Modi sweeps India’s elections on wave of extreme nationalism

The victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far right coalition signals dangerous times ahead for millions who fall into the minority, particularly Muslims and Dalits.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is heading for a second five-year term after his ultranationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in a highly polarised election.

The seven-phase election was a fight for 542 parliamentary seats, more than 350 of which the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition of right-leaning parties won. Principal opposition the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), made up of left and centre-left parties led by the Indian National Congress (Congress) party, gained less than 90 seats in Parliament. Non-aligned parties secured more than 100 seats. The BJP on its own bettered its 2014 tally, winning more than 303 seats compared to 282 previously.

The results of these Lok Sabha (lower house) elections were seen almost as a referendum on Modi’s strongman-style politics, stewardship of the economy, unpopular economic policies and hyper-Hindu nationalism – the latter a cause he openly champions and that brought him to power in 2014.

Worshipped by his supporters and loathed by his critics, Modi and his ruling clique have been accused of weakening India’s democratic and secular structure by pushing a right-wing “Hindutva” or Hindu nationalism, which effectively conflates being authentically Indian with being Hindu.

The biggest upset of the election 2019 is the loss by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and leader of the principal opposition. He was defeated from his family turf in Amethi by actor-turned-politician and Union Minister Smriti Irani. Former Prime Minister of India and Janta Dal (Secular) Chief, HD Deve Gowda also lost from his constituency of Tumkur. The BJP biggest gain was its entry in the traditional left stronghold of West Bengal where it won 18 out of 42 seats.

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Soon after the elections results suggested a thumping victory for his ruling alliance, Modi tweeted: “Together we grow. Together we prosper. Together we will build a strong and inclusive India. India wins yet again! #VijayiBharat (India victorious).” Modi also won his Varanasi seat by more than 360 000 votes.

Several global leaders congratulated Modi on his victory. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the election results reaffirmed Modi’s leadership.

“I look forward to closer and enhanced ties of Maldives-India cooperation,” tweeted Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also sent congratulatory messages to Modi.

All the earlier exit polls predicted a comfortable win for the BJP.  An exit poll by India Today Axis projected that the Modi-led NDA would win between 339 and 365 seats, with a Congress-led opposition alliance getting only 77 to 108.

A bitterly fought battle

Never in India’s modern history has the country found itself so divided and communally polarised, nor has its acrimonious architect Modi faced such a stiff election struggle. Modi and his ruling dispensation faced strong resistance primarily from regional parties led by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal, United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala and the MK Stalin-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu.

The months leading up to the polls saw a spiteful, communally polarising campaign and sporadic violent clashes between the BJP and its political rivals. For the first time, a visibly shaky Modi faced a tough challenge in Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and leader of the principal opposition, who re-energised his demoralised party. Both Modi and Rahul held massive rallies throughout their months of campaigning and each branded the other unfit to run the country.

The BJP sought to set the right-wing assertions of India’s Hindu civilisational identity, national security, anti-Pakistan rhetoric and the NDA government’s nationalistic agenda as the campaign pitch. 

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Modi completely evaded issues of unemployment, price rises and anything related to economic hardship. The incumbent prime minister crusaded especially aggressively on the February Balakot air strikes against Pakistan in the wake of the Pulwama attack (the suicide attack carried out by a young Kashmiri from Pulwama that resulted in the deaths of more than 40 Indian soldiers) as an example of his strong leadership. In the week leading to the last phase of polling, Modi made a trip to Hindu pilgrimage site Kedarnath, where he meditated in a cave dressed in a saffron-coloured robe in a symbolic exhibition to show that he wears his religion openly on his sleeve.

The opposition, led by Rahul, sought to steer the narrative towards the wavering economy, agrarian distress, high unemployment figures and alleged defence scams. Rahul, supported by his sister and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, led a robust campaign promising to push back what he characterised as India’s slide into authoritarian rule under Modi.

Economy was clearly regarded by the opposition parties as the weak point in Modi’s five-year rule. Two of Modi’s major economic policies – the 2016 demonetisation initiative and a new central goods and services tax – came under heavy criticism. Experts said these two reforms had put significant economic strain on middle and lower-income earners, indigenous small-scale industries and the informal sector. 

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The Congress’ narrative on the Rafale jets scam – in which Modi approved the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France instead of the 126 the air force had requested, radically pushing up the price of each aircraft – and economic issues didn’t find any takers among the voting public. Towards the end of the polls, it had almost become a non-issue. 

Sensing that the party did not have much to show on the economic front, Modi ensured that national security was a key principle of his campaign, with the opposition unable to provide a persuasive counter-narrative. Following the 14 February Pulwama attack, Modi immediately added muscular nationalism, threat to Hindu identity and anti-Pakistan rhetoric to his election aims.

In rally after rally, Modi and party president Amit Shah gave a major push on the “Hindu khatre mein hain” (Hindus are in danger) remark. The BJP went further to nominate Hindu extremist Pragya Thakur, who has been accused of terrorism, as its candidate to contest a key seat against Congress veteran Digvijaya Singh, who has spoken openly in the past about the threat of “saffron terror” – acts of violence motivated by Hindu nationalism – in the country. It was a symbolic gesture to show that Modi championed the cause of aggressive Hindutva nationalists.

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“Some poll watchers base their assumptions on issues which may be irrelevant on the ground. During brief trips to western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, I did not once hear a voter express concern about the Rafale deal or rake up demonetisation. Nor did the non-performance of local MPs [members of Parliament] seem to matter. The chorus generally was, ‘We are voting for Modi, not the MP.’ The majority of the electorate clearly saw this as a presidential election,” wrote senior journalist and columnist Coomi Kapoor in her article, “Unseeing the wave”.

Hindu heartland favours Modi

The Hindu-heartland states of Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and the Union Territory of Chandigarh held the key for Modi’s re-election fortunes. The heartland is the BJP’s main voter base and how well the party performs in these states determines its victory or loss.

Accounting for 490 million voters, these states give India as many as 273 of its 543 members of the lower house of Parliament. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, 216 of the victorious candidates in these eight states belonged to the BJP.

In the run-up to the parliamentary polls, the BJP suffered major setbacks in three state Assembly elections, losing power in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan to the opposition Congress. Despite the setback, the BJP not only swept through the Hindi heartland and Gujarat, but also did exceedingly well in West Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The Congress was unable to translate its successes to the national polls, with the BJP securing almost 90% of seats in Rajasthan (25 out of 25), Madhya Pradesh (28 out of 29) and Chhattisgarh (eight out of 11).

The BJP did especially well in the key battleground state of Uttar Pradesh in the north, which has 200 million inhabitants and accounts for 80 seats in the lower house, making it critical to the formation of any government in Delhi. The BJP had been claiming that it could better its 2014 record of 71 members of Parliament. It is leading in 57 seats and the Congress is ahead in only one. The “mahagathbandhan” (the grand alliance of Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal party), the one big factor that was likely to disrupt the BJP’s chances in Uttar Pradesh, is ahead with 22 seats.

In Bihar, which has 40 seats in Parliament, the BJP compromised and gave more space to its allies, fielding just 17 candidates. The NDA is leading with 37 seats, rival UPA has just three. In Gujarat it is winning all 25 seats, nine out of 10 in Haryana, all five in Uttarakhand and all seven in the capital of Delhi.

Only the South Indian states of Kerala (none out of 20), Tamil Nadu (three out of 39) and Andhra Pradesh (none out of 25) appeared untouched by the Modi wave.

What Modi’s victory means

Critics of Modi and his emboldened Hindu nationalistic supporters consider the BJP’s rule not only divisive and polarising, but a threat to the country’s secular and democratic composition. The sweeping election victory for Modi is likely to change India’s sociopolitical landscape significantly and see the country usher in one-man rule. Although it will have a stable political dispensation at the centre, the ramifications could trigger a period of social and communal instability in the years to come.

The thumping mandate for Modi’s vociferous brand of Hindu nationalism will push India into becoming a majoritarian nation, where minorities – especially Muslims and Dalits – will live in fear for their lives. His rule poses a serious threat to free speech, the independence of democratic institutions and scientific academic inquiry. Political scientist and columnist Suhas Palshikar says Modi’s decisive mandate means India will move further toward becoming a majoritarian democracy, in which religious minorities will be “reduced to secondary citizens” while Hindu nationalists “have free play”.

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“Central danger to secular India is not Modi. It is the penetration of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, widely regarded as the parent organisation of the BJP] into every institution of the country, into every political party, media, university, judiciary, civil services and mainstream everyday social life of every ordinary Indian,” says civil rights activist Harsh Mander.

Gyan Prakash, a left-wing Princeton University historian, wrote recently that Modi reminded him of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, modern India’s most authoritarian leader who declared “the Emergency” in the country between 1975 and 1977, giving India its brush with dictatorship. He, however, underlined that although Gandhi resorted to emergency rule to survive a political crisis, Modi’s regime thrives on Hindu majoritarian militancy.

“He stokes majoritarian resentments against the minorities to further his rule. Dissent is denounced as treason, and Hindu nationalists deride critics as elites guilty of ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’,” Prakash notes.

As witnessed during election campaigning, whenever Modi found himself losing popularity or the perception battle to the opposition, he was quick to abandon his development and governance angle and push the Hindu nationalist rhetoric and anti-minority agenda instead.

With Modi assuming power with a stronger mandate, he will be emboldened to continue stoking communal discord or seeking to unite Hindu nationalists by pitting them against other religions, especially Muslims. The victory and election to Parliament of Thakur, who heaped praise on the killer of Mahatma Gandhi, reflects the extent to which India is riddled with religious hatred.

Modi and his ruling clique have re-engineered the country to the extent that the “land of Mahatma” is no more. Only those who killed the renowned pacifist remain.

This story has been updated to reflect the latest election.

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