At a TV discussion on the findings of the CSDS-Lokniti exit poll, I expressed my scepticism of using the findings to make seat projections. The reasons were two-fold. First, I believe there is a ritualised sanctity to the counting process that ought not to be sullied by sneak previews of variable authenticity. Secondly, I have always felt that much more than the tally of seats won and lost by the parties, there is a certain chemistry associated with the counting exercise that determines how the mandate is interpreted by both the pundits and the electorate.
Although engaging in mindless speculation in the run-up to both voting day and counting day is an occupational hazard for those involved with the media, reserving judgement (to be distinguished from opinion) till the show is finally over has its undoubted merits. On Friday, even as the TV channels competed with each other to declare Narendra Modi as India’s next Prime Minister within 90 minutes of the start of counting, a few things became apparent.
First, it was plain that the both the political class and the media seriously underestimated the ability of Mr Modi to pierce the caste, class and community roadblocks in the path of a truly national mandate. In focusing disproportionately on how Muslims were likely to respond to the Modi challenge — either tactically or incoherently — too many people, including the amateurs who ran the Congress campaign, quite simply forgot that Muslims aren’t India’s only voters. The disproportionate attention showered on the Varanasi parliamentary constituency was a glaring example. Here, the entry of Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal ensured that the anti-Modi forces concentrated almost exclusively on the consolidation of Muslim voters to reduce Mr Modi’s victory margin. In other words, the contest was reduced to one involving the Congress and the AAP for a respectable second place. The result was predictable: Mr Modi won with a staggering 3.71 lakh margin not least because the non-Muslim voters swung in one direction and the Muslims in another.
Secondly, the sheer scale of the BJP sweep in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar may compel some analysts to argue that Mr Modi’s triumph was the consequence of a huge Hindu consolidation. This conclusion may be warranted by the fact that the next Lok Sabha will not contain even a single Muslim MP from India’s largest state. Indeed, the disaggregated data from the CSDS-Lokniti tracker and post-poll would indicate that the BJP won the largest share of votes from the upper castes, the backward castes, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
If these votes were to be re-categorised as Hindu votes, it would convey the appearance that Mr Modi’s victory flowed from majoritarian impulses. The question, therefore, arises: did these voters show their preference by voting as Hindus? While this may indeed have been the case in a corner of western Uttar Pradesh that was experiencing the unfortunate fallout from last winter’s communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, it can hardly be said to be true for the rest of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A very substantial section of Hindus, perhaps even a majority, voted for Mr Modi and the BJP. Yet they did so on the strength of the larger Modi promise to bring about a qualitative improvement in their material existence through economic development. It is not that these aspirational concerns were absent from Muslim voters but that their priorities were shaped by a concern that didn’t touch Hindu voters at all: the “anti-secular” demonology built up around Mr Modi after the 2002 riots in Gujarat. In effect, Hindu and Muslim voters in the Hindi heartland viewed the 2014 general election through very different lenses. There was no communal tension between the communities but there was a definite divergence of perceptions.
Mr Modi has been criticised for his failure to address the concerns of the Muslim minority through a set of gestures. However, the mandate he has from the electorate is to focus principally on getting the wheels of a stagnant Indian economy rolling. That is an exercise which, even modestly successful, would benefit all Indians, including the Muslim community. For Mr Modi, the really worthwhile project for the coming 60 months is to raise growth rates and create an enabling environment for the creation of new jobs. The beneficial effect of such a policy would neither bypass the Muslim community nor provoke communal tension. On the other hand, past experience suggests that policies crafted on the back of identity politics have the potential of generating social tension. For Mr Modi, a strategy for minorities has to stress two things: their physical safety and security and their inclusion in a larger economic endeavour.
Finally, a reason why the exit polls underestimated the quantum of the Modi wave was the high turnout whose impact could not be adequately assessed by pollsters. Anecdotal and poll evidence indicates that the driving force of the Modi surge were young voters in the 18-25 age group. It was the energy and enthusiasm of this section that helped inject life and vigour into a tired and often moribund BJP organisation. If Mr Modi was able to outpace the Congress in all departments of the general election it was due to his relentless targeting of Young India and their enthusiastic response to his overtures. The near-total eclipse of the AAP (except in Punjab and Delhi), which once seemed poised to capture the imagination of India’s youthful population, was almost entirely due to the countervailing influence of Mr Modi. The PM-designate, as the mandate suggests, has a special obligation to an India that has reposed faith in the future.
Yet, youth support is a double-edged sword. Just as the youth can be inspired into creating a Modi wave, it can just as easily be put off if disappointment creeps in. For Mr Modi this implies that he cannot afford to lapse into the comfort zone of gradual change. The very nature of the mandate implies that he must be and must be seen to be a man in a tearing hurry. A Modi government cannot afford to persist with the niceties of lofty politics. The role of an impatient reformer has been pre-determined by the election results. Mr Modi won the election and the responsibility for ensuring the new government delivers belongs to him.
The writer is a senior journalist