NEW DELHI: One can hardly overstate the significance of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) remarkable showing in India’s recent state assembly elections in Manipur, Goa, Punjab, Uttrakhand, and Uttar Pradesh (UP), whose results were announced on March 11.

Already the central point of political reference in the country and the only party with a genuinely national presence, the BJP made a qualitative leap forward. Its growing influence threatens to transform India into an authoritarian, Hindutva-ized polity and to strip the country’s institutions of democracy.

While the BJP’s victory in UP will be the main focus in what follows, the party’s performance elsewhere cannot be ignored. The election results show its growing hegemony over the country as a whole, which will not only allow it to enact its Hindu-nationalist agenda but also help it further centralize power.

In the face of BJP advances, India’s progressive forces — ranging from the mainstream, anti-BJP parties to its Communist formations — must work together to change the national discourse and protect democracy nationwide.

The BJP’s breakthrough in the northeast — a region that its main rivals, the Indian National Congress (INC), has long dominated — represents the party’s second-most important long-term gain. The INC could once cite this area as evidence that it had the widest geographical spread, but, thanks to the BJP’s strong performance in Manipur, Modi’s call for a “Congress-free” country has taken on greater resonance.

PM Modi’s general election victory in 2014 helped him propel his party into governance in two of the seven northeast states for the first time. In Manipur, the BJP has now jumped from next to nothing to controlling a third of the assembly with twenty-one seats out of sixty. With the help of local parties, desperate to curry favor with Modi, the BJP has formed the government outmaneuvering the INC and its twenty-eight seats.

This comes after the BJP’s strong performance in last April’s assembly elections in Assam, the most populated of the seven northeast states. There, it won sixty out the total of 126 seats; with the fourteen seats controlled by the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Modi’s party established a comfortable governing majority.

In nearby Arunachal Pradesh, the INC won forty-three out of sixty seats in the 2014 assembly elections, but, by late 2016 — after farcical rounds of mass defections — forty-two of those legislative assembly members moved over to the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), which promptly joined the BJP-led Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA) to form the government. Again, the lure of handouts from the central government was too tempting to resist.

Outside its northeastern stronghold, the INC defeated the BJP in Goa — taking seventeen seats to its rival’s thirteen — but secured only 29.4 percent of vote. (The BJP took 32.5 percent.) Here again, the BJP has formed and leads the coalition government, testifying once more to the INC’s declining appeal. In both Manipur and Goa, pliant, BJP-appointed governors skirted constitutional proprieties to secure these outcomes for their benefactor.

INC did secure a comfortable majority in Punjab, where it won seventy-seven out of the total 117 seats, pushing the new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) into second place. The greatly discredited leading coalition of the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which caters to the majority Sikh community with an upper-caste bias, took eighteen seats.

This result represents a major loss for the AAP, which had anticipated either being the largest party or even securing an absolute majority. In 2014, it won four seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house. A year later, it formed the local government in Delhi and invested a major grassroots effort to prepare for these assembly elections.

Had the AAP achieved a majority, it would have appeared as the INC’s most likely successor — a bourgeois, centrist force that could attract the widest cross section of the Indian electorate. Further, the win would have made the young party the only one besides the BJP with expanding popularity and geographic reach. Its results in Goa, however, dashed these expectations.

The AAP had reasonably high hopes of making a mark in that state, but it ended with only 6.3 percent of the vote (which was almost half the percentage tally of those voters who pressed the “None of the Above” button rather than choose any party) and no legislative seats.This reveals that, even with widespread disillusionment, the AAP couldn’t seriously connect to local needs and issues.

As a result of this loss, it will struggle to construct an effective national challenge to the BJP. Now it is marking time, leaning on its performance as the leading party in Delhi and as the main opposition in Punjab to determine whether it can grow or whether, like other upstart parties, it will fade away.

We can easily identify the AAP’s fatal flaw: at a moment when politics is moving steadily to the right, it would not seriously challenge the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. Hoping to avoid the issue altogether, the AAP instead focused on safer, public-service campaigns that cut across class, caste, religious, and regional lines, revealing that it will neither emulate nor confront the Hindutva platform. The AAP, in fact, has no distinctive ideology and offers no alternative to the BJP’s nationalist discourse. Indeed, it sometimes even bends to its rival’s agenda. AAP may be able to win over the non-BJP parties’ voters, but it cannot make a serious dent in the leading party’s base, which is expanding because of — not despite — its Hindutva ideology.

In the northern province of Uttrakhand, where the INC held just one more seat than the BJP, the former lost twenty-one seats (leaving it with only eleven), and the BJP gained twenty-six, giving it fifty-seven seats and a clear majority. In UP, the BJP took 312 seats out of 403, giving it another super majority. Even in the context of India’s first-past-the-post system, these results are extraordinary.

For the last three decades, UP’s demographics have largely determined electoral outcomes, but this seems to be changing. Here, two major communities — the Dalits, which make up about 20 percent of the population, and Muslims, which make up over 19 percent—do not support the BJP. Despite this, Modi’s party has won large majorities in the past two elections.

In the 2014 general elections, Mayawati’sBahujanSamajParty (BSP) obtained 20 percent of the vote, and the BJP took 42 percent. Yet her party won no seats, and Modi’s bagged seventy-one out of the total eighty. This year, Mayawati’s vote share went up to 22.2 percent, but she secured only nineteen seats. The Samajwadi Party (SP), which enjoys support from the Yadav and Muslim communities, also fared dismally, taking forty-seven seats on a vote of 21.8 percent.

Of course, uneven demographics partially explain these results. The BSP’s 20 percent represents an average across the state. In some areas, it would not have reached even double digits while, in majority Dalit regions, it likely took around 40 percent, give or take. Nevertheless, the surprising results have raised concerns about the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) that India has used since 2004.

No other democracy has relied on this system so repeatedly or extensively. Indeed, most advanced democracies have rejected its use because the machines do not leave a paper trail to ensure accurate results. It is not surprising, then, that Mayawati publicly accused the BJP of manipulating the system. Her party’s general secretary also wrote a formal letter of complaint to the election commission (EC).

Indeed, a team comprised of three experts from India, Netherlands, and the United States has studied the EVMs, and their documentary reveals how easily the machines can be tampered with. Further, in April 2014, evidence that one machine could only record BJP votes went public. On this occasion, the INC complained, but when it last won the general elections in 2009, the opposition parties — including the BJP — registered their concerns about the system. Since it took the 2014 general election, Modi’s party has been silent about the issue.

While there is surely great potential for voter fraud across India, exit polls in UP — which skirt the issue of EVMs completely — all predicted that the BJP would win somewhere between 180 and 280 seats. We must then analyze how Modi’s party won and what its victory means for the country and the future.

The 2014 general elections marked the first time since independence that the majority party in the Lok Sabha did not have a single Muslim MP. In the 2017 UP elections, the BJP did not put up a single Muslim candidate. Modi’s message is clear: the BJP does not care about the Muslim vote, proving that it, unlike all the other parties, refuses to play the politics of appeasement.

The BJP’s victory in UP raises a number of questions. Considering the state’s population is 20 percent Muslim — and that both the SP and BSP courted these votes — how did the Hindu nationalists secure victory? Do Muslims vote en bloc? Did they in fact vote for the BJP in substantial numbers, as party leaders like Amit Shah and others have claimed?

Put simply, Shah is incorrect. Given his party’s Hindutva ideology, its leadership’s venomous attitude toward Muslims, and the brutal history of both communal riots and individually targeted assaults carried out by the BJP’s affiliates, like the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh (RSS), Muslims as a group oppose the BJP. That said, the Muslim community does not have a consolidated strategic vote, which the BJP’s success in these areas makes evident.

The Hindustan Times analyzed forty-two of the seventy-three constituencies where the population is over 30 percent Muslim and found that the BJP won thirty-one. (The SP took ten and the BSP only one.) Besides voting against the BJP, Muslims pick their candidates like everyone else: class, caste, and local concerns shape their preferences.

In states with a two-horse race between Congress and BJP, Congress wins the Muslim vote. In states where neither the BJP nor Congress has power, the Muslim vote splits among other regional parties. In states with three or more major parties like UP, the votes are spread between Congress, SP, and BSP.

Here, region, class, and caste play a decisive role. For example, more poor Pasmanda Muslims support the BSP than the SP. Likewise, the Yadav community, officially classified as an “otherwise backward caste” (OBC), prefers the SP, and the Jatav community, which belongs to the Dalit caste, largely votes for the BSP. In the 2012 assembly elections, the Yadav and Jatav communities offered more consolidated support for their parties than Muslim and Brahmin voters. Two years later, however, Brahmins and Muslims were more consolidated than the Yadavs and Jatavs. In areas where riots have taken place, the Muslim vote understandably comes together more tightly.

Fortunately, UP did not have a repeat of the 2013 riots, but the BJP nevertheless played the ethnic card in its campaign. It did so on various registers, ranging from Modi’s more masked — but still clearly abusive —rhetoric to many of the party’s candidates more naked hate speeches. These tactics should have forced the EC to disqualify the candidates, but it did not.

When it comes to caste, the RSS/BJP and cohort organizations had to operate differently. Given that the Yadav OBCs constitute a loyal SP block, that the Jatavs go for the BSP, and that Muslims would never vote for the BJP, the party had to win as much as possible of the remaining 60 percent of the electorate, which is comprised of Brahmins and other upper castes (around 25percent), non-Yadav OBCs (around 30 percent), and non-Jatav Dalits.

The BJP’s strategy depended on the nation’s rapidly changing economics and ideology. Uneven capitalist development, accelerated by the neoliberal turn, has combined with the communications revolution to begin to unify the country. Fewer and fewer Indians rely on the agricultural sector for employment, turning instead to the low-paid and insecure non-farm rural and urban labor markets. Migration to major cities and to larger towns in the rural areas has created new links between rural and urban life, confronting citizens with the connection between economics and politics.

Voters now recognize the central government’s power to shape life in the provinces, the inequalities within and across states and regions, the ever starker contrasts between the rich and the poor, and the corrupt processes that have helped create this situation. Life becomes more precarious for many while others are making steady progress, creating class and caste resentment. Meanwhile, a nationalist identity is developing alongside more local and traditional forms of collective identification.

In India, the emotional content and practical thrust of nationalism is very much under construction. Here the numerous organizations that make up the Hindu-nationalist Sangh Parivar have been incredibly effective: the BJP has taken up residence in the halls of state and central government while the rest of the Sangh’s organizations have integrated themselves throughout civil society. The Sangh built its power on a longer process that cultivated a sense of belonging to a broader cross-caste religious community among Hindus.

This growing sense of nationalist identification does not necessarily oppose more local forms of identification. Rather, in UP and elsewhere, the national and the local have started to meld. This change is by no means permanent, but only particular forms of struggle can move politics in a more progressive direction. Indeed, the caste reservation systems, which guaranteed representation in government and civil society for historically oppressed groups like Dalits and the OBCs’ lower layers, acted for a time as barriers to the advance of the BJP/RSS. Not anymore.

On the one hand, the BJP/RSS has largely accepted the principle of reservations. On the other hand, the profound limitations of this, the strongest form of affirmative action, have now been laid bare. Reservations can only exist for a small minority within the reserved ranks, and its application has disproportionately favored the children of those who already used the system to climb the social ladder. The system no longer meets the needs of those left behind. At the same time, it has created frustration among the higher rural castes as they watched their fortunes erode thanks to rising production costs, declining inherited land holdings, and so on.

Now, upper-caste OBCs and even some forward castes demand reservations for themselves and scapegoat those whom the system was designed to favor. There is the absence of enough decently paid jobs throughout urban India, and the country’s utterly inadequate health, social security, and educational services means that huge numbers cannot be lifted out of poverty. The turn to religious forms of consolation — a global development — is an unsurprising response to the forms of alienation that the neoliberal order imposes everywhere.

It is in this fertile soil that the BJP’s leaders have been diligently planting their message. They accuse the parties that oppose them — the protectors of the Hindu faith — of trying to appease Muslims. What about the Hindus? Then they point out that the BSP favors the Jatavs and the SP favors the Yadavs. What about the rest of the Dalits and OBCs?

When it comes to Muslims, the Sangh Parivar plays its nationalist card, emphasizing the rising danger presented by homegrown Muslim terrorism and by Pakistan. Indian Muslims, they presume, sympathize with the enemy by virtue of religious affiliation. Indeed, Modi did not hesitate to imply, without any evidence, that a railway accident in UP was the work of foreigners.

If there had once been widespread indifference toward the plight of Muslims, now resentment and even hostility has grown. As a result, a majority religious community has come to believe that it is the victim. This gives the BJP more latitude to deploy its Muslim-baiting agenda, both regionally and nationally.

(Achin Vanaik is a writer and social activist, a former professor at the University of Delhi and Delhi-based Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam.)

(This article first appeared in Jacobin)

(Part two: here)