POST-ELECTION ANALYSIS WITH SADANAND DHUME

INDIA INK STAFF

13th of March, 2017

The India Ink staff on the sidelines of an event analysing the recent Indian state election results at the Brookings Institute got a chance to sit down with Mr. Sadanand Dhume, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and South Asia columnist for the Wall Street Journal, to discuss his perspectives on the recently concluded state elections in India, with a particular focus on the Uttar Pradesh (UP) election. Mr. Dhume, this past month travelled in the eastern parts of UP. In our interaction we discussed his learning from the campaign trail on topics ranging from the BJP’s savvy campaign and candidate selection, the oft-discussed phenomenon of cross caste consolidation as well as what such a promising mandate means for the future governance of India.

One group of analysts believes that the government is surely going to go out and pursue the oft spoken about yet unimplemented contentious reforms. My view is slightly different; it’s evolved over the past three years of this government being in power as I’ve come around to the idea that in many ways PM Modi is an incrementalist.

India Ink: PM Modi's victory speech on Sunday at the 11, Ashoka Road headquarters of the BJP spoke about a New India that him and his government envisioned, an India where the government would serve not to solve people's problems by way of sops and hand-outs but to provide opportunities for people to be improve their standard of living and broaden the middle class. In a lot of your writing you've been hopeful for reforms and more pro-market oriented reforms from this government, which came in with a lot of promise to implement big-bang reforms. How do you see this most recent electoral victory bolstering the Modi government's position to build such a New India on the back of such economic reforms?

Sadanand Dhume:  The first question really is what does this election win mean for economic reform. On the one hand this win has definitely given this government more elbow room, should they choose to pursue such reforms. They are indeed well placed to do so because they’ve won such an impressive mandate. The opposition is reeling and Modi is clearly the most popular politician in the country. Therefore if they want to implement reforms they’re better placed to do so now than they were two weeks ago.

However, I don't think they necessarily want to pursue this line and that's where the jury is still out. One group of analysts believes that the government is surely going to go out and pursue the oft spoken about yet unimplemented contentious reforms. My view is slightly different; it’s evolved over the past three years of this government being in power as I've come around to the idea that in many ways PM Modi is an incrementalist. He's certainly interested in development, but that doesn’t mean he's interested in giving the market a larger role in the country. On Sunday he did speak about a system based on opportunities rather than handouts. However at the same time he also spoke about Deendayal Upadhyaya, a very important figure in the history of the Jan Sangh, the BJP’s previous avatar.He wasn’t someone who championed the market. This is not to say that Modi's philosophy mirrors his - but it's important to understand the history of this movement and this political party which wasn’t in the past very rooted in market economics.

 

India Ink: The buzzword in today's discussion as well as across the commentary on this election in UP has been cross-caste consolidation. From your travels and understanding of the political situation at the ground level, what do you believe was behind such astute political management by the party strategists, expanding the BJP umbrella beyond the traditional Brahmin-Bania axis?

Sadanand Dhume: I think the BJP played this very shrewdly and did several things to make it work. First and foremost in the strategy lies the mass appeal of the PM. Modi is a rare political figure in Indian politics whose political appeal transcends caste. A look at the CSDS data suggests that he's wildly popular with the upper castes of UP while himself being an OBC (other backward caste) and brings with him a credibility that previous BJP leaders haven't really had.

Second, BJP President Amit Shah was very careful with candidate selection, in terms of weightages to different caste groups on the basis of who would play well in different constituencies. Such planning was done with apparent finesse as has been reflected in the results with the BJP getting 312 seats in the legislative assembly.

Third, I think some of this is just because of the weight of change over time. The BJP was able to exploit the idea of the non-Jatav Dalit or the non-Yadav OBC precisely because these were sub-groups that in fact did feel that they had been somewhat excluded and didn’t get as much from ‘their’ party so to speak, being in power as they would have expected.

And finally I think there's a deeper kind of Hindu consolidation or a pan-HIndu identity that’s been in the works across caste and class lines. You have a lot of caste barriers in any case breaking down, and the BJP is naturally positioned to take advantage of that as a pan-Hindu party. They are fortunate that society is changing in tandem with their political ascendance. For example I went to the ghats in Varanasi and spoke to one of the cremators (dahakarta) to get a sense of his life. He told me that there was a time not many years ago when in UP people would neither drink water from the same place as you did nor would they eat with you, or someone who did the type of work that he did. He said that such practices are gradually disappearing because of a sense of social change. It’s possible therefore that such a process of social change came together quite well with the BJP's crafty electioneering.

 

India Ink: Post these election results you’ve tweeted critically of both the English and Hindi Indian News Media's coverage of this election, stating that they missed the biggest electoral wave of the generation. From your travels and reporting in various parts of UP what did you see as one of the major challenges that Delhi based news agencies faced in their analyses and reporting?

Sadanand Dhume: At the outset, it's unfair to claim that everyone is biased and has an agenda. However, I would say that there were some reporters who made up their mind in advance that demonetization was a disaster and that because of it the Modi-led BJP would certainly go down in this election. Unfortunately there's still a culture in Indian journalism where professionals are unable to separate their wishes from their forecasts. But I would say there are also reporters who make a genuine effort and go in without biases meeting with a cross-section of people and politicians and subsequently coming to their respective conclusions.

But in the end, as an avid consumer of Indian news, it was disappointing. Going into the seventh and last phase of the UP elections it was evident that the BJP was winning. But the conventional wisdom set-forth by reporting turned out to be fantastically wrong. If you go and spend a good amount of time in UP, crisscrossing the state and can't spot a blowout election which is the biggest in a generation there most certainly is cause for  introspection. Not casting aspersions, but we saw a similar thing in Punjab where there was a lot of hype about the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) - but those predictions in Punjab also fell by the wayside.

I don’t think they fought this primarily as a divisive campaign. I do think they benefitted tremendously from Hindu consolidation but a lot of that has to do with the prevailing circumstances. A lot of that has to do with the perception that the SP’s brand of secularism towards Muslims came down primarily to pandering to either hardline clerics or orthodox elements of society.

India Ink: In terms of the politics of perception, amidst talk of kabristans and shamshan ghats earlier today you talked contrarily about the lack of divisive campaign rhetoric and more front and center emphasis on vikas (development). Can you discuss this statement a little more expansively?

Sadanand Dhume: I think that the issues that were front and center for the BJP were development - I don't think they fought this primarily as a divisive campaign. I do think they benefitted tremendously from Hindu consolidation but a lot of that has to do with the prevailing circumstances. A lot of that has to do with the perception that the SP's brand of secularism towards Muslims came down primarily to pandering to either hardline clerics or orthodox elements of society. All this in addition to allowing people widely seen as gangsters and proven criminals to fight elections. This widespread perception I think to a certain degree fuelled a backlash. I would certainly argue that the BJP would have done better, for instance, to give some Muslims seats. They argued that "well, you know, we have to give seats to our own workers and people who have worked really hard." But I believe that if you are a national party you should have a larger vision than that. So that criticism I think is valid. But a lot of the other stuff I feel is simply exaggerated and doesn't jibe with my view of the campaign. Did it exist on the margins? Yes. Was it central? No. A lot of it is just a trope which exists both in journalism and to a large degree in academia which is that there is only one way of looking at the party and, in my own view, that often doesn't fully match what I think is the reality based on just going out and talking to ordinary people.