The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has suffered a palpable setback in the Indian general election, whose results were announced earlier this week. Although the results put the BJP on track for a historic third term, the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi lost its parliamentary majority and thus became dependent on the support of its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The NDA won 293 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament, comfortably ahead of the simple majority of 272 seats needed to form a government. However, the BJP won only 240 of Lok Sabha seats.

By contrast, the opposition INDIA bloc - the acronym standing for the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance - which is anchored by the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi of Nehru-Gandhi dynastic fame, registered stunning gains by making deep incursions into the ruling party's electoral territory. The INDIA alliance won more than 230 seats, putting it within calling distance of the magic figure of 272.

Mr Gandhi won handsomely from Raebareli constituency in Uttar Pradesh, the Hindi heartland's weatherwane state, where Mr Modi won from Varanasi with a reduced majority.

Symbolically, though, INDIA secured its most important victory in the Faizabad constituency of Uttar Pradesh. The constituency includes Ayodhya, where a grand Ram temple has been constructed on the site of the mediaeval Babri Masjid that was demolished by a frenzied mob in 1992. Awadhesh Prasad of the Samajwadi Party, a member of the INDIA bloc, beat Lallu Singh of the BJP in Faizabad, putting to rest, at least for the time being, the idea that religious mobilisation holds an everlasting key to political power.

To be fair to Mr Modi, the BJP and its ideological parent, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), none of them invented the agency of religion in Indian electoral politics. It had been a fact of life before Independence and lasted long after it, under Congress rule. The party's brand of vote-seeking secularism was not averse to pandering to the worst regressive instincts among minorities.

Minority appeasement came to the fore when Parliament during the Rajiv Gandhi government overturned the Supreme Court's judgment in the 1985 Shah Bano case that had favoured maintenance being given to an aggrieved divorced Muslim woman. Progressive Indians from various religious backgrounds or none welcomed the Court's judgement. They were dumbfounded when an avowedly secular government caved in to the lowest common denominator among Muslims because of the vote bank that the community represents.

Mr Modi reversed the turn to minority appeasement, which is to be welcomed. What is not to be welcomed is the BJP's corresponding turn to what can only be called majority appeasement. Common sense says that if you appease the minorities, you affect only a small part of your population, one which has limited access to the levers of state power such as the civil administration, the police and ultimately the military. If you appease the majority, however, you will begin to delegate away your own constitutional authority to purveyors of majoritarian thinking who harbour extremist agendas and are bent on infiltrating national institutions. The demands of the minorities are limited to ameliorating their often precarious conditions of existence within the state: The demands of the majority are expansive enough to be finally coterminous with the ambit of the state itself.

Things have not come to that pass yet in India, thanks to the tensile strength of its institutions, primarily the Supreme Court. What this election did was to stop the BJP in its majoritarian tracks and call for introspection on the extent that governance should be subject to ideological agendas.

That role pivots on the primacy that a government affords (or does not afford) to material well-being. This is where many Indians found the BJP dispensation lacking. Its developmental agenda, the twin of its religious agenda, failed millions of citizens. According to the respected Economic Times, a lack of jobs, high inflation and falling incomes led voters to rein in support for Mr Modi. Citing surveys, the newspaper added that the government's way of dealing with corruption and scams had worried voters.

Clearly, then, ethnic majoritarianism stops at the borders of economic reality. Indians have proved that their government must address their material concerns no matter what religious or ideological gloss it might put on its political legitimacy.

That logic holds true for other countries as well, whatever the religion or ideology in question. One of China's great achievements has been to put its people on the path of emancipatory economic development without invoking the avowed glories of ancient China, whose feudal political economy is incompatible with the current vision of China as a modernising force in global affairs.

Instead, China has recreated the cultural basis of its contemporary resurgence by drawing on relevant strands of Confucian, Republican and Communist thinking that reveal the material resilience of the Chinese people as they have moved through history. There is no such thing ever as a golden past: There is only history, which is the present's engagement with the past on shared terms of human evolution. Materialism's supreme agency in that evolution cannot be ignored. Indian policy-makers would do well to revisit the works of historians such as Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi, Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and Akshay Ramanlal Desai to rediscover India's place in the retraced steps of time. The Marxist leanings of the three men (Thapar cannot be identified by ideological labels) do not matter all that much because leanings depend on the durability of structures to lean on: What does matter is the focus that all those Indian greats placed on the role of economic exigency in history. The contingent is a constant companion.

That is why history never ends.

The writer is Principal Research Fellow at the Cosmos Foundation.

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