The 69% issue: Will Modi stand for those who didn't vote him?

Just because only 31percent voted for Modi, does not mean his election is somehow tainted and illegitimate. But there is a different lesson to be drawn from the 69 percent who chose not to vote for him.

Sandip Roy May 20, 2014 11:06:39 IST
The 69% issue: Will Modi stand for those who didn't vote him?

It is an indisputable fact that Narendra Modi has led the BJP to a clear majority on its own in the Lok Sabha.

It is equally an indisputable fact that at 31 percent of the vote the BJP has the lowest vote share of any party to win a single party majority in the same Lok Sabha. (To compare the BJP number in 2014 to the Congress in 2009 is an apples and oranges comparison because the Congress did not win a majority on its own then).

But to insinuate that because of the latter, the former is somehow suspect or even illegitimate is mischievous, delusional and ultimately undemocratic.

While vote share might be of interest to psephologists and strategists, for the purposes of forming a government it’s the number of seats that counts. That’s the way the game has been set up and no one can change the rules of the game at this stage just because they are unhappy with the results. And the BJP will rightfully occupy 282 seats in the 16th Lok Sabha – that’s 52 percent of the Lok Sabha, not 31 percent.

The 69 issue Will Modi stand for those who didnt vote him

supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) look on near a rangoli decoration bearing the image of India's next PM Narendra Modi. AFP

Those who want to take solace in that 69 percent who did not vote for the BJP, or the 61.5 percent who did not vote the NDA, can do so but those numbers are in the end crumbs of very cold comfort.

If the 69 percent is important it’s not because it can be used to question the legitimacy of Modi’s victory but because it signals the work he has to do given that his supporters have been claiming a mandate in a way a Manmohan Singh was never able to.

If the BJP wants to downplay the importance of its national vote percentage it cannot simultaneously play up the tripling of its vote share in a state like West Bengal even though it only won a couple of seats there. Likewise Amit Shah is too shrewd a strategist to assume that Mayawati is irrelevant in UP politics because her BSP drew a blank in terms of seats. It still got 20 percent of the vote, something the BJP would be foolish to ignore when time comes for Assembly elections there.

Of course Modi does not have to be accommodating if he does not want to. “(T)his this was not a mandate for consensus but for audacity” writes Swapan Dasgupta urging Modi to not yield to the “merchants of caution”. His party has a comfortable majority, he has a free hand and he can rule as he wishes, serving the interests of the 31 percent who elected him. He can start building a Ram Mandir tomorrow and announce a Uniform Civil Code the day after and the 69 percent can do little except weep into their op-eds and blogs.

Yes, he can. But what good does it do him?

After Barack Obama won the US presidential election in 2004, a bitter and acrimonious election where his race had become a factor, Obama rejoiced in the historic victory, much as Modi did in Vadodara, but Obama also reached out to those who did not vote for him.

"And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too."

Many in that 69 percent were straining to hear echoes of that in Modi’s first speech after winning as well. Modi gave some indication of that when he said “I want to tell my fellow Indians that in letter and spirit I will take all Indians with me.”

Obama tried, not always successfully, to live up to his promise – appointing Republicans to his administration, trying to build a consensus around issues like health care reform.

The 69 percent question for Modi will be how he chooses to walk his talk. Modi wants to put India first. But as Ramakrishna, the mentor of his favourite icon Vivekananda put it jata mat tata path. (there are many ways to God). One India cannot be the same thing as homogeneous India.

While the final vote breakdown numbers are still trickling in, Modi and his advisors must already have a good inkling about who makes up that 69 percent. Muslims are the group who have gotten the most attention. The final data might give the BJP some good news there. India Today notes that the BJP won big in many seats with high number of Muslim voters – Lucknow, Gauhati, Chandni Chowk for example. It points out that of the 102 constituencies where at least one in five voters is a Muslim, the BJP won 47 seats. In 2009 it had won 24 of those seats.

If a significant number of Muslim voters, tired of being taken for granted by Congress and SP have in fact given the BJP the benefit of the doubt, Modi needs to reciprocate that gesture and build on it. While no one should begrudge him his Ganga arati, and he can continue to refuse to wear a skull cap as a matter of principle, Modi will have to understand that he is not diminished by a visit to a dargah. That can be a sign of respect rather than a token gesture of appeasement.

Meghna Patel might gush that “he’s like that single uncle you fancy who occasionally comes over for meals” but pre-poll studies have shown that the BJP went into these elections with a gender gap despite the best efforts of the likes of the all-female NaMo Bharathi group.

Rajeswari Deshpande of the University of Pune analysed NES figures from 1996 to 2009 to conclude that “Among those who favoured Modi as prime minister, 62 percent were men and 38 percent were women.” Despite the Pramod Muthalik volte face by the BJP bosses, women who don’t want any political party to police what they wear, when they leave the house, and where they drink, or whether they drink at all, view the BJP and its chhote bhaiyyas with suspicion. Even after the BJP kicked him out, Muthalik reiterated his steadfast support for Modi and said “All I wanted was to see the BJP becoming a major force in the state.”

While Modi has been more successful than any other BJP leader in giving his party a pan-Indian national footprint, the south and the east still remain the most unconvinced about his party. The road to Delhi might have been paved through Uttar Pradesh but now it will be for Modi to demonstrate that it does not look like the country is being governed by Uttar Pradesh and the Hindi heartland. While the BJP’s vote share went up in every state including the southern and eastern ones, Adam Ziegfield writes in the Washington Post that “The BJP remains relatively uncompetitive across a large swathe of southern and eastern India.”

And let’s not forget that the much derided Sujan Singh Park liberal worried about freedom of expression and the gay Indian disappointed with the BJP’s stance on Section 377 are also part and parcel of this diverse India that Modi will have to lead. Modi supporters might dismiss them as inconsequential whiners but the rights to privacy and the right to dissent are not inconsequential for the health and well-being of any democratic society.

Technically speaking Modi can ignore all these groups. The election results of 2014 have clearly given Modi the right to the bully pulpit. That does not mean the country has given him carte blanche to be the bully. The 69 percent figure should not be bandied to question Modi’s right to be the next Prime Minister of India. But it should be a reminder to him that all of India is not on the same page as he is after an election that was presented as a referendum on him.

If Modi wants to claim a mandate, he should include that 69 percent in his calculations. Otherwise he could just claim victory and formulate policy on behalf of the 31 percent who voted for him. Vote share or no vote share, Modi has the keys the kingdom. It’s his choice what he does with it – whether he decides to be the prime minister of India or the commander-in-chief of the 31 percent.

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