India’s 17th Lok Sabha elections, in which 900 million eligible voters cast their ballots, delivered a landslide victory for incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
After a fevered campaign, months of opposition negotiations and a gruelling six-week electoral process comprised of seven phases of polling, the BJP won 303 seats, increasing their parliamentary majority from 2014.
Modi should have faced anti-incumbent sentiment. Unemployment is at a 45-year high, farm incomes have plummeted and industrial production has slumped. Indians were hit hard by demonetisation and critical of a convoluted uniform sales tax.
Yet, his party dominated. A feeble opposition – that in name only – didn’t help. A blend of nationalist rhetoric, religious polarisation, welfare programs and a strident national security platform proved the winning formula for a consecutive term.
Electoral arithmetic post-mortems aside, the BJP’s thumping win raises serious questions for the country’s future. What are the implications of another five years of a Hindu nationalist-led government? And what does the continued electoral success of a far-right demagogue portend for Indian democracy?
The best indication for what lies ahead is an appraisal of the Modi government's opening act.
The BJP took the reins in 2014 after running on a campaign in which Modi styled himself as a charismatic, anti-corruption crusader bent on delivering economic growth. Sabka saath, sabka vikas – “Together with all, development for all” – was the slogan.
The initial glow during the early years of ‘Modinomics’ – a set of strategies aimed at pursuing neoliberal economic policies to boost Indian capital’s profitability – rapidly eroded and gave way to pressing concerns: protracted economic slowdown, weak industrial production, fall in rural incomes, waning domestic consumer demand and stagnant export growth.
Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent of Indians now own 52 perecent of the country’s wealth and the richest 10 percent of Indians have increased their share of the pie from 68.6 percent in 2010 to 77 percent by 2018.
Given the economic miracle Modi promised failed to materialise, it is little wonder that his messaging bore scant references to development and reforms, which went on the backburner in favour of projecting himself as a strongman entrusted to defend the nation.
Whichever way you slice it, the election was ultimately a referendum on Modi and his vision of an India revived through a ‘Hinduised’ polity – a vision now sanctioned with a massive mandate.
For all his technocratic failings, Modi’s victory demonstrates that he nevertheless enjoys messianic status. It is a reverence that isn’t about to dissipate anytime soon: in a survey by CSDS, a third of BJP voters said they would have supported another party if Modi was not running.
In many ways, Modi’s cult of personality overshadows his own cadre-based party. By championing disorder, Modi shrewdly operates as a historical revisionist adept at converting the fears and insecurities of citizens into electoral support.
Indeed, beneath the nationalist pageantry and muscular bombast lies a profoundly effective party strategist.
With Modi and party president Amit Shah at the helm, the BJP has crafted a new template for Indian politics that has transformed it into a ruthless machine tailored for the digital age. And far from just an electoral machine, the party seems in permanent political campaign mode.
The BJP traditionally found its staunchest support in India’s populous Hindi-speaking belt in the north; however, since 2014, the BJP has added key north-eastern states like Tripura and Assam and following this election it has emerged as a force in West Bengal and Orissa in the east. Only an obstinate southern bloc thwarts Pan-Indian party status.
What is clear is that a majoritarian nationalism is the hegemonic political force in the country, propelling the BJP into a commanding position where it could conceivably lead as a theocratic one-party state for the next generation.
If the BJP’s record on the economy has been shoddy, then its impact on institutions, civil society and minorities have been divisive at best and lethal at worst.
The re-election campaign was light on development and heavy on ethno-religious dog whistles, if not naked bigotry and jingoist fervor.
Only in Modi’s India could the BJP field outrageous candidates such as a terror-accused holy woman that calls Gandhi’s assassin a “patriot”; a chief minister that sanctions violent vigilantism; a party chief that refers to immigrants as “termites” and calls for them to be thrown into the Bay of Bengal; and an ascetic that claims future elections will be redundant following a “Modi tsunami”.
It was a wager that could not have paid off had a substantial portion of the electorate not already been radicalised. In ideological terms, Hindutva’s cultural hegemony continues to consolidate: just consider how the BJP has successfully managed to conflate Hinduism with patriotism.
Along with the slow capture of institutions and the media apparatus, it has legitimised an atmosphere where mobs are emboldened to assassinate, lynch, torture, intimidate, harass religious minorities, lower castes, journalists, intellectuals and students – while maintaining a strategic silence.
In Modi's India dissent is equated with anti-nationalism, and cows more sacred than Muslim and Dalit lives.
These are harrowing developments for India’s hard-fought democratic credentials and secular spirit. Following independence in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Idea of India’ sought to coordinate within the modern state a variety of values that (at least nominally) adhered to democratic norms, religious tolerance and redistributive justice.
Seven decades later, that fragile experiment is on the verge of being dismantled. The appeal of Hindutva is precisely that it promises a new project altogether; its deepening roots within civil society suggest that the movement has the potential to be ideologically enduring beyond a temporary fascist suborning of the state apparatuses.
While India remains a federal nation with constraints on executive power, reactionary trends will only accelerate. The slow capture of constitutional institutions, the media and education syllabuses, and the polity’s saffronisation is set to continue apace, harden, and consolidate. All the while religious thuggery is periodically unleashed upon marginalised communities.
At a global level, India’s rightward march is part of a wider trend where nationalism is being redefined and cultural identity elevated within an emergent illiberal order.
Armed with another half decade to implement the party’s theocratic agenda, Modi will get to further instil his own ‘Idea of India’ – one, if fully realised, envisages a casteist, saffron republic devoid of all opposition.
Outside of an organised counter-hegemonic movement that challenges it at both the political and cultural level, the forces of the Hindu-right look well on their way to winning that future.
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