Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.
He is the author of “When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics” (Yale University Press and HarperCollins India, 2017) and co-editor (with Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Devesh Kapur) of the new book “Rethinking Public Institutions in India” (Oxford University Press, 2017). His work has also been published in scholarly journals such as India Review, India Policy Forum, and Latin American Research Review. He is a regular contributor to several Indian publications.
Previously, he worked at the Center for Global Development, where he served as a postdoctoral research fellow, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He has taught at Columbia, Georgetown, and George Washington Universities. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. He spoke with Aaron Yang CMC '17 on April 12, 2017.
Photograph and bio courtesy of CEIP.
What are the main factors that account for the (Bharatiya Janata Party) BJP’s landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh in March, in which the BJP managed to capture 325 out of 403 seats in the Assembly elections?
There are a few factors I would highlight. First, there was a lot of disenchantment with the incumbent government in Uttar Pradesh, which boasted only modest developmental achievements while presiding over a situation of deteriorating law and order. As a result, there were questions about the quality of the governance the incumbent administration was providing. Second, the ruling party, the Samajwadi Party (SP), was also facing an internal civil war. The SP is a family-run party and different factions began bickering several months before the election, leading to significant internal dissension. Third, there was the Modi factor. The prime minister had invested his own personal political capital into the campaign and made the case to the voters that there would be a real advantage to having the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the center in New Delhi and in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Modi asked voters to vote based on his reputation, credibility, and vision for India. There was a fourth factor, which was the opposition not fighting as one alliance. Two parties came together, Congress and the SP, in an effort to prevent the BJP from coming to power, but the other big regional party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), decided to contest on its own. Essentially this split the opposition vote in two. Had all three of the parties fought together they may have been able to keep the BJP out.
Some pundits point to Prime Minister Modi’s campaigning as one of the main reasons for the BJP’s recent state electoral victories. Was his role significant?
Modi’s role was important. The modus operandi of the BJP in nearly every state election, with one or two exceptions, since Modi came to power in 2014 has been to forgo naming a chief ministerial candidate. The chief minister is the executive of a state similar to a governor in the United States, and often parties or alliances will name who their chief minister candidate will be in the event they should win and form the government. The BJP, for the most part, has not done that in recent polls. Instead the party has appealed to the voters based on Modi and his popularity and reputation. That is exactly what the BJP did in Uttar Pradesh. The party made no promises to voters about who would actually run the government. Modi was absolutely critical and he campaigned intensively in the state. If you look at the BJP’s advertisements, billboards, and flyers, they all have Modi front and center.
What drives Prime Minister Modi’s popularity? Did the demonetization campaign undermine his popularity at all?
The demonetization campaign doesn’t seem to have had a negative impact, if you go by these recent elections. One often hears one of two responses from voters. One is that by virtue of implementing demonetization, many corrupt businessman and politicians will end up losing a lot of black money. So the voters think, if we have to go through some kind of inconvenience or sacrifice, it is worth it if someone corrupt is getting squeezed. The second response is that at least Modi is trying something, which is more than what most people can say about the opposition, which seems to be more fixated on criticizing Modi than offering an alternative vision for how the country should be run.
Was the BJP’s tactic of not having a chief ministerial candidate on the ballot part of the BJP’s strategy, was Modi pushing for it, or did it just happen to be that way because the opposition simply focused on criticizing the Prime Minister?
It was a deliberate strategy not to name someone and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, Uttar Pradesh is a place where caste politics are quite vibrant. If you pick one person who represents the upper castes, for instance, you risk alienating lower caste voters and vice versa. By not picking anybody, the BJP avoids that criticism. Second, Modi’s popularity ratings are quite high. He is perceived to have a strong track record of development and governance. He could credibly talk about demonetization because the masses do not generally question his motives. It would have been hard for another BJP candidate to talk about demonetization openly in the same way. Modi, on the other hand, was able to carry that message with credibility. The opposition, the SP-Congress alliance, did have a popular candidate, Akhilesh Yadav, the incumbent chief minister. Although his government was not popular, Yadav himself was well regarded. He is seen as a young, forward-thinking leader, and representing a new generation of politicians. But he could not overcome a lot of the baggage associated with his party and with his alliance’s brand. All in all, the BJP was pretty shrewd to do what it did.
About 40 million Indians in Uttar Pradesh are Muslim. How does the current political atmosphere impact Indian Muslims and relations among different religious groups in India more broadly?
There is a heightened sense of anxiety in the state, as you had some majoritarian Hindu nationalists support the BJP’s campaign and issue statements that were seen as pro-Hindu. Then after the election came the appointment of Yogi Adityanath, who is known to be a pro-Hindu rabble rouser who has made inflammatory and controversial statements about Muslims and minorities in the past. There is a sense of consternation about what this might mean for Muslims living in the state. One of the first acts of the new Uttar Pradesh government has been to go after illegal slaughterhouses--slaughterhouses that don’t have proper permissions to package or process beef, and those are largely run and operated by Muslims. This issue has often been seen as something you prioritize to please your Hindu base at the expense of Muslims. But it’s still early days, and everybody is waiting to see what Adityanath’s agenda will be. We’ve seen a few isolated incidents of violence against Muslims already in the first couple of weeks with this new government. It is too early to tell, but generally speaking it is worth pointing out that the BJP in Uttar Pradesh did not give a party ticket to a single Muslim in a state where 18 percent of the population is Muslim. Many people take that as a sign of the BJP’s agenda.
What is the state of opposition parties in India, particularly the Congress Party?
The opposition is in a precarious place right now because the Congress Party, which has been the only pan-Indian party besides the BJP, has seen its fortunes decline dramatically over the past several years. The party now controls only two major states in India (Punjab and Karnataka) whereas the BJP and its allies continue to increase their tally of states they control. The Congress has seen their numbers in Parliament dwindle. They only have 44 seats in the lower house of Parliament (out of 543). They were decimated after the 2014 election. They suffer from two major existential issues. The first is the lack of a clear leader. Rahul Gandhi is the heir to the Congress dynasty, but he has not been able to rally the support of his party or make a dent nationally. In terms of ideology, it is also not clear what kind of vision Congress has for the country. They seem to talk about their past achievements and what Modi has gotten wrong, but not a lot about what they would do if they were in charge. Then, outside of Congress, there are many opposition parties that are regional parties without a pan-Indian or nationwide footprint. Those parties are relevant at the state level, but in a national election, it is not clear that those parties can readily join forces to work hand in hand to keep the BJP out of power. They are fragmented; they have a lot of disagreements amongst themselves, and they do not have a well-identified national-level candidate who has the popularity or stature of a Modi.
Could you describe the state of the BJP?
In the short term, the BJP is in good shape; it is on track to do well in the 2019 general election. It continues to increase its power at the state level. India has a bicameral parliament and the BJP in 2014 won a majority in the lower house of the parliament, which was the first time that had been done in three decades. The upper house of parliament is indirectly elected by India state legislatures. There is a staggered system of elections where a third of the upper house has to step down every two years. When it comes to the composition of that body, the pace of change is slow. Many expect if current trends continue that the BJP (and its allies) will earn a majority the upper house in 2019. So if it wins reelection in 2019 it will be able to control both the upper and lower houses of parliament. There is a danger, however, in that the party has remade itself in the image of Modi. One of the strengths of the BJP historically is that it had strong state-wide leaders with an independent power base. The BJP now seems to be moving towards a much more centralized, top-down model where you have Modi and party president Amit Shah (a longtime aide of Modi) at the helm. This is a risky strategy. If Modi’s popularity dips, the entire party would be affected. If there are particular states where the BJP does not have a well-defined state leadership, Modi’s reputation alone may be inadequate. For the short term, the BJP looks strong, but there is some danger in terms of their long-term strategy.
Why do you think Prime Minister Modi chose Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh? Is this compatible with Premier Modi’s promises for economic reform and development?
I believe Modi picked Adityanath for a couple of reasons. First, he happens to be among the most popular BJP politicians statewide. Second, Uttar Pradesh has a lot of caste diversity and what is interesting about Adityanath is that the primary axis on which he mobilizes is religious (as opposed to caste). He is seen as a Hindu politician first, rather than representing a particular caste group. This allows the BJP to bring everyone along together. The third reason that Modi likely chose Aditayanth is because Aditayanth has talked little about development, and expectations are pretty low for what he might do on the development side. Interestingly, this means he does not have to do very much to beat expectations. Moreover, picking Aditayanth is a clear way to please the party’s core constituency, the base that the BJP will need on its side in 2019 when it launches a national election campaign.
Can Chief Minister Adityanath moderate his image of being an extreme Hindu nationalist? Would it serve him to appear more moderate?
Adityanath is going to try and balance both of those objectives. He recognizes that the primary challenge in Uttar Pradesh is a developmental one and that some component of the BJP’s mandate has to do with development. Aditayanth is going to have to launch some initiatives to move the needle on Uttar Pradesh’s development indicators. But he will also do a number of things that will please the base. I already mentioned trying to take on illegal cow slaughter operations. He is also associated with “anti-Romeo squads,” which are often deployed to ensure that Muslim men are not coercing Hindu women into marrying them. This is obviously a very socially divisive tactic to pursue.
When it comes back to the overall strategy, the BJP realizes that on some of the most contentious social issues at the heart of a pro-Hindu agenda, there is little chance of achieving progress on those issues before the next national election. By putting Adityanath into the CM’s role, you are buying some time with your base, giving them someone that they like but also in a strange way taking the heat off of you to deliver. By virtue of putting him there, you’ve ticked that box. I expect that in the long run there is going to be a contradiction between development and Hindu majoritarianism. In the short term, they are going to try to balance both of these objectives and show enough progress on both so that come 2019, the BJP will be handsomely rewarded.