Welcome to The India Fix by Shoaib Daniyal, a newsletter on Indian politics. We have an earlier, special edition in order to unpack Sunday’s election results.
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As the results came in on Sunday, the only consolation for the Congress was Telangana, which the party won, defeating the Bharat Rashtra Samithi. However, in the three Hindi belt states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the party has been crushed by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
With this victory, the BJP domination of the Hindi belt reaches something resembling hegemony. Hindi-speaking Indian voters support the Hindutva party. However, the BJP is absent from South India now.
In fact, a glance at a map of India shows the stark geographical division between states that have BJP-led government and those led by the Opposition. This divide is unprecedented in Indian politics.
What does this mean for Indian politics?
The most immediate and obvious take-away is that the BJP is well placed for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Currently, around 44% of the Indian Union speaks Hindi. Being hegemonic in the Hindi belt means the BJP has a significant lead over other parties even before a single vote is cast.
However, this domination might not be limited to the results of a single election. The BJP may be tempted to permanently bake the population strength of Hindi speakers into India’s power structure. There are, in fact, already strong hints that the Hindutva party is already considering it.
Earlier this year, Modi shifted the Union parliament to a new building. As it so happens, this new Lok Sabha chamber is designed to accommodate 888 Lok Sabha members instead of the House’s current capacity of 552. In effect, this new parliament might be built to accommodate changes made after delimitation is carried out, determining each state’s Lok Sabha seats in proportion to the size of their current populations.
Currently, seats in India’s Lower House or Lok Sabha are frozen according to the figures from the 1971 census. In the more than half a century since then, the shares of states in the overall national population have changed significantly: the Hindi belt has seen rapid population growth, while the South has low birth rates. This means, the idea of one-person-one-vote has weakened at the national level.
In Uttar Pradesh, for example, one Lok Sabha MP now represents 25 lakh people. In Bihar, 26 lakh. In West Bengal, however, the number drops to 22 lakh. In Tamil Nadu, it is 18 lakh and in Kerala only 17 lakh. In effect, a Malayali has more than 1.5 times the representation of a Bihari in the Lok Sabha.
If a new BJP government elected in 2024 undertakes delimitation, it would result in a significant increase in the proportion of Lok Sabha seats for Hindi speakers. From 42%, the Hindi belt share in the Lok Sabha would rise to 48%. Given the BJP’s domination in the Hindi belt, this would result in a permanent majority of sorts for the BJP. Even extreme dissatisfaction in non-Hindi states would do little to change national equations since they would simply be drowned out in a vote.
Delimitation is, of course, the most extreme example of what the BJP’s domination in the Hindi belt could mean for India. However, there are a number of possibilities that don’t go that far – but are in themselves also quite significant.
For one, the pressure on giving more funds to the Hindi belt would increase. This has already happened in some measure with the Modi government’s direction to the 15th Finance Commission to use 2011 census data rather than the 1971 data the commission was using till now.
This trend would be exacerbated as the current political map would further incentivise the BJP to make sure that money flows from the South to the Hindi belt. BJP state governments in the Hindi belt could use this money to increase the large allocation of private goods (such as gas cylinders) and cash. Since the party barely has a presence in the South, there would be no internal party mechanism to put the brakes on this process.
Along similar lines, the BJP focus on Hindi might increase. Apart from identity and emotion, language is closely mapped to jobs. Language, via exams, education and the written language of an office, is a powerful tool to both include as well as exclude communities. Already, the special status given to Hindi in a number of central exams has resulted in a major advantage to Hindi speakers.
For example, the Combined Graduate Level Examination for Group B and C officers in the Union government is conducted only in Hindi and English. Every year, the exam is taken by millions of Indians but only Hindi speakers can take it in their mother tongue, giving them an advantage over candidates from other states. Expect this trend to accelerate as the BJP strives to give its voters in the Hindi belt greater rewards.
Of course, this jobs push might also lead to a backlash. Unlike elections, non-Hindi states do have policy options here. For state government jobs, for example, states might increasingly place barriers for people from outside the state. Even more significant is that some states might move towards the idea of nativist reservations in jobs.
Finally, the stark geographical divide in India’s political map might mean that the idea of federalism will, for all practical purposes, now be the only check on the Union government. With Southern states unable to protect their interests through the mechanisms of the Union parliament, state governments and the Opposition will increasingly push federal strategies to protect the interests of their citizens. This has already happened to a large extent given even Rahul Gandhi has described India as a “union of states”. Moreover, state parties are increasingly looking to linguistic identity to counter the BJP Hindu nationalism.
Of course, the Modi government understands this well. That is why it has constantly pushed for policy tools that undermine federalism such as simultaneous elections for state assemblies and the national parliament (which would weaken state parties), the Goods and Services Tax (ending independent state revenues) and a muscular role for governors (allows Delhi to control elected state governments).