Former president Pranab Mukherjee made an oblique yet sharp observation about the Narendra Modi government in December 2019, when protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act were raging. Mukherjee said, “The Indian electorate has time and again conveyed to the ruling party that goes on to form the government, that yes, they may be entitled to form the government with a majority of the seats won, but they are also to take into consideration all those people who may not have voted for them. The mandate is to govern as a majority party with a stable government, but carry others with you.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a comfortable majority with 303 seats in the Lok Sabha last year, thanks to a 37.6 per cent vote-share. Let’s round it off to 38 per cent. The BJP’s allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won another 7 per cent or so, but the BJP’s treatment of the Shiv Sena (in Maharashtra) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (in Punjab) since then has shown the allies that the votes they bring don’t matter. Narendra Modi only has to ensure that he retains these 38 per cent voters. That’s a very good vote-share in a first-past-the-post system. It will easily ensure Modi’s re-election in 2024.
Modi’s politics, especially in his second term, is all about voter retention as opposed to voter persuasion. He’s not looking to gain new voters. If he can just retain what he has, that’s good enough for him and the BJP.
Polarisation to retain voters
Retaining your voters isn’t easy. They begin to get impatient. They begin to wonder where are the jobs, where’s the money in our pockets, where’s the promised bullet train or the doubled farm income.
One of the ways some politicians seek to retain their voters is through “polarisation”. What is polarisation? It is turning a group of people against another. Us versus them. Divide and rule. The popular understanding of the BJP’s polarisation is that it is Hindu versus Muslim, but for Modi’s immediate electoral concerns, it is 38 per cent versus 62 per cent.
We see this not only in his party’s pursuit of Hindu nationalism but also in the way Modi has dealt with protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) last year and the farm bills this year. If you listen to what farmers protesting at Singhu and Tikri borders of Delhi have to say, you will know about the extreme polarisation in Indian politics. Their complaints with the Modi government only end at the new farm laws. They begin much earlier: where are the promised Rs 15 lakh in our bank accounts? Where are the Achhe Din?
These are clearly not among the 38 per cent who voted for Modi in 2019, or the 31 per cent who voted for him in 2014. They are from the fragmented majority, which didn’t vote for Modi.
The real Singhu border is in Pratapgarh
On a BJP WhatsApp group in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, I see an image of a public meeting organised by the party’s local unit. A UP government minister, Neelkanth Tiwari, and Pratapgarh MP Sangam Lal Gupta are addressing it. The audience is described as “the region’s honoured annadata (food providers)”. It looks like an election-time sabha.
What we see in this image is an attempt to make sure that the BJP doesn’t lose any of the 38 per cent vote. The farm laws are not a big issue in Pratapgarh, which is in east UP. Yet the BJP must make sure that the farmers’ protests that the people of Pratapgarh are seeing on TV do not influence the 38 per cent into thinking that the Modi government is in the wrong. Hence the counter-propaganda.
The BJP’s response to the CAA protests was similar. I met BJP workers in Phulpur near Allahabad in February 2020 who told me they had been tasked to go door to door and make people sign in support of the CAA, which was presented to them mainly as a measure to give citizenship to Pakistani Hindus fleeing persecution. The Modi government didn’t care about persuading the anti-CAA protesters, or even trying to talk to them. But it cared about making sure that the 38 per cent understand the Modi government was in the right.
No votes lost in Punjab and Haryana
The protesters are mostly from Punjab, a state where the BJP isn’t about to win an election anytime soon.
They are also from Haryana, where the BJP leads a coalition government, but they are predominantly Jats, whose votes the BJP hasn’t sought since at least 2014. The BJP won the Haryana assembly in 2014 with an anti-Jat polarisation, and managed to retain the CM’s chair in 2019 with the support of a regional Jat party, the Jannayak Janta Party. The JJP’s deputy chief minister, Dushyant Chautala, knows he’s committing political suicide by not withdrawing support. But his father is out on parole, which would be cancelled within minutes of withdrawing support to the BJP. His MLAs, enjoying the fruits of power, know that the next election is four years away. Time will heal wounds and even if it doesn’t, who’s to say they’ll win a snap poll?
And so, the BJP with its farm laws has made life difficult even for its allies in Punjab and Haryana. But who needs them? Instead, Modi’s focus is on retaining his 38 per cent. The government did not try to create consensus among these farmers before bringing the laws, but is now going to great lengths to defend the laws. When Modi and his party leaders say these protesters have been “misled”, it is done with the knowledge that such a claim isn’t going to persuade the protesters. But the claim is not intended for the farmers anyway. The aim is to assure the 38 per cent that these foolish people are being misled.
That’s why the BJP is quick to demonise its opponents, both directly and through its proxies on hate TV and social media armies. They are Urban Naxals! They’re Khalistanis! They’re Congressis! They’re pro-Muslim!
When the bid to paint them as Khalistani backfired, it ran the risk of portraying the Modi government as unnecessarily reigniting a dead conflict. That’s the sort of thing even some of its 38 per cent might find distasteful. So, Modi meets Sikh farmers in Gujarat, and he goes to a gurudwara in Delhi. All locations where he gets votes.
A pro-government channel claims to have carried out a survey in which it claims to have found that a “majority” of people support the farm laws. The implication is that those who are in a minority must shut up and carry along with whatever is done to them because the majority thinks it is the right thing. This is not democracy but majoritarianism.
Breakdown of trust
All that the Modi government needs to do is talk to these farmers and find a way to convince them that the minimum support price (MSP) regime won’t be done away with. The government has tried. Unlike Muslims protesting against the CAA, these Sikh and Hindu farmers have at least been given the courtesy of a hearing. The government has made concessions too, willing to make amendments in the laws. Yet if the farmers are not convinced, it’s because there’s no trust. If the 38 per cent have blind faith in Modi, the 62 per cent have no trust. That’s what polarisation does, that’s what polarisation is.
The Modi government’s apathy towards those who didn’t vote for him is so complete that it makes the 62 per cent feel disenfranchised. It’s as if their votes don’t matter. They feel futile even going to the polling booth.
The EVM rigging sentiment today is widespread even among the voters. If you are an election tourist like me, you’ll meet many anti-BJP voters who will tell you, ‘BJP will lose if EVMs are not rigged’. Yet these people vote and no party has boycotted any election so far over EVM doubts. When people complain about EVMs, what they are actually saying is that they feel disempowered and disenfranchised in a political system where the government thinks its job is to govern only those who voted for it. This is a government by the 38 per cent people, of the 38 per cent people and for the 38 per cent people.
This runs contrary to Modi’s claim of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’, to which he added ‘Sabka Vishwas’ in 2019. Everyone’s participation, everyone’s development, everyone’s trust. This is standard Modi, neutralising criticism by saying the opposite of what he’s about to do. If he’s about to throw cold water at you, he’ll first give a moving speech about how he wants everyone to bathe in warm water in the winter.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.