Author: Diego Maiorano, University of Naples
In March 2020, the Indian government announced one of the harshest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world with only four hours’ notice. The lockdown left tens of millions of workers without a job, savings or a roof over their heads. In May–June 2021, the country then went through a devastating wave of COVID-19, which, according to The Economist, resulted in 2.4 million deaths and was largely attributed to government mismanagement.
Unemployment — already at its highest level in decades before the pandemic — rose sharply, particularly in higher productivity sectors like manufacturing. Agriculture, where wages are significantly lower and just above subsistence levels, absorbed millions of distressed workers. Protests by farmers engulfed the north of the country for most of 2021, while inflation, as in much of the world, eroded real wages sharply.
Overall, India’s economy has barely grown over the past two years. Economists estimate that as many as 230 million people might have been pushed below the extreme poverty line during the pandemic, reversing decades of improvement. But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, performed spectacularly well in state elections held in early 2022. It won an absolute majority in four out of the five states that went to the polls, including the biggest prize of all: Uttar Pradesh (UP).
UP’s importance in Indian politics is difficult to overesstate. With an estimated population of 234 million people, it is by far the most politically relevant state on a national scale, sending 80 MPs to Delhi. It is also one of India’s poorest states, not only economically, but also in terms of healthcare, education, infrastructure and state capacity.
This has historically contributed to an extremely high rate of rejection of ruling parties. No state government had been re-elected after serving a full term since 1957. The ruling BJP Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, secured a historic victory in 2022 by winning about 44 per cent of the popular vote and two-thirds of the seats.
What explains the gap between harsh socio-economic conditions on the ground and political outcomes? Four self-reinforcing factors provide a possible answer.
First, Modi remains by far the most popular political leader in the country. The electoral campaign in UP — as has been the case for most state-level campaigns since 2014 — was centred around the personality of the prime minister, even though UP is one of the few states with a chief minister who has a solid support base and high approval rates.
Second, Chief Minister Adityanath has developed a governance model centred upon two highly popular pillars. He has instituted what is difficult not to call a police state, with an aggressive crack down on petty criminality involving the apparent use of extra-judicial killings. Adityanath also reflects attempts to make India a Hindu state. From his campaign against ‘love Jihad’ — a conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men are attempting to tilt India’s demographic balance by marrying Hindu women — to the ban on cow slaughtering, an economic activity largely in the hands of Muslims, the Chief Minister’s Islamophobic rhetoric and actions have been either approved or at least tolerated.
Third, the BJP has put in place a strong ‘new welfare’ system that is highly centralised and largely based on the distribution of very tangible private goods, such as gas cylinders, cash and toilets. While this comes at the detriment of more important but politically less rewarding public goods such as investment in health and education, research shows that voters support the new welfare architecture.
Finally, the opposition in most Indian states lacks a coherent message that could dislodge the BJP’s messaging on Hindu nationalism and welfare. In UP, the main opposition party (the Samajwadi Party) did everything right. It secured its best performance ever; it successfully attracted most of the non-BJP vote by eroding the voter base of the other two main parties; it attracted disgruntled BJP party leaders; and it conducted an electoral campaign centred upon bread and butter issues such as economic dislocation, unemployment and rising consumer prices. But it still failed to come anywhere near challenging the BJP machine.
What does the BJP victory in UP then signal for the upcoming national election in 2024? It strongly suggests that the BJP is invincible. This is partly due to its unparalleled financial resources, as well as the severe erosion of democratic norms that is tilting the playing field in its favour. The UP results also show that the party is genuinely popular, particularly where it matters in the highly populous Hindi belt in the north of the country. The results confirm that the ideological planks of the BJP — Hindu nationalism and centralised welfare delivery — remain a winning formula.
The fact that the party managed to win convincingly not only in UP but also in the other states that went to the polls in 2022 is a strong indication that voters are ready to put aside governance issues when casting their vote, including the disastrous management of the COVID-19 pandemic and the poor state of the economy.
Dr Diego Maiorano is a Senior Assistant Professor of Indian History at the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’ and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.
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