Theresa May's UK election loss and Macron win are warnings for BJP for 2019 polls

Politics is slippery business. The tide turns swiftly and often without warning.

 |  5-minute read |   10-06-2017
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The BJP establishment and millions of its active supporters who deify Prime Minister Narendra Modi be warned.

Politics is slippery business. In this business, the tide turns swiftly and often without warning.

First the French presidential election results and now the British one are definite indications that the allure of nationalism and populism is anything but enduring.

The decisive victory of Emmanuel Macron over ultra nationalist right-winger Marine Le Pen in France was interpreted as the rejection of growing nationalist and populist right-wing politics in Europe.

The rude shock UK Prime Minister Theresa May has received from the British voters in the snap election is affirmation of the trend. May has been handed a hung Parliament, which will weaken her hard Brexiteer stance and strengthen Franco-German push in favour of a pan-European narrative.

The politics of Brexit has impacted Britain as no other crisis after the Falklands War of 1982, and some say the Suez Crisis of 1956.

The Brexit crisis was triggered after the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron called for a vote on whether Britain should leave the European Union or remain in it on June 21, 2016, in a referendum. The British voted to leave. Cameron resigned, paving the way for May to become Prime Minister.

The Leave camp framed their campaign around issues of British identity and culture, the need to insulate the economy from influx of migrants from the economically weaker east and south Europeans.

Immigration was at the centre of the debate as both the Leave and Remain campaigners framed their arguments in favour and against “outsiders”. Xenophobia and nationalism, local versus outsiders, globalisation versus protectionism were key words that resonated the British political narrative.   

Encouraged by the pro-Leave vote in 2016, which catapulted her to the PM’s office, May called a snap election on June 8 that has left her government in a minority.

macron-embed_061017125800.jpgThe decisive victory of Emmanuel Macron over ultra nationalist right-winger Marine Le Pen in France was interpreted as the rejection of growing nationalist and populist right-wing politics in Europe. Photo: Reuters

Amid all this, the British society has been divided along class, rich versus poor, young versus old, metropolitan Londoners versus rural English. The most divisive issue is immigration.

Divisions in British society around Brexit mirror what India has experienced under Modi. Traditional fault-lines along caste and community have got accentuated. Immigration is not an issue but the othering of some, for instance Muslims, has increased in India. Xenophobia and ultra-nationalism verging on jingoism dominate the political discourse.

The BJP has used the instruments of ultra-nationalism and populism to consolidate power and advance its political agenda. Its supporters have pinned hopes on the wave of nationalism and populism that swept the US and many European and Asian countries to sustain the party’s momentum.

They view nationalism and populism as a lingering trend, which the BJP believes would see Modi cruise through the 2019 general elections.

Such is the allure of nationalism for millions of Modi supporters that they rejoiced over the election of US president Donald Trump and his successful use of nationalism and populism as an electoral strategy.

They also celebrated Britain’s divorce from the European Union and wished Le Pen to win in France. Brexit reflects nationalist tendencies and the Le Pen phenomenon in France represents hardline right-wing xenophobic ideas.

There was a view - never refuted by members of BJP thinktanks - that Trump would advance the global right wing and conservative agenda and further contribute to ultra-nationalist tendencies in the world, including in India.   

It was because of this misplaced belief that Modi’s supporters hoped for relations with the US to scale new heights under Trump. They hoped Modi would build an enduring partnership with Trump. That hope has been belied.

They also thought that the majoritarian agenda and increasing violation of human rights would be issues of no concern in the western capitals, with Trump in the White House and if Len Pen had won and May would have returned with a larger majority than she enjoyed.

Modi acolytes and BJP policy wonks hoped that right-wing governments in the West with nationalist agendas would befriend a government in India with matching tendencies and priorities. They hoped India would be encouraged to carry on and advance its own nationalist and sectarian politics without fear of international indignation.

Centrist Macron will certainly not encourage such tendencies. Facing political uncertainty, May will not be able to pursue hardline anti-immigrant policy with vigour, let alone inspire others or India in its ideological pursuit.

Trump has no shown inclination to take interest in any Indian affairs except castigating it in the context of the Paris climate accord and loss of US jobs to Indian software companies.

With 2019 not too far away, the Modi government has to reset its agenda if it doesn’t wish to fall prey to unpredictable trends in politics. The government must recognise that contrarian trends make Modi’s politics, which he conducts with total nonchalance, a risky proposition.

Modi depends on religious nationalism and crass majoritarianism for political support. He and his party get into a blatantly ultra-nationalist and sectarian mood when fighting an election. When out of election, the Prime Minister pretends to practice an egalitarian social and economic agenda.

He has won many elections, the latest in UP, based on the grand strategy of political mobilisation by appealing to nationalist and majoritarian impulses of voters.

At the tactical level, BJP president Amit Shah has succeeded in sewing up what’s called social engineering, which basically means working out smart caste arithmetic to mobilise votes and win elections.

However, given the unpredictability of electoral trends as exemplified by the Brexit referendum, US, France and British elections, Modi can’t afford to depend on nationalist and populist appeal to cross the 2019 hurdle.

Also read: Uttar Pradesh elections victory doesn't mean Modi is winning 2019


Ashok K Singh Ashok K Singh @kashoksingh

He is a journalist, writer and commentator.

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