Vijay Prashad analyzes the Indian election result, which has returned right-wing Narendra Modi to power. Money, mass media abdication of its watchdog function, and institutional collapse enabled Modi triumph
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
The BJP-led coalition of Narendra Modi of India won big in the Indian elections, a cumulative vote share of nearly 45 percent, which is much higher than what this coalition got in in 2014, which was at 38 percent. The main opposition party congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, got only 22.07 percent of the votes counted thus far, which is an increase of 2.6 percent from what they got in 2014. Tensions in Kashmir and the launch of a military satellite were used by Modi to whip up popularity, while Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party campaigned on the promise of economic and social reforms, and accused Modi of corruption. Obviously that was not very convincing, because of the victory, the landslide victory that the BJP and Narendra Modi has won.
Victory for the BJP means five more years of Hindu fundamentalist government in India, and many worry that the damage already done in the last five years can be recoverable and that the Muslim minority for a non-secular state could suffer for the next five years, as well.
Now joining me to discuss all of this is Vijay Prashad. He is the director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research. He’s the chief editor of LeftWord Books. And he’s also the editor of the book Strongmen: Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Trump, and Modi. Good to have you here, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Vijay, many in the mainstream media outlets are, of course, reporting this landslide victory for the BJP and Narendra Modi. And of course by now we all, and the left Congress and others, have to concede to what happened. But how do you characterise this victory? What happened?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s a long story. And it’s not a pleasing story for me, because I don’t think it’s a good idea for India to have such a long period with the Baharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister, to have them in the government. I think it’s going to be very difficult for India in the next five years.
But I must say that both in terms of a certain kind of institutional collapse, and in terms of the very smart campaign run by Mr. Modi, this is, you know, something that people should have been able to anticipate. When I say institutional collapse, you know, I’d like to emphasize, Sharmini, that this is not a story that can only be explained in terms of details of Indian society or what happened in this election campaign. In other words, this is not something that begs an empirical explanation.
You know, just before the Indian election there was the turn to the right in Australia. The right wing wins again. We know that the right has been gaining in Europe. And we’ll see what happens in this European Parliamentary election. But certainly the story in India is not unusual. It’s something that has been repeated elsewhere.
What I would like us to consider is that there’s been a sort of hollowing out of democracy. And I’m going to give you three quick examples from the Indian case. The first is an immense amount of money was spent on this campaign. You know, something to the tune of $7 billion. Just to put this in context, in the 2016 United States election, the total amount spent on the presidential campaign and the congressional seat that year was $6.5 billion. And in the Indian election $7 billion was spent that we know of. A lot of so-called black money was also spent in it, for sure. So this was, you know, an unbelievably expensive election, and money plays a role.
Second thing that’s I think important for people to focus on is that the Indian media has completely collapsed in terms of its ability to hold politicians accountable. You know, Mr. Modi ran in 2014 on an agenda. He hadn’t been able to meet the expectations or deliver on his agenda. He was not questioned about that. The media didn’t ask about that. And that’s a real failure. The media should hold politicians to account for what they said they would do. There was almost no media challenge to Mr. Modi.
And finally, in terms of the kind of institutional collapse, the election commission in India was asleep on the job. I mean, it allowed Mr. Modi and his party to routinely break the customary obligations of political parties, for instance, not to use religion in the election campaign. The election commission didn’t rap the BJP or Mr. Modi on the knuckles. It did question other parties. It’s not like they decided to go to sleep on the job as far as everyone was concerned. In this sense there was an institutional failure. Money, the media, and then the election commission. This is a situation one sees not just in India, but I think in other parts of the world. And Modi made the most of it. I mean, he ran a far-right campaign using national security as the principal message of his campaign, and basically very cleverly arguing if not Modi, then whom? He made this an election not about 542 parliamentary constituencies. He made this election Modi vs. Rahul Gandhi. And it appears that large sections of the Indian public decided to go with Modi.
SHARMINI PERIES: Speaking of the media, Vijay, the media obviously didn’t hold Narendra Modi accountable. And he keeps iterating this rhetoric which is actually not true, and nobody held him accountable. Even in his victory speech, he said this is a victory of the mother who is longing for a toilet, and he continued to say this is a victory of the farmers who sweat to fill the stomachs of others, and this is a victory for the 400 million unorganized laborers. So the question is is it a victory for them? And a continuation of your analysis, in terms of how the media did not hold him accountable. Because these are the very people that suffered under his leadership for the last five years.
VIJAY PRASHAD: You know, Mr. Modi gave a speech, as you say, right after the election. It was a very clever speech. He said that he was going to stand by the values and the sense of the Constitution of India. Immediately when I heard that I felt that he might do the very opposite. I mean, he has such a large majority he might not move to change aspects of the Constitution. But he did appear to be above the fray, as it were, the kind of Modi that he projected that should be the prime minister of India. He was almost playing a character in his own play. But there were two other points he made related to what you just asked about.
Mr. Modi said that–I think very cleverly–he referred to the fact the caste, you know, he said should not any longer have a place in India. This is an important point. Caste is the bane of Indian society. And the BJP has cleverly said that there are no castes in order to unite a so-called Hindu vote against minorities in India. So he played to that again in his speech. But he said something quite interesting.
He said that in India there should only be two castes. And this is very important. He said one caste is the caste of those who are trying to pull themselves out of poverty. And the second caste, he said, are those who are going to help them come out of poverty. I mean, this is a really unique kind of analysis. In other words, there is no contradiction between the poor and the rich, and so on. That the rich essentially are people who want to help the poor emerge out of poverty. This is what he meant when he said, you know, this is a victory for farmers, and so on.
Now, I don’t see how this is anything other than rhetoric, because what we have seen in the Modi years is advantages given to very large corporations, and a disadvantage, you know, in other words, cuts in social welfare, and so on, to the very poor; particularly cuts to farmers. It was a little obscene for him to talk about how this is a victory for farmers. But I think it’s in the context of this statement where he’s basically trying to cut against the sort of class analysis politics that has dominated Indian discourse. They’re trying to shift the entirety of the conversation away from the question that there are sections of the public that are not benefiting from capitalism, that require social welfare, that there needs to be a public sector that tends to the needs of people who are, in a sense, you know, the survivors of a very difficult economic system, and so on. He wants to shift that entire debate into this kind of odd sort of language of where you have a world of those who want to aspire to leave poverty. And then the philanthropists who are going to help them. In a sense he’s trying to bring a kind of American language into India.
And I think this may or may not work. It’s very hard to say this is not going to work in India because the BJP, you know, have been quite canny in shifting a great deal in Indian society.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Vijay, you said that Modi made this election an election between Modi and Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party. But the Congress party was very disorganized. It had a leadership crisis. It was not very forthright in terms of defining the campaign. And obviously it has proven that this was not a very successful campaign. What happened to the Congress Party? And why is it that they did so badly?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, this is an important situation, because in a sense we are seeing the Congress party, which, you know, for from 1947 to the late 1990s have dominated Indian politics in one way or the other, the Congress party has slowly been collapsing. Part of it is that they pushed, when they were in power, a very harsh neoliberal agenda, which didn’t win them any friends. And the entry of this kind of neoliberal agenda becoming the anchor of IMF policy in India, all of this disoriented the political party itself and moved the leadership into a kind of neoliberal technocracy. I think that’s been a long-term problem. The short-term issue in this election was that everybody on the opposition was quite keen to have an arrangement with each other so that when they came to the 542 constituencies they would be as much as possible a straight fight between the opposition and the BJP.
You know, there was a great appetite for this in most parts of India. The Congress, you know, almost arrogantly decided to have nothing to do with this. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, where the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, two regional parties quite strong in their own way; Previously great enemies of each other, decided to come together. If the Congress had joined them it’s a very good chance they may have defeated the BJP in many of the seats in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP had been vulnerable. The same way in other parts of north India if the Congress had allied with the [inaudible] party, for instance, the recently formed anti-corruption party which would have helped both the [inaudible] party and the BJP in Delhi, where the BJP swept the seven seats, took all of them with big margins.
If they had made alliances, I think quite credibly there might have been a setback for the BJP. The Congress simply decided not to do this. And I think the real example of, illustration of this, is that Mr. Rahul Gandhi, who is the leader of the Communist Party, because of the lack of an alliance in Uttar Pradesh, Mr. Gandhi was defeated in his parliamentary constituency meetings by Smriti Irani. I mean, this is interesting, because this seat of Amethi has been cultivated by the Gandhi family. Mr. Rahul Gandhi himself has won that seat several times. But this time he was not able to hold it, largely because they didn’t do the alliance. Meanwhile, he also ran not against the BJP in any other part of north India, or even in Karnataka, where he might have been able to galvanize the Congress against the BJP. No, he came to Kerala and ran against the communists. In Kerala it’s a straight fight between the communists and the Congress. And the entry of Rahul Gandhi to Kerala galvanized the Congress youth and enabled the Congress to take a lot of seats in Kerala, basically sweep Kerala.
And in fact, the Congress is–you know, the Congress Party’s section in the Parliament, almost a third of their seats are going to be from Kerala. That’s how badly the Congress was decimated around the country. And I think maliciously, you know, hurt the chances of the left for having a bloc inside parliament.
SHARMINI PERIES: And Vijay, the left parties, these are the parties to the left of Congress. Now, the communist parties and other left parties, now, they did not do well. They are categorized under other parties when you look at the results. What happened to the left? What happened to the communist parties here?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the question of the left is going to take a lot of time to digest and understand. In Kerala, I think it’s quite clear that the entry of Rahul Gandhi certainly enthused Congress workers, Congress volunteers. It was quite exciting for them to have Mr. Rahul Gandhi run for the seat, and why not? It basically gave them confidence across the state. But that’s not enough of an explanation. I think, as well, the left front had supported a Supreme Court verdict for the entry of women into the temple in Sabarimala. It’s a decision that I don’t think the left will ever regret. That is to say, in supporting the Supreme Court verdict, it is a feminist decision. It is something that the left must support. But it’s certainly hurt the left in conservative sections of Kerala, not just among Hindus, but among Christians and Muslims, as well. People said the left was, you know, intervening into religion, and so on.
So I think this did play a role in that election. But certainly there is a much more prosaic explanation, which is that in many cases people say we would prefer to have the communist govern the state of Kerala, in the state assembly; have the chief minister to be a communist. But we’re going to send the Congress to Delhi because we want a strong Congress bloc against the BJP. There’s very practical and pragmatic voting taking place in Kerala. In West Bengal the result has been shocking. You know, the left-fronted government has been going for 34 years, from 1977 till 2011. After 2011 there’s been a steady deterioration of victories in elections. But the left base, that is to say, the population that voted for the left, remained near 30 percent of the voting public; 26 percent to 31 percent.
This time that base, the communist base in West Bengal, evaporated and left only about 7 percent of the electorate voting for the communists. This is a shocking drop. It’s going to take a lot of study to learn why this happened. It appears that sections of the public that voted for the left this time saw what they may have seen as a more credible alternative to the Congress, the local very strong political party authoritarian political party in Bengal. And they may have gone to the Congress in some parts of Bengal and to the BJP in others. And that actually may explain why the BJP was allowed to win seats in West Bengal. Also, West Bengal society has become slightly more communal. You know, in other words, religion is beginning to play a bigger role, and this has hurt the left.
The left has been able to enter Parliament from Tamil Nadu largely because of a very strong alliance. Earlier I said that the Congress should have conducted alliances around the country. In Tamil Nadu the DMK, the Congress, and the two communist parties were in alliance. And four seats from Tamil Nadu went to the communists, and so the biggest bloc of communists in Parliament will now be from Tamil Nadu.
SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, so let’s leave it there for now. Obviously we can take this up another time as the final results are coming in. Thank you so much for joining us today.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.