The Modi Mystery

Poor economic performance should have hurt the prime minister at the polls. Instead, appeals to nationalism won him the vote.

An Indian resident reads a newspaper with news of the election victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Chennai on May 24.
An Indian resident reads a newspaper with news of the election victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Chennai on May 24. Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

By many measures, Narendra Modi shouldn’t have won another term as prime minister. Based on leaked data, India’s unemployment rate is as high as 6.1. (Modi has refused to release the official figures.) An abrupt demonetization in 2016 took as much as 86 percent of all currency out of circulation, causing extraordinary hardship for the vast majority of the population. And a goods and services tax that the government haphazardly rolled out in 2017 wreaked havoc on small businesses.

Yet citizens nevertheless voted in droves to given Modi another term—a victory made all the more remarkable by the fact that, in India, incumbent governments typically lose. In the absence of robust exit polling data, it is only possible to speculate about the reasons for this surprising electoral outcome. However, available data provides some useful clues.

Before this year, turnout for most Indian national elections hovered around 60 percent or slightly less. On this occasion, turnout was as high as 67.11 percent of 900 million eligible voters. Of that, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) garnered around 37.4 percent of the vote—better than its showing in the last national election—and won an absolute majority of seats in Parliament. In contrast, the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, received a mere 19.5 percent of the votes. This marks its lowest showing in a national election in the last two decades.

In a nationally televised speech, Modi made it abundantly clear that secularism as an idea had become irrelevant.

These numbers point to a deft, but potentially dangerous, electoral strategy. Almost immediately after winning the election, Modi, in a nationally televised speech, made it abundantly clear that secularism as an idea had become irrelevant. During his campaign, Modi had tapped into anxieties among much of the population about illegal immigration, national security, and terrorism. By all appearances, it worked.

For its part, the Congress party’s electoral strategy had three fatal flaws. First, it failed to proffer a viable alternative leader. Its choice, Rahul Gandhi, a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, lacked political savvy and charisma. Second, the party had trouble forging a viable alliance with smaller regional parties that could have won it greater vote share. For example, the Congress party never joined hands with the Aam Aadmi Party in New Delhi, and it spurned opportunities to partner with the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. Finally, the party ignored two states, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where it had enjoyed recent electoral successes and believed its standing was secure. It wasn’t—Congress faced an electoral rout in both states, as well as in New Delhi.

Beyond those failings, the Congress party failed to come up with a compelling answer to Modi’s brand of charisma, his skillful use of social media, and his nationalist appeals, which turned the tide against Congress’s vision of a pluralistic and secular India. Indian secularism, unlike the Western variant, has never required a strict separation between the state and religion. Instead it has been based on the principle of equal respect for all faiths.

The BJP, however, reflects a very different understanding of the relationship between religion and the state. Under Modi’s tutelage, the party has come to embrace a parochial vision of Hinduism. In this vision, Muslims are considered only quasi-citizens, since they have putative homes in the Muslim-majority nations of Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the party’s ideological wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has said citizens of India are, by definition, Hindu. And the BJP using an ordinance of the census, the National Register of Citizens, excluded significant numbers of minorities from the electoral rolls in the border state of Assam. Such moves are indicative of the BJP’s exclusionary national vision.

Other episodes underscored the BJP’s anti-Muslim outlook as well. In February, a Kashmiri Muslim was implicated in a Pakistan-based terrorist attack on Pulwama in the Indian-controlled portion of Jammu and Kashmir. A number of vigilante attacks on Kashmiri Muslims in other parts of India followed. Modi maintained a deafening silence about these incidents.

The BJP’s electoral strategy resonated with substantial portions of the electorate. For example, in the state of West Bengal, the BJP won as many as 18 seats. It took substantial support away from a dominant regional party, the All India Trinamool Congress, by hammering away at the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The Trinamool Congress had been mostly in denial about the vexing question of illegal immigration. Meanwhile, the Trinamool chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, did little to curb the activities of the more radical Muslim leaders within her party, some of whom are believed to have transnational Islamist ties.

Over the next few years, with a majority in Parliament and facing a fractured opposition, the BJP may seek to institutionalize its vision of Hindu nationalism. Whether the Indian public embraces the BJP’s ideology will determine the fate of the country’s democracy, unless a new leadership emerges that might offer a pathway back to India’s commitment to pluralism.

Sumit Ganguly is a Foreign Policy columnist. He is also a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Himanshu Jha is a lecturer and research fellow in the political science department at Heidelberg University’s South Asia Institute.

Rahul Mukherji is a professor and head of the political science department at Heidelberg University’s South Asia Institute.

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