To RSS with Love: The Real Story of 2009 Elections

If news reports are to be believed, the RSS has come out with the most classic analysis of the 2009 election verdict: Advani did not enthuse the Hindus. [Read carefully: He could but he did not. A small boy, kal ka chhokra, Varun Gandhi had to lead the way!] Only a shade better than the West Bengal CPM claiming that they lost because Karat and the central leadership withdrew support to the UPA…as if they themselves – or Nandigram had nothing to do with it! Or the Kerala CPM claiming that it was due to chief minister Achuthanandan that they lost – Achuthanandan the agent of the bourgeoisie who ‘roared with laughter’ when the party was losing the elections! Or Sitaram Yechury claiming that UPA won because they claimed the credit for NREGA and Forest Rights Act which ‘we had forced them to enact’ – but ‘we’ lost! Amazing stuff, these elections and even more amazing, the post-election antics. But today’s topic is not the CPM. For, the real story is the RSS and BJP love story that is once again on the rocks.

RSS spokesperson MG Vaidya was forthright: “The BJP must reflect Hindu nationalism or else it is free to remain as any other party not associated with the Sangh… What’s wrong if people have gathered the impression that the BJP uses the Ram temple issue only for political gains?… The mainstream in this country is Hindu and the RSS is engaged in unifying Hindus. The BJP or any other owing allegiance to the Sangh must reflect this philosophy in its deeds.”

Now, if there is one thing that stands out clearly in the otherwise diverse messages of mandate 2009 in different states, it is the rejction of the BJP, across the board.  It has lost voters everywhere – the two exceptions being Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. But even that is not the real story. The real story is that if you look at the vote percentage of parties over the last decade – from 1999 to 2009, the BJP has continuously lost votes and voters. That is to say, it lost votes when it was in power leading the NDA for six continuous years and it lost votes in the last five years when it was in opposition with no anti-incumbency to deal with, when it could have presented itself as the ‘voice of the people’.

The big surprise of the 2004 parliamentary elections was that the the BJP-led NDA lost, contrary to all expectations. Poll analysts and opinion polls had predicted that the NDA would win comfortably. The economic context in which that election was held too gave enough reason to believe that the NDA-BJP would return to power: the economy had been steadily growing and a vast range of new jobs had opened up in the service sector, especially in the information technology enabled industries. India’s foreign exchange reserves had created something of a record at US $ 100 billion. This high optimism was encapsulated in the BJP’s election slogan ‘India Shining’. Just two years before those elections, in 2002, there had been a massacre of Muslims under the auspices of the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat, followed later that year by a sweeping electoral victory in the State Assembly elections.  This had strengthened the idea that the BJP’s strategy of creating a consolidated Hindu vote for itself was paying dividends, at least in the short run.

But the results had taken everybody by surprise. The NDA as a whole was down by 89 seats and lost 3.76 per cent votes at the national level. The Congress Party-led UPA on the other hand gained 83 seats and 7.1 per cent votes. In the post poll analyses that followed, analysts began to see the Gujarat violence and the resultant communal polarization as one of the factors that could have been responsible for the BJP / NDA’s defeat. In their new post-election wisdom, BJP leaders like LK Advani and many election experts also opined that the hype of ‘India Shining’ had been responsible for the ruling coalition’s defeat. They saw this as evidence of the fact that in its heady desire to push ahead with the high growth rates achieved by the neo-liberal economic reforms, they had forgotten that the majority of the people still could not partake of the fruits of this so-called development, not to speak of those violently marginalized and excluded by it.

As opposed to this the 2009 elections were held in the midst of the recession, massive job losses and falling foreign exchange reserves – which though still strong at $ 247 billion, had dropped $ 62.43 billion over the past year. They took place against the backdrop of a series of bomb blasts and terrorist attacks – the most recent being the Mumbai attacks which led to what fellow Kafilaite Nivedita Menon had referred to as the ‘revolt of the elites’.  There were angry demonstrations against the government and politicians in general and even calls to not pay taxes. Prior to this, shortly after the Delhi bomb blasts in September 2008, sections of the police and government had staged what was widely suspected to be a fake encounter in Jamia Nagar, Okhla, in which two students and a police officer died. All these incidents/episodes were played up and no effort was spared in order to turn the feeling of anger and insecurity arising from them into a communal polarization. The BJP  came in once again with its favourite theme of a strong national security state, accusing the UPA and the Congress government of being soft on terrorism.

And why should we forget that on a series of other issues the UPA government had scored self goals! Out of its own incompetence, it had messed up the situation and provided the BJP and its partner organizations, RSS and the VHP with ample ammunition to further the communal polarization. The Ram Setu or the Sethusamudram issue in 2007-2008 and the Amarnath land issue in Jammu and Kashmir in July-August 2008 were only the more recent such cases where full-fledged attempts were made to incite Hindu passions.

Let us assure MG Vaidya and the RSS that Advani and his entourage had left no stone unturned in trying to enthuse the Hindu masses. It is another matter that the masses did not listen. How else do we understand the fact that in Jammu and Kashmir itself, the swing away from the BJP has been 4.4 per cent? Clearly this has to have happened mainly among the Hindus of the state who were massively mobilized during the Amarnath crisis. Or, more strikingly, take the case of the BJP candidate, Leela Karan Sharma, the main leader of the Amarnath agitation. He lost the Poonch constituency to the Congress candidate by a huge margin of over 1.2 lakh votes.

This is the background against which we need to see the results of the 2009 elections. There is little doubt that continuous attempts by the BJP, RSS and VHP, to aggravate communal tensions has been decisively rejected by the electorate.

And it is interesting that despite the economic downturn, the voters have not reacted in a fickle manner. It is true that the effects of the impressive economic growth of over 7 per cent over the past decade have not been completely wiped out by the downturn but it is equally true that there has been a major slowing down leading to huge job losses. It is also worth bearing in mind that 2008 was the year of a massive global rise in prices of food grains, leading to unrest in many parts of the world. India too was no exception to this global trend and both the Left and the BJP tried to encash it by holding the UPA government responsible for it, organizing mass demonstrations against it. That none of this has had any electoral impact and if anything, it was the Left and the BJP who were rejected by the electorate, is a point worth pondering on.

It seems, therefore, that the mandate for the UPA and the Congress has been a result of some deliberation and the voters have refused to be swayed by the populist rhetoric of politics without responsibility. We need to understand the logic of this refusal to be swayed by populist rhetoric. We also need to remember that this attitudinal shift has not uniformly been to the UPA’s benefit. That is to say, it is not a pro-UPA or pro-Congress shift, even though it may have immediately benefited them. At least in Bihar this shift went in favour of NDA partner and prospective ‘Third Front’ ally, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). In Uttar Pradesh, it seems to have gone against the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Mayawati though there the Congress has been a direct beneficiary.

Many analysts have attempted to interpret the election results as a vote for ‘development’ and against the sectarian politics of the Hindu right. There may be some truth in this claim but we need to be clear what one means by it. If ‘development’ means land acquisition for industry, dispossession of the rural poor, demolitions of slums and expulsion of the urban poor from cities to make way for shopping malls and multi-level air conditioned car parks, or the replacement of vegetable and fruit vendors with retail chains, then clearly this is not what the vote is for. And it does not matter whether those wo do it hold alot the Red Flag of Revolution or belong to the Congress or indeed to the Hindu Right. If Congress and UPA analysts want to interpret the results as license for unbridled neo-liberal reforms and an ‘India Shining’ kind of development, they will be making a big mistake.  They must remember that some of the most violent struggles of the past couple of years have been around land acquisition and proposed Special Economic Zones (SEZs) which provide unrestrained freedom to the corporate sector to exploit labour and destroy the environment.

It seems, rather, that the Congress has reaped the benefits of another set of things that happened during the UPA regime. This was the enactment and implementation of important laws like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the Right to Information Act (RTI Act) and the Forest Rights Act. The first two acts, often used in conjunction have enabled a more transparent implementation of the provisions of the former and a check on corruption on that front. But these initiatives were not the outcome of the Congress’ policy. Rather, they were outcomes of the fact that the UPA had emerged as an interesting, if contested space where social movements also had some voice. The involvement of individuals like Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze and other representatives of social movements, as well as the fact that the Left parliamentary bloc was supporting the government, had transformed the UPA into a space full of diverse possibilities that could simultaneously undertake steps that were oriented towards welfare of the poor. The audacious programme of producing new textbooks by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) that was for once taken out of the field of tired ideological polemics and converted into a veritable movement involving hundreds of academics across the country signaled this feature of the UPA as a distinctive kind of space. Textbooks produced by the NCERT in this period charted an entirely new path by focusing on innovative pedagogical methods that would help develop the child’s critical faculties rather than give her ready made ‘knowledge’ in the form of ideological capsules. This exercise earned the UPA a kind of goodwill that few governments can claim to have earned.

And yet, it will be naïve to believe that all these could ever add up to electoral popularity. The NREGA and the RTI have certainly had a wider mass impact and lakhs of people have benefited from the employment guarantee schemes but even these may not add up to the kind of popular support required for elections. Not across the length and breadth of the country at any rate. In fact, the voting figures confirm this. For, the Congress managed to increase its national vote by just about 2 per cent compared to 2004 and could only come back to its 1999 position.

It is only when the Congress’ performance is read alongside the BJP’s – and in conjunction with the 2004 results – that the picture begins to make some more sense. Even after a term out of power – and therefore no ‘anti-incumbency’ to deal with – the BJP lost substantial vote across the country. Its losses range between 4 to 7 per cent in many states and are as high as 12 per cent in Rajasthan, which, along with Karnataka, was widely seen as the Hindutva laboratory in the BJP-RSS game plan. At the all-India level, it lost 3.4 per cent in comparison to 2004. The picture becomes more interesting, as I have indicated above, when we look at the BJP’s performance in relation to the1999 elections. For, already by the 2004 elections, after six years in power (1998-2004), the aggregate BJP vote had declined by 1.6 percent but more dramatically, it had declined by 6.7 percent in relation to the number of seats contested.

In other words, the BJP’s decline over the period 1999 – 2009 shows a continuing trend, irrespective of whether it was in power or not. The BJP had initially garnered substantial new supporters in the 1990s, cashing in mainly on the upper caste backlash on the Mandal issue and the sectarian communal mobilization around the Babri Masjid/ Ram Mandir issue. It had also reaped the benefit of a Congress in decline where popular anger and disgust at the high levels of corruption turned into support for the BJP – a clean and fresh new contender for power. Studies of the rise of the BJP in the 1990s also show that it attracted a whole range of non-English speaking lower middle class people excluded from power and the fruits of ‘development’ as much as it attracted professionals from among the English-speaking sections. In caste and community terms, the former came largely from the lower OBC castes, while a significant section of the latter were from the upper castes. It has also been noted that in this phase of expansion, the party had made significant inroads among dalit and adivasi populations. In other words, the BJP in its period of rise, had become the vehicle for the expression of a whole set of aspirations of diverse population groups.

The CSDS post poll survey data for the 2004 elections showed that the drop in the BJP’s votes in 2004 itself had taken place among two categories of voters: first, the dalits, tribals and the OBCs who probably felt excluded from the aggressively pro-rich and pro-corporate direction of the economic reforms as they played themselves out. Second, a large section of its newfound middle class supporters who seem to have been disillusioned with it. The survey had shown that already in 2004, its 1999 supporters had turned away from it in large numbers: 19 percent of them had voted against it while another 14 percent just did not turn up to vote. Just two years after the Gujarat massacres, Vaidyaji. What more can a party do to ‘enthuse the Hindus’ than massacres the Muslims?

The important thing is that despite being out of power for five years, the BJP’s decline has continued, as noted above. The erosion of the BJP’s vote is the one undeniable fact of the first decade of the twenty-first century and it points towards one inescapable conclusion: you cannot keep an entire society in a permanent state of war mobilization as the BJP had been trying to. The only politics that the BJP had to offer, as we left the 1990s behind us, was the politics of resentment, invoking five-century-old imaginary battles, and wanting to keep the entire society trapped in a siege mentality. Minority bashing, leading to endless violence in different parts of the country, was continuously running up against the desire to move ahead as things changed rapidly in the last decade.

Over the last decade of high economic growth and opening out of new opportunities outside the conventional frame of ‘naukri’ (indeed sarkari naukri), there has been an explosion of desire and aspirations. People, for whom a government job might have, till the other day, defined the limits of expectations from life, are now thinking beyond. It is well known that middle class youth have found a series of new possibilities open out before them in this period; what is not recognized however, is that over the past few years, it has not been uncommon to hear of stories of labour shortages in rural areas as well. In places as far apart and different from each other as Kerala, Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, we had stories of the rural poor moving into newer occupations. Punjab, in fact was exceptional as its crisis was that poorer labourers from Bihar and eastern UP had stopped coming to work the land of green revolution farmers whose own children were rapidly losing interest in agriculture. If the urban lower middle classes went for a range of reasonably paid infotech enabled industries, the rural poor initially came into jobs that ranged from those in informal sector construction work and small scale industries to other kinds of factory employment. But their imaginative horizons had changed. They would eventually move out into other trades. Work in the unorganized sector, with a toehold in the city, is often the first step towards saving and moving on. This is a story one often encounters in the bigger cities and towns.

In this context, the endless strife, tension and uncertainty that the BJP/RSS/VHP attempts to whip up communal frenzy produced were bound to be perceived as undesirable interruptions in the rhythms of daily life. This fell into sharp relief as the NDA went out of power and the UPA took office. Almost overnight, the siege ended. Till the other day, it had seemed as if we were at war with Pakistan and Pakistani agents. Narendra Modi even fought a farcical election against the then Pakistan President Musharraf. And suddenly, with the NDA out of power, we were debating other issues: pedagogy, textbooks, employment guarantee, forest rights, right to information and so on.

It should be underlined however, that no trends in India are ever all-embracing country-wide trends and there are deep, province-specific and often local factors at work. It is not advisable therefore, to look for one overarching all-India factor or tendency. We need to think this relationship between the longer-term or medium-term tendencies like the decline of the BJP’s support base as itself modulated by a host of regional, provincial and local logics. Thus, even while the BJP is overall on the decline, there are states as far apart as Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, where it has increased it votes substantially. Even within provinces it has lost, as in Uttar Pradesh and Orissa, there are regions and districts where its politics of communal and sectarian violence continues to have a strong appeal. On closer inspection however, one can see that the reasons for the acceptability of its particular brand of politics has very specific local reasons. The violent conflict in the Kandhamal district of Orissa for example, is overdetermined by the century-old strife between the Kandh tribals and the Panas – a dalit community, largely converted to Christianity. In such circumstances, what we get at the all-India level is in one sense an aggregate of the regional/provincial pictures. But the all-India picture is not merely a sum of the local and/or regional trends. Overall all-India trends do take shape depending upon how the performance of the outgoing government is perceived and these provide the backdrop against which the smaller stories unfold.

Some commentators and even a seasoned politician like LK Advani have started seeing in the verdict the end of the era of regional parties and a return to a bi-polar politics of national political formations. Some have read in it a rejection of caste based ‘identity politics’. This seems to be too hasty a judgement, especially given that the regional parties, most of which are also OBC and Dalit parties polled between them almost the same vote they received in the past two elections (29.2 percent). There are indications however, especially from states like Bihar and UP that voters are less likely to be satisfied with merely caste based rhetoric. Voters from OBC and Dalit sections would still like to vote for parties that speak in their name but they are not likely to be satisfied with that much alone. They would like to see concrete results to their benefit. The taken-for-granted-ness with which parties like the SP of Mulayam Singh Yadav, or the RJD of Lalu Prasad Yadav or the BSP of Mayawati had begun to treat their voters is less likely to pass muster any longer.

In a different way, this is probably also true of the BJP. It is not as though there is no place in the Indian political firmament for a party that seeks to articulate Hindu interests. There certainly is and this is a huge section of population that has been the party’s support base. However, this support is not unconditional. Those Hindus who want their interests to be protected, most likely do not believe that they can simply live off anti-Muslim rhetoric and shadow battles with Babur or Aurangzeb or indeed, Musharraf. They also want their present interests as citizens to be taken care of and simple questions of livelihoods, poverty, hunger, health and shelter are as much of their concerns as they are of anybody else.

We should thank the RSS if they let the BJP go free – for then the RSS and its true Hindu party (whichever it may be) can then return to the good old days of the 1960s when the Bharatiya Jan Sangh was considered a group of fringe loonies. There are only two choices at this point where the road forks for the RSS: either make do with a revisionist BJP that is mired in coalition and electoral politics or go back to your pristine days. Is Balraj Madhok still around, Vaidyaji? Probably he is waiting for your call. Have a nice time with real Hindutva for once.

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