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'NRC could be the 21st century Ram Janmabhoomi'

Last updated on: March 30, 2022 14:45 IST
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'Even if the government does not implement an all-India NRC before 2024, it will be part of the party's long-term project.'

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party supremo and Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi at a roadshow in Ahmedabad, March 11, 2022, the day after the BJP's election victory in the Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa assembly elections. Photograph: ANI Photo

"There's a temptation to offer a lite version of Hindutva, but that's like offering a knock-off version of Coca-Cola when consumers would rather buy the real thing," says Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow, South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

One of the most incisive commentators on India, Dr Vaishnav's primary research focus is the political economy of India. He examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behaviour.

In a detailed e-mail interview from Geneva with's Archana Masih, Dr Vaishnav says the real question is whether the Opposition can champion a principled secularism that acknowledges the missteps of the past and articulates a new vision that goes beyond the binary of Hindu supremacy or minority appeasement.

The first of a two-part must read interview:


Now that the elections are over -- what are the big takeaways that have emerged and how are they likely to shape the political climate?

One of the biggest takeaways is the sustained popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His role in leading the Bharatiya Janata Party to victory in four of five states cannot be underestimated.

In early 2021, there was some indication that Modi's popularity was slipping due to the slowing economy, rising unemployment, and deadly COVID second wave.

If one looks at the Morning Consult Global Leader tracker -- a poll that tracks the favorability of 13 world leaders -- Modi's net satisfaction dipped to +30 in May 2021.

This is still an enviable position for any world leader, but it represented a noticeable drop from previous highs.

Today, Modi not only enjoys a +50 net approval rating, but he also has the highest absolute approval rating and highest net approval rating of any global leader Morning Consult tracks. This is a stunning achievement eight years into office.

Data from CSDS-Lokniti shows just how important the Modi factor was in these elections. Net satisfaction with the Narendra Modi government at the Centre was three times higher than with the Yogi Adityanath government in UP, seven times higher than with the Pushkar Singh Dhami government in Uttarakhand, and many times higher than with the Pramod Sawant government in Goa.

A second big takeaway is the exhaustion of Mandal politics. Since the late 1980s, politics in the Hindi heartland has been dominated by the so-called 'Mandal' parties, which represented to upsurge of backward and Dalit voters whose assertion created powerful caste coalitions.

The Samajwadi Party (SP), the principal Opposition party in Uttar Pradesh, in some sense did exactly what it set out to do -- consolidate Muslim and Yadav votes -- but it was simply not enough.

According to CSDS-Lokniti, the SP won 83 percent of Yadav votes and 79 percent of Muslim votes in UP, but when the BJP can mobilise on religious lines and build cross-caste coalitions, this means that you need to build much larger social coalitions to win the election.

Another shortcoming linked to this is the inability of the Opposition -- and this is true of the Congress as well -- to build a meta-narrative.

If you consider Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had several meta-narratives: Improving law and order, promoting Hindu nationalism, delivering welfare, tackling corruption, and so on. This is where the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) distinguished itself in Punjab -- it took the existing political parties head on across a wide array of fronts.

But in some sense, Punjab is sui generis because there was tremendous fatigue with the so-called establishment parties.

A third takeaway is the role of women. In recent years, we have heard a lot about the rise in women's turnout relative to men. It is now the default position in nearly every state that women's turnout will trump men's turnout on election day. This is a big shift. But we are also seeing new trends in how women vote.

The BJP has traditionally exhibited a gender disadvantage: Historically, men have been much more supportive of the BJP than women. This is no longer the case. Lokniti-CSDS suggests that the BJP advantage over the SP among women voters was 16 percentage points. This is just a huge gap.

How will the 2022 verdict impact the outcome of the 2024 Lok Sabha election?

First, it certainly creates an aura of invincibility around the Modi government. That sends a signal not just to Opposition parties, but also to voters.

Second, as I've written elsewhere (external link), we are beginning to see signs of creative destruction within the Opposition. I think, for the first time since 2014, we are seeing genuine churn within the Opposition.

Regional parties have internalised the Congress party's decline and believe it is irreversible. We are seeing both AAP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) lay claim to a leadership role among the Opposition, but they are offering slightly different policy mix.

The AAP combines a mix of muted nationalism with a pro-welfare and public goods emphasis. The TMC and Mamata Banerjee are doubling down on secularism and protection of minorities, combining this with targeted schemes that prioritise women and girls.

In the short run, the jockeying among Opposition parties is going to lead to further fragmentation of the Opposition. For obvious reasons, this will redound to the BJP's benefit in the run-up to 2024. But, in the long run, this is a process that must take place if the Opposition is to emerge with new leadership, ideas, and formations.

IMAGE: Modi at an election rally in Mirzapur, UP. Photograph: ANI Photo

The BJP won more than 50% of the Hindu vote in UP -- what new forms is the BJP's Hindutva project likely to take?

I suspect that we will see two major thrusts.

The first is a continued push for 'One Nation' policies. I think the first in line will be 'One Nation, One Election' or the pitch to hold simultaneous state and national elections.

Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra was asked about his views on this recently and he came out in favour. The BJP has long advocated for this approach on governance grounds and it has the numbers now to make a big push in Parliament.

Doing so would require amendments to the Constitution, but the government has shown its ability to bring other parties on board when required in the Rajya Sabha.

This 'One-nationism' has become an important corollary to the Hindutva project. It is not explicitly based on Hindu nationalism, but rather on instilling an ideology of uniformity and erasure of social or sub-national differences.

The second is the revival of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This has taken a backseat due to COVID, but I think it remains very much on the agenda of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. Especially given the heightened concern around national security, the BJP could gain leverage from pushing this as head into the next election.

Even if the government does not implement an all-India NRC before 2024, it will be part of the party's long-term project. As I've said, this could be the 21st century Ram Janmabhoomi. It is as much as about the journey as it is the final destination.

How do you see the future ascent of AAP in other Indian states? How do you assess its politics and the space it has carved?

I think the ascent of the AAP is likely to be gradual and incremental. Their success has still largely been confined to Delhi and Punjab. They have yet to make a big mark elsewhere. But I expect that we will see the AAP make a big play in the upcoming Gujarat state elections in an attempt to dislodge the Congress as the principal opposition.

In fact, there are a whole swath of states in northern India where the Congress and BJP are locked in a bipolar contest. Given the declining fortunes of the Congress, the AAP sees itself as knocking on open door here. But the AAP requires more money, a much greater organisational effort, more second-rung leaders, and a broader pitch that goes beyond its limited geography.

I think Punjab is a real test for Arvind Kejriwal because it is a full-fledged state, unlike Delhi, but also one that in a real state of crisis from a fiscal perspective. If AAP is able to stem or even reverse Punjab's decline, it will be the biggest advertisement for the party on a national scale.

Its achievements in Delhi have been notable, but Delhi is still too small to have a demonstration effect for the country as a whole, in my view.

Does the Opposition have any tools to pose a political fightback to the BJP?

There is some suggestion that had the Opposition hung together in UP, they would have held the BJP at bay in UP. But the data do not necessarily support this. For instance, the Congress and BSP decline did not necessarily redound to the SP's benefit.

According to Lokniti-CSDS, 20 percent of Congress voters switched to the BJP and 30 percent voted SP. This was not a wholesale transfer of votes to the SP.

Similarly, 24 percent of BSP voters left the party, but they split their votes between the BJP and SP.

I think the biggest weapon the Opposition has is the state of the economy. India looked to be recovering from long slowdown, punctuated the last few years by the pandemic. Just as the pandemic is easing, the Ukraine crisis has led to a spike in oil and other commodity prices. This could wreak havoc with the government's fiscal accounts.

Despite the BJP's convincing wins in four of five elections, it cannot deny that many Indians have faced significant economic hardship now for many years -- especially those outside of the salaried classes.

The inability of the Modi government to deliver higher growth is its biggest Achilles' heel, in my view. The Opposition's challenge -- and it is a big one -- is to convince voters it could do better. Right now, the credibility gap is so large that many disappointed voters will continue voting for the BJP because they don't believe any of the alternatives are substantially better.

Whatever Modi's failings might be on the economic front, people believe he operates with the national interest at heart, is incorruptible, and takes hard decisions.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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