There are two ways to describe the meaning of Narendra Modi’s massive victory. We can say it is a game-changer, profitably using the term “critical realignment”, a concept that basically depicts a radical shift in the social bases of political power, a shift that is not transitory but long term. A second way to explain the significance of Modi’s rise is to deploy a more colloquial term: capitalism with Indian characteristics. Either way, a new era is upon us, though I am still not entirely sure about its durability.
To evaluate the significance of Modi’s triumph, we clearly need an appropriate benchmark. Just what should it be compared to? To 1977, when popular vote brought Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship to an end? To 1998-99, when a BJP-based NDA brought Hindu nationalists into the heart of India’s power structure? Or, more radically, to 1952 when, against all odds, a poor nation instituted universal franchise, allowing millions of poor to vote their wishes for the first time in human history?
I would argue below that the most conceptually interesting comparison is with 1952. Let me, however, work back from the most recent comparison to the first.
The NDA’s rise to power under Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998-99 was a watershed event. But as many commentators have noted, there was something quasi-Nehruvian about Vajpayee. Vajpayee’s manner was mild, and his oratorical style literary and polished. He kept the extreme wing of the RSS at a distance. Disagreeing with L.K. Advani, he opposed the Ayodhya movement. Though business flourished under NDA rule, Vajpayee was not market-oriented at heart. Indeed, Gandhian socialism was the initial ideological cornerstone of the BJP when it was reborn in 1980 under Vajpayee’s leadership. Modi repeatedly invokes Vajpayee as a model but, unlike Vajpayee, he is business-oriented. Moreover, he worked for the Ayodhya movement and it is still to be seen whether he can distance himself from the RSS.
Our second comparison, 1977, shares quite a bit with 2014. In 1977, the Congress was not only outvoted, but the party was wiped out of north India, as it very nearly has been this time as well (though unlike now, the Congress had held the south in 1977). The great difference, of course, is that the Janata Party was a ramshackle coalition, with no identifiable core, united only by an intense and entirely justifiable anger towards Indira and Sanjay Gandhi and a highly docile Congress party.