Modi’s Message Was Simple: Hindus First
Bad times in India couldn't dent the BJP's juggernaut.
On May 23, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won India’s general elections by a shockingly large margin. Out of 543 seats in parliament, sitting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party won 303, far exceeding the 272 needed to form a government, while the largest opposition party won just 52. Even some of the BJP’s own politicians weren’t sure of a majority until last week’s exit polls.
Few were expecting this result. Most analysts had predicted the party’s 2014 tally of 282 seats would be much diminished, and not without reason. Over the last five years, Modi’s government has been roundly and repeatedly criticized. The economy was hit, jobs were lost, farm distress rose, national security was breached, corruption charges were made, and communal violence peaked. The enduring images of India under Modi’s rule were damning: farmers marching in the streets, people crying in endless ATM lines after the prime minister withdrew cash from the economy, Muslims asking Hindu mobs for mercy, widows of paramilitary soldiers crying over their corpses. The party would have to pay—or, at least, that was the common wisdom in New Delhi.
But instead, the BJP came back stronger than ever. Why did hundreds of millions of Indians give five more years to a man whose government arguably left the country worse than it was in 2014?
For one, Narendra Modi remains personally very popular despite his government’s missteps. He continues to be seen as efficient, incorruptible, and visionary even by many who bemoan the state of the economy or the lack of jobs. His admirers go to any length to defend him against criticism: They argue his party members don’t listen to him, that he is up against “70 years of misrule,” and that his ideas will bear rich fruit in the distant future.
In New Delhi, a man who lost his livelihood because of Modi’s decision to demonetize high-value notes in 2016 told me he was going to vote for the BJP because “Modi brought the rich and the poor to the same level”—they both suffered from the decision.
Modi’s grip over the country’s massive youth vote has become tighter even though their prospects dipped under his governance. Nearly 18 million Indians between the ages of 18 and 23 voted for the first time in this election. I spoke to first-time voters in at least six states. Many of them were attracted to Modi’s strongman image—his ability to take bold risks, to attack his opponents, and to crush dissent.
In the small northern town of Rohtak, a 19-year-old woman voting for the first time said Modi is the only Indian political leader who made her hopeful about the country. In Ranchi, a 24-year-old job seeker told me he hated “all politicians except one.” I didn’t even need to ask who. He said it wasn’t Modi’s fault that he remains jobless even though he has a degree in software engineering. “What can he do?” said the young man, a member of the traditionally discriminated-against Dalit caste. He refused to believe that unemployment hit a 45-year high under Modi’s regime. “That’s not true,” he said. He also said he was sure that fewer jobs were available in the pre-Modi government led by the Indian National Congress party. “Not true,” I said. He said a man has to blame himself if he can’t find a job, not the government. “Not everyone is eligible for a job,” he said. Then he left.
The prime minister and his party were also popular with sections of the rural poor. Nearly 70 percent of Indians still live in villages, and many of those who I spoke with were thankful to the BJP for something or other: free cooking gas, higher housing subsidies, toilets, health insurance, and, towards the end of Modi’s government’s term, financial assistance for farmers. “I was able to build a house with the money his government gave us. What more reason do I need to vote for him?” asked a domestic worker. “He really takes care of the poor,” a housewife said.
To be sure, Modi’s is not the only government to craft schemes for the rural poor. No government in India, whether at the federal or the state level, can hope to return to power without the support of the countryside. Rural Indians’ needs from the government are greater, and so are their numbers at the voting booths. Between 2004 and 2014, Congress-led coalitions rolled out one rural scheme after another to appeal to village voters, including 100 days of guaranteed wage employment, a biometric identification system to ease access to state benefits, and, of course, a whopping farm loan waiver.
But it comes down to marketing: The Congress party is not half as good as the BJP at selling its successes and masking its failures. Nor does it have the BJP’s nationwide messaging machine. Many Indians still get their news from television, and the BJP boasts the support of mainstream channels such as Republic TV and Sudarshan News that are openly and proudly partisan. The party also recruits what it refers to as “cyberwarriors”—mostly young, unemployed, and often angry men—across India to circulate its messages among the country’s 500 million internet users. Over a million people worked or volunteered for the party during the monthslong election campaign, promoting its work on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and vernacular social media platforms, while attacking its opponents and critics.
In a village in Gujarat, I met young and jobless men who were getting paid 8,000 rupees ($115) a month, comparable to the entry-level salary at the nearest call center, by the BJP to run WhatsApp groups. In Jharkhand, one of India’s poorest states, I met more young men who had studied computer engineering but were unable to find a job—and so were putting their tech skills to work at the BJP’s so-called IT cells that operate at village and neighborhood levels. The BJP’s cyberwarriors also create and spread fake news and vile propaganda. Most of this false information is meant to mobilize Hindus against Muslims, with imagined revelations about the Muslim roots of the main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, and supposed news reports about Congress’s endorsement of Pakistan-aided terrorism in Kashmir.
All these techniques hammer home a simple message—and it works. Religious polarization was at the core of the BJP’s election campaign, online and offline. It showed up in the speeches made by the party’s biggest leaders. The party president, Amit Shah, said if his party were voted back into power it would amend citizenship laws to favor refugees who are “Hindus, Buddhist, and Sikhs,” and called Muslim immigrants living in India illegally “termites.” The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, said that his non-BJP predecessor had tried to “curb people’s emotions.” He was referring to 2015’s lynching of a Muslim man suspected of eating beef by a Hindu mob and suggesting that the previous government shouldn’t have tried to police such incidents.
And as the BJP’s campaign progressed, it became more divisive. In April, Modi uttered the word “Hindu” 13 times in a single speech. He said Hindus have “woken up” and insisted that Hindus have never engaged in terrorism. The next week, his party put up as one of its key candidates a woman actually charged with planning a terrorist attack that killed 10 Muslims in 2008.
This religious polarization follows a simple logic. Hindus make up 80 percent of India’s electorate, and if they can be persuaded to set aside their multiple other identities—caste, class, region, food, language—and vote as Hindus alone, then a party can stay in power for as long as it likes. The BJP has made border nationalism synonymous with Hindu consolidation and sought to link the country’s largest religious minority—Muslims make up 14 percent of the electorate—with its greatest territorial enemy, Pakistan.
This time around, the news helped. The suicide bombing on Feb. 14 in Kashmir’s Pulwama district by a Pakistan-based terrorist group and India’s retaliatory airstrikes near Balakot, Pakistan, on Feb. 26 cemented the BJP’s winning formula. Modi urged young voters to dedicate their first vote to the Air Force team that executed the Balakot strike. “Your vote on the lotus [the BJP’s symbol] will mean dropping 1,000-kilogram bombs on terrorist camps,” said Ram Madhav, a senior BJP leader, at another rally.
All Hindus—distressed farmers, jobless youths, oppressed Dalits, businessmen skeptical of the BJP’s economic policies—were called upon to forget their circumstances and vote for their nation. Many of them did, and they made history.