Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalists won the parliamentary elections in India again, securing the incumbent Prime Minister a second term. Left-wing forces continue to lose relevance.
Veena George’s victory seemed possible. In the end, however, the TV journalist and candidate for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) could not prevail in her constituency Pathanamthitta, in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Only three years ago she was elected to the state parliament with a big lead; now she has lost to her opponent from the Congress party. Both had fought against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Indian People’s Party (BJP), which was unable to win seats in Kerala. Modi’s strategy of divide and polarize did not succeed in southern India.
However, this was an exception. Overall, the BJP emerged from the parliamentary elections with an absolute majority and renewed strengths. More than 600 million people cast their votes for a new lower house in the six-week elections. Voter turnout was 67 percent higher than in the parliamentary elections five years ago.
Posters showing a victorious Modi waving and covered in rose petals already appeared the night before the official electoral count on May 23. The posters read: “BJP: number one. Another Modi government.” Soon after, it became official: Modi and the BJP had secured a second term. The BJP and its allied parties won a total of 352 of the 542 lower house seats. The Congress Party and all others lagged behind. The left-wing parties managed only five seats. In 2014 they had secured ten; in 2004, 56, which today seems almost impossible.
The Modi brand came through: whoever is against me is against India. The BJP won in almost the whole subcontinent. The lotus, the party’s symbol, also bloomed in the East, where left-wing forces had been strong for decades. The man from Gujarat has established a cult around himself and sets the rules of the game. He decides whether and how he talks to the press, whether he goes to parliament or not. Many observers believe that pressure on the media and civil society could continue to increase.
For Dr. Ashok Dhawale the results are nevertheless surprising. “The Modi government did not deliver on a single of its assurances made five years ago,” says the chairman of the All India Kisan Sabha, a peasant’s association which is close to the CPI(M). “It is a very disturbing result for Indian democracy and secularism.” Modi and the BJP will continue to set a tone that is a cause for concern for millions of people in India. Since Modi took office in 2014, the negative sentiment towards minorities has continued to increase in the country. Radical Hindus are trying to enforce, partly by force, a ban on beef consumption. Upper castes are given priority in the allocation of apprenticeships and government positions, undermining the system of quotas known as "reservation" that previously benefited socially disadvantaged strata.
In the last five years, India has witnessed a politics of division: Hindus versus Muslims, the poor versus the rich, upper versus lower castes. Modi has always been on the side of the majority, which has contributed to his reputation as a strongman. Instead of economic policy, he has relied on security. The Kashmir conflict became a campaign issue. The renewed escalation of tensions with Pakistan earlier this year has eclipsed the fact that unemployment is at its highest level in 45 years and economic growth is slower than had been hoped for.
Nonetheless, Modi got his second term. “Together we will build a strong and inclusive India,” he tweeted on the day the results were announced. But not everyone is convinced. “Am not happy with this government or coming polling results,” says Poonam Tushamad of the All India Dalit Writers Association, which mainly represents writers from the untouchable caste. “They (Hindu nationalists) are always trying to break the unity of all weaker casts.” Identity politics play a more important role than concrete policies, on which the BJP hasn’t delivered.
The BJP was particularly successful in the states in northern and central India. In those areas, it was able to win in 70 percent of the constituencies. It was even stronger in the countryside than in the cities, despite the fact that India’s agriculture has been in deep crisis for years. The Congress party has proven unable to benefit from the mediocre economic situation. Together with its allies it won 91 seats: still 26 more than at the last election. For many people, the party president and Cambridge graduate Rahul Gandhi embodies an antiquated and detached political dynasty. In contrast to Modi, who despite all his faults is still seen as the representative of the ordinary people and who—according to BJP legend—worked his way up from tea vendor to Prime Minister.
The Congress Party was only able to secure moderate wins in north-western Punjab and, at the expense of the Communists, in Kerala in southern India. But Subhashini Ali, president of the Communist All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), will not accept the Congress Party as an alternative for left-wing politics because in her opinion the Congress Party has failed to differentiate itself sufficiently on economic policy. “The basic problems of people—education, poverty, employment, housing, drinking water, access to justice, health have not been solved,” says the 71-year-old. But the Hindu nationalists have succeeded in shifting responsibility to the secular politics of the past, she argues, saying that the BJP’s response hast been religious nationalism and intolerance towards minorities. This is why she thinks they have thrived in former left strongholds like West Bengal. But Subhashini Ali shows a fighting spirit: “Despite all this, it is the CPI(M) which is in the forefront of peoples’ struggles in Bengal.”
India’s Left has been in a deep political crisis for years. Many voters no longer see any alternative in the Communists. Overall, there is a lack of new blood. In terms of identity politics, the BJP has taken over the field. The Left is at risk of becoming insignificant. In West Bengal, they peaked in the 1980s by taking 38 of the 42 seats of the lower house. In 2004, they won 35; in the subsequent election, only half that number. In 2019, no leftist from West Bengal made it into the country’s parliament in New Delhi. Even in the state parliament of the east Indian state they were unable to win ten percent of the seats. The Communists lost power in their former stronghold in 2011 after more than three decades. In Kerala they are still in charge of the state government, but even there they have reasons to worry. In the federal election, only one of their candidates prevailed
Their south Indian neighbour state, Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, has four Communist parliamentarians. Human rights activist Henri Tiphagne is relieved that Modi did not win in a landslide across the whole of India: “People who have wanted a secular India have cast their votes.,” he says. Tamil Nadu could be a role model for the whole country, he thinks. “The time has come (for all of us in the human rights field) to continue our work (with conviction, consistency, courage and a sense) of greater sacrifice for preserving this nation and its ideals.”
In many regions of India where the CPI(M) stood no chance of winning a parliamentary seat through a majority voting system, it supported stronger parties such as the Congress Party. But the Congress Party failed to forge enough successful alliances. In many constituencies, Modi’s critics ran against each other, depriving each other of votes. The BJP was the beneficiary. Neither the educational reformer Atishi, a candidate running with Delhi’s anti-corruption Aam Admi Party (AAP), nor the student protester Kanhaiya Kumar of the Communist Party of India (CPI) were able to beat their BJP competitors. Meanwhile, CPI(M) Secretary General Sitaram Yechury took responsibility for their poor performance. He believes that under Modi’s new government it will not be easy to maintain democracy, legal order and political freedoms in India.
Natalie Mayroth is a freelance journalist who lives and works in Mumbai. This article was commissioned by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Delhi Office. For further reading check out the recent RLS Policy Paper, Democracy and Discontent: India on the eve of parliamentary elections.