The Indian electorate has ushered in another landslide win for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the governing party, the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Indeed, the BJP’s 2019 win last week outstripped the impressive results of 2014 as the party increased its seat share from 282 to 303 out of a total 543 seats in the lower house of India’s Parliament, the Lok Sabha. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance now controls a huge majority of 353 parliamentary seats.
Crucially, the BJP made substantial inroads into parts of India where the party had previously been on the margins of electoral politics. The eastern states of West Bengal and Odisha, where the BJP is now the second-largest party, are cases in point, as is the southern state of Karnataka, where it won 26 of 28 seats.
What this means is a party that until recently based its electoral sway on the Hindi-speaking states of northern India has established its hold across the nation — the only exceptions being the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south.
The election results also confirm that the BJP has solidified its hold on voters far beyond the upper castes and middle classes that have been its traditional constituency since the party entered the arena of electoral politics in 1980. In short, with the 2019 elections, the rise and rise of the BJP as the absolute pivot of Indian politics has been firmly entrenched.
In many ways, the election results defy some basic laws of political gravity. In the 2014 election campaign, the BJP toned down its Hindu nationalism in favour of a focus on economic growth and development. Sabka saath, sabka vikas — everyone together, development for everyone — was the slogan. Modi projected himself as vikas purush — a man of development. The message to the electorate was clear: as a strong leader, Modi would bring prosperity to every Indian citizen.
Five years later, it is equally clear that Modi’s government failed to do precisely that. Unemployment has reached its highest level in 45 years, rural India’s agricultural crisis has deepened and inequality has increased. In late 2018, the BJP faced losses in important state elections and major protests by farmers and agricultural workers. Despite all this, Indian voters have handed Modi and the BJP an overwhelming new mandate. How do we explain this? And what does Modi 2.0 signify for the future of the world’s largest democracy?
In seeking answers to the first of these two questions, many commentators have pointed to the BJP’s campaign strategy, which portrayed the elections as a referendum on Modi as the country’s leader. This strategy sidelined questions of policy and thorny issues such as jobless growth, agrarian distress and escalating inequalities.
It also allowed the BJP to capitalise on the cult of personality around Modi as a man who, in contrast to the dynastic elite of the Congress Party, has risen from humble roots to the pinnacle of power, and who provides strong leadership for a rising nation. In the 2019 election campaign, the image of Modi as a man of development gave way to Modi as a chowkidar— a watchman — who would keep India safe from foreign and domestic enemies.
Drawing on huge corporate funding, support from the mainstream media and an extensive social media network, the BJP spread this message far and wide. The fact that, as of late March this year, 43% of the Indian electorate reported that they preferred Modi to his main opponent, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party, as prime minister testifies to the success of this strategy.
But, in very disconcerting ways, this election result is about more than Modi. To grasp how and why this is, it is necessary to understand that the BJP is part of a wider Hindu nationalist movement. The backbone of this movement is constituted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a deeply ideological volunteer organisation formed in 1925, which today has more than 50 000 branches and somewhere between five and six million members across India.
Working towards the goal of making India a Hindu nation, the RSS is the central node of a network known as the Sangh Parivar — literally, the Sangh family — which comprises Hindu nationalist organisations that operate in specific domains and work with particular groups throughout Indian society (for example, students, workers, women and youth). Over time, the Sangh Parivar has successfully embedded itself deeply in the institutional fabric of civil society and, as a result, the Hindu nationalist movement wields considerable power and influence in India.
Significantly, the BJP is the electoral wing of the Sangh Parivar and, under Modi, the party has made unprecedented gains in the field of parliamentary politics. Whereas the BJP has been the governing party in India before 2014, its previous mandate (1998 to 2004) was far more narrow and brittle than it is today. This is in no small part a result of the way in which Modi has succeeded in attracting the support of disadvantaged and oppressed groups who have previously not voted for the BJP. For example, the party won 34% of the lower caste vote and 24% of the votes of India’s Dalits (the formerly untouchable castes) in 2014.
During the 2014 election campaigns, this was largely achieved by appealing to the frustrated aspirations of these groups with promises of jobs and prosperity. But, once the Modi government was in place, the rhetoric of development yielded place to an authoritarian populism that draws a line between true Indians and their “other”.
Crucially, this “other” is an enemy within — above all, the dissident who questions and challenges the government and religious minority groups beyond the pale of the Hindu nation. This was further enhanced during the 2019 election campaign, when the BJP put Hindu nationalism and the need to defeat “anti-national” forces at the forefront of its appeal to the Indian electorate.
In doing so, the BJP constructed the true Indian as a Hindu and, crucially, as a Hindu regardless of caste. This was coupled with shrewd electoral engineering tactics.
The BJP worked hard to reach out to specific lower caste and Dalit groups not represented by established lower caste parties and to enlist their support by offering both representation and public resources.
The combined effect of this, according to veteran political scientist Zoya Hasan, has been the consolidation of the Hindu vote as a unitary vote for the BJP. This is, of course, also a crucial advance for the wider Hindu nationalist movement and its majoritarian project — an advance that does not augur well for the future of the world’s largest democracy.
Under Modi’s first period as prime minister, coercion against dissidents, hate speech, and violence against vulnerable minority groups escalated. There is no reason to believe that this will not continue under Modi 2.0 — indeed, it is not unlikely that India will move decisively in the direction of illiberal and majoritarian democracy in the coming years. This is even more so given that the party is likely to achieve a majority in the Rajya Sabha — the upper house of India’s Parliament — by November next year.
With majorities in both houses, the BJP will be in a position to push through legal reforms without significant opposition. The fact that the party has already populated public institutions with its supporters and will continue to do so — specifically in the judiciary — only adds to the momentum of this process.
Given these circumstances, there are no grounds for falling back on complacent assumptions about the resilience of Indian democracy. As historian Federico Finchelstein has pointed out, we live in an age where populism fuels fascism, and India under Modi 2.0 might prove to be an example of exactly that.
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is a professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria. He is one of the editors of the book, Indian Democracy: Origins, Trajectories, Contestations (Jacana 2019). These are his own views.