a first-past-the-post system, even Utter Pradesh, where the BJP carried 71 seats out of 80, its vote share was 42%. Only in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra (with Shiv Sena) did it poll over 50%.The big landslide was in the bovine-belt beyond the core cow-belt. Nationally, the percentage polls were: NDA 39%; Congress+ 24%; Others 37%.

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 with 44% in 1971. There is however a far more crucial difference between these victories and 2014; all of them were all-India based with endorsement across the country. 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. She 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% poll). On both occasions support was spread throughout India. Starting with the 1989 Lok Sabha, it has been a run of minority governments but since they were India wide alliances, the government had an all-India complexion. This time the logistics are remarkably different; the landslide is limited to the bovine-belt. I emphasise this to assert the first of the new government’s two Achilles heels; it is in a real sense a ‘minority’ government.

This reduces the BJP’s room for manoeuvre. 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 internal constituents. They do not want the other half of India and the country’s 180 million Muslims to mobilise against this ‘minority’ government. This is one reason for my view that BJP-Modi cannot mount a sustained threat to Indian democracy and secularism.

Governance and economy

The simple fact is that the Modi Wave to the masses meant “There will be electricity in every dwelling place; all things 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 propertied classes on the other hand want a determined business friendly government. Educated and/or computer literate youth crawling out of business courses, IT classes 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, mostly the much sneered at yuppies. The masses, waiting for the dawn of a new era, will have to wait for another dawn.

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. (Arun Jaitly lost his seat so he will have to be brought into the Cabinet through the Rajya Sabha). If this materialises it would signal a pro-corporate, pro-Western orientation, an unswerving continuation in foreign 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 an economic strategy; capitalist reforms, relationship to global capital, good governance and curbs on subsidies and populism. Or it can make itself into an extremist, ideologically decorated, Hindutva fest. I am certain it has no choice but to follow the former strategy.

Aam Aadmi and modernity factors

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.

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 about 4%, in the big states where the BJP won big, the turnout was noticeably higher. The increase was partly due to mobilisation of social-media savvy young people who want modernity. They will resist constraints on democracy, secularism and the Western style technical and cultural ethos which they crave. Also, there is no room for messing India’s strategic relationship with America and the West given the bigger picture which I will now touch on.

Foreign and Lanka oriented policy

Modi was foisted on the BJP by the RSS of which he was a former member. He has the support of the street fighters but this is the Twenty-First Century.  Whilst Modi would like to project India as decisive and strong internationally, the South Block will not allow him to get away from current multilateral policies. He may not be enamoured by the US but Indian defence and foreign policies and security in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea are critical and married to the US with no prospect of divorce. This is the new government’s second Achilles Heel; no flexibility in foreign affairs. Modi may be assertive and demand his pound of flesh when dealing with Pakistan and China, which means there may be some tension in these relationships, but this will be within tight constraints.

The implication of this for Lanka is that, internationally, President Rajapakse’s space for manoeuvre will be narrowed to a position between present friends and not falling foul of an undefined India. If Rajapakse resorts to domestic policies such as encouraging Buddhist extremists against the Muslims to endear himself to Modi, he will fall foul of Pakistan which has been shouting loudly for Lanka in international fora. Regarding the Dragon, the Modi-Beijing enigma will work itself out step by step, and Colombo will have to pirouette around posers as they surface. If small Rajapakse tries to play a power game with big Modi he will be squeezed; this guy is no genteel Manmohan Singh.

For Lanka, the important issue is whether the Modi government will increase pressure for the Thirteenth Amendment and more devolution to the North and East. The Manhoman Singh state was weak-kneed and ineffective. True, the Modi-BJP outfit is unlikely to be much concerned about Lankan Tamils on its own, but it will be interesting watch Jayalalitha play her hand, having swept Tamil Nadu. It is unlikely that the government will antagonise Tamil Nadu given its ‘minority’ character. I do not expect Modi to make substantial change to core policy on Lanka which will continue to be run by the mandarins. However, given his personality, he will push more resolutely after he is done with more pressing domestic and foreign matters; but that could be a while.

The first indication of whether the assumptions in this essay are correct will come when Cabinet membership is known. Will he retain BJP kingmakers or will he have the strength to bring in rank outsiders personally loyal to him? To what extent will the RSS be able shape the Cabinet? We will have a pretty clear indication by the end of the month. 

The views expressed are author’s own. SAAG.