The BJP’s Agenda May Be Down, but Don’t Count the Party Out

Did voters reject the BJP's Hindu nationalism?
Did voters reject the BJP’s Hindu nationalism?

It’s being hailed as the biggest upset in Indian electoral history. Defying all the polls and talking heads, the Congress, headed by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, has won. And it hasn’t just squeaked by. It has effectively swamped the BJP. The party that ruled India virtually uninterrupted for the first 40 years of independence will soon be back in power after a drought of eight years.

I wrote on Monday that no one, not even those who thought the BJP might be headed for rough waters, imagined the Congress would emerge as the largest party. The final numbers are now in, and it turns out that everyone was wrong: The Congress has 145 seats in parliament and the BJP 138. With its allies, the Congress has 219 seats and the BJP 186. Add the 62 seats won by the Communists, who didn’t campaign as Congress allies but have pledged their support, and the Congress crosses the halfway mark in the 545-seat parliament. At least two other parties are likely to join the Congress in government, pushing its tally to over 300.

Clearly, something went terribly wrong for the BJP. Just a few weeks ago, party strategists were predicting that they would win over 300 seats on their own, which would have allowed the BJP to form a government without allies. Now Vajpayee has resigned, and shell-shocked members of his party are preparing to sit on the opposition benches. Pramod Mahajan, a key BJP election strategist and the person most likely to emerge as the fall guy for this disaster, told the media, “I am half heartbroken and half stunned.”

The post-mortems are just beginning, but already much of the analysis is interpreting the results as a decisive rejection of the BJP’s economic liberalism and Hindu nationalist ideology. That’s too simple a reading. India’s electorate is diverse and complicated, and regional issues play a major role in voters’ choices. Moreover, every Indian election is to a significant extent determined by the “anti-incumbency factor”: Life in much of the country is poor and miserable, and miserable voters tend to lash out at whoever happens to be in power. Much of the Indian intelligentsia and many liberals I know have been walking around with ecstatic expressions on their faces. They figure the BJP’s brand of politics is gone for good. I wouldn’t gloat. The BJP’s agenda may be down, but it’s certainly not out.

Consider, for example, what the elections have to say about Hindu nationalism. It’s certainly true that the 2002 riots in Gujarat turned many voters decisively against the BJP. I’ve talked to several people, former fence-sitters, who have told me that the deaths in those ethnic riots opened their eyes to the dangers of Hindutva. But another interpretation of the results is that the BJP lost precisely because it underplayed the Hindu theme. As the results were trickling in, a spokesperson for the RSS, a right-wing Hindu organization with links to the BJP, complained to the media that the government had failed to provide voters with an “emotive issue.” His point was that the BJP’s attempt to campaign on good governance and development instead of religion failed to inspire the base. In this reading, Vajpayee’s determination to steer the party toward moderation—his peace efforts with Pakistan and his attempt to reach out (or “pander,” as his critics would have it) to Muslim voters—is what ultimately sank the party. So the lesson at least some BJP stalwarts are likely to take away is that religion needs to be given more prominence next time.

On the economy, too, the results are less clear than they may first appear. Although the stock market tanked on Friday, the Congress’ economic program is in most important ways identical to the BJP’s. In fact, it was the Congress itself that in 1991 began freeing the nation’s semi-socialist economy, and Manmohan Singh, the man most likely to be the new finance minister, is revered by corporate India as the father of economic liberalization. The only real area of difference between the Congress and BJP concerns the divestment of state-owned companies: Along with the Communists (whose presence in the government is sending shivers down the spines of Indian businessmen), the Congress would privatize only those companies that are not making a profit. That policy will affect only a handful of companies; it may send the wrong message, but it shouldn’t have much effect on the economy in general.

What the results do say about the economy is that voters (particularly those in rural areas) don’t believe India is “shining.” As Devaraja, in Chetichavady, asked me on Wednesday: “The government says India’s shining, but that’s a lie. Do we look like we’re shining here?” Ultimately, rural India’s vote is less a rejection of the BJP’s economic program than it is of the party’s perceived high-handedness and removal from ordinary concerns. Mock us, poor voters appear to be saying, and we’ll fight back with the only weapon we have.

The BJP’s high-handedness has shown up in other ways during the campaign. Just before the polls opened, Vajpayee asked his Congress opponent, an old friend, to stand down and let him run unopposed. No one knows quite what Vajpayee had in mind, but to some it came across as a sense of entitlement. The prime minister’s apparent demanding of respect was particularly incongruous given that BJP members were at the same time launching virulent personal attacks on Sonia Gandhi—accusing her, for instance, of being unfit to find work even as a driver or clerk.

In fact, the “Sonia issue”—the constant harping on her foreign origins—appears to have fizzled, if not outright backfired. No one I’ve spoken with seems to care much about her Italian roots. After all, they say, she’s lived in this country for over 35 years, speaks Hindi (even if it’s somewhat stilted), and, perhaps most important, lost her mother-in-law and husband in the service of the nation. If people do have a concern about her, it tends to be her lack of experience and the very idea of dynastic rule in a nation that increasingly likes to think of itself as meritocratic.

For now, at least, those concerns have clearly been put aside. The voters have spoken loud and eloquently, and a party that was being written off as headed toward terminal decline just a few months ago will govern again. Until the 1990s, Indian voters, who had repeatedly brought the Congress back to power, were often accused of being predictable and unsophisticated. This election, among the most exciting and exhilarating I’ve experienced anywhere in the world, should put such charges to rest once and for all.