It’s Modi’s India Now
The prime minister returns to power, but after an ugly 2019 election season, the very nature of India’s democracy could be changing.
“The silent majority has spoken,” said the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Rajyavardhan Rathore on India Today TV as it became clear on Thursday that the ruling BJP would once again win more than half of the seats in India’s parliament. “We love our prime minister, Narendra Modi.”
Between 1984 and 2014, no single political party could win enough seats to form a national government on its own. There were simply too many, it seemed, and new ones kept emerging. In 2014, 464 political parties competed in the national elections—up from 215 in 2004—with most representing narrow regional, religious, or ideological constituencies. The system gave meaning to the famous catchphrase: “Indians don’t cast their vote; they vote their caste.”
But in 2014, Modi was able to emerge from the crowd and dominate. His Hindu nationalist BJP won an outright majority of seats in parliament by especially appealing to voters in the Hindi-speaking parts of central and northern India. That’s a feat his party has now repeated—and outdone—in 2019, returning to power for another five years.
The prime minister’s victory may feel like deja vu, but the election season that got India here has been different in important ways, and those changes could shape not only the next five years of Modi’s term but also the very nature of Indian politics.
Modi’s 2014 campaign was built on a message of change and hope. He swept to power as a relatively fresh face on the national stage and called for a new mindset in New Delhi. He made grand promises of economic reform, job creation, and infrastructure projects but also offered more tangible gifts: a toilet in every home, a smartphone in every hand, and a bank account to every name. Together, these pledges overshadowed, for a while at least, concerns about the BJP’s brand of right-wing Hindu nationalism.
The BJP’s 2019 campaign had to be different—after all, Modi was no longer the candidate representing change. Unemployment had hit a 45-year high under the BJP, and economic growth began to slow down. And so instead of Modi the reformer, Indians got to see Modi the performer this election season: He branded himself a chowkidar, or security guard, to emphasize his ability to keep India, and especially Hindus, safe. Across hundreds of campaign speeches, he carefully shifted the focus of his message to national security and identity politics. And it worked. The question now is what lesson the BJP will derive from its latest victory, and how those insights will guide it in the years to come.
Two main aspects of the 2019 election foreshadow trouble ahead for Indian politics. The first is the way New Delhi managed communications around a terrorist attack on its soil in February, marshaling jingoism as a way to unite voters and the media. The second is how even opposition parties seemed to distance themselves from the vision of India as a secular country, instead joining the BJP to some extent in pandering to the country’s Hindu majority amid a marked uptick in anti-Muslim rhetoric. Both developments will be difficult to reverse.
On Feb. 14, a paramilitary convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir was struck by a vehicle packed with explosives. Forty Indian soldiers were killed in what was one of the worst terrorist attacks on Indian territory in years. “We will give a befitting reply,” Modi said the following day. “Our neighbor will not be allowed to destabilize us,” he added, referring to Pakistan, which, as expected, denied any involvement in the attack.
In the days that followed, and with weeks to go before India’s national elections, Modi did reply. He sanctioned airstrikes across the border with Pakistan—reportedly the first time Indian fighter jets had crossed the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir, since 1971, when the two countries fought a war. New Delhi claimed that “a very large number” of militants were “eliminated” in its attack; Islamabad denied that there were any militants on its side of the border at all, let alone that any had been killed.
Whatever actually happened, India’s ruling BJP and its supporters touted the raid and its alleged success as yet another example of Modi’s decisive leadership and military daring. India has claimed to use this type of attack—known as a surgical strike—once before under Modi, with an aerial bombing of Pakistani territory in 2016, following a terrorist attack on Indian territory. A popular movie, Uri: The Surgical Strike, is based on that episode and became a box office hit after its release in January this year. But in an interview with the Hindustan Times earlier this month, the leading Indian National Congress party figure and former prime minister Manmohan Singh—Modi’s predecessor—said that “multiple surgical strikes” took place under his leadership too but were never publicized as such. “Attempts to politicize our forces are shameful and unacceptable,” he said.
The BJP and an Army spokesman have since said that Singh’s account was incorrect, and that the first instance of a non-wartime aerial bombing along the border took place in 2016 under Modi. It is difficult to verify which claim is correct, but now that the concept of surgical strikes has gone viral in India—and helped the BJP win reelection—future governments will likely face intense public pressure to strike Pakistan after any attacks on Indian soil. (In 2008, when a terrorist attack took place in Mumbai, a Congress government led by Singh resisted calls to attack Pakistan. Modi and the BJP mocked his restraint in their 2019 campaigns.)
Meanwhile, as press freedom declines in India—Reporters Without Borders ranks India 140th out of 180 countries, and Modi declined to hold a single press conference in his first five years as prime minister—the media will struggle to challenge government reports of military action. For example, New Delhi has claimed that in a Feb. 27 aerial dogfight with Pakistan, it shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet. As Foreign Policy reported at the time, a U.S. count of F-16s sold to Pakistan found no missing jets, calling into question New Delhi’s account of what happened. But an increasingly jingoistic mainstream Indian media didn’t follow up. Future Indian governments now have a template for appearing strong in public—irrespective of what they actually do.
The second worrying aspect of the 2019 Indian election is how political parties courted the majority Hindu vote at the expense of India’s largest minority group, Muslims. As the political scientist Milan Vaishnav wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, this year’s campaign served as a test for whether India has a future as a secular, pluralist republic. It was, as the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor has called it, a “battle for India’s soul.”
And the lines in that fight were drawn clearly in 2019. The BJP’s party president Amit Shah—the chief architect of Modi’s reelection campaign—referred to Muslim immigrants living in India illegally as “termites” on the campaign trail last September, and he repeated the phrase this year. In the eastern state of Assam, the BJP has created a National Register of Citizens, a database that excludes 4 million people in that state, most of them Muslims. Shah has promised that the BJP would implement a similar database across the whole country, ostensibly to force a mass purge of Muslims deemed to have immigrated illegally from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
The BJP’s interest in establishing Hindu primacy is hardly new. Among other policies, it championed the building of a Hindu temple on the site of a demolished mosque in Ayodhya, has given prominent streets named after Muslim historical figures new Hindu monikers, and has led a national movement to protect cows, leading to a spike in vigilante attacks on Muslims.
The BJP’s policies might not have come as a surprise, but in this election, the opposition Congress’s response did. The party, whose founders enshrined secularism in the country’s institutions and politics, has itself taken to harnessing Hinduism to appeal to the country’s majority. Congress President Rahul Gandhi—a direct descendent of three prime ministers—made a show of visiting Hindu temples on the campaign trail. The problem is that by signaling his support for Hinduism—Gandhi did not visit churches or mosques as his grandmother Prime Minister Indira Gandhi once did—he implicitly strengthened the country’s growing culture of Hindu majoritarianism. This is especially worrying because of the clear links between the rise of a muscular Hindu identity and the marginalization of India’s Muslims.
After this election, the Congress will need to rebuild. As the final results come in for the 543 parliamentary seats on offer, it is clear that voters are rejecting leaders who come from political dynasties—as many Congress leaders do. If their leadership saw Modi’s 2014 election as a rare black swan event, where one party was able to dominate despite the existence so many options, they have now been proved wrong. It seems that the BJP’s formula of focusing on national security and identity politics, along with channeling Modi’s clear charisma and oratory powers, overshadowed any competing vision. And in that sense, perhaps the change isn’t just at the top; Indians themselves may have changed. A new generation of younger Indians yearn for a more positive self-definition and image. In the flashy, pro-Hindu, globetrotting Modi, they see a bit of themselves too.