Poll is a vote on Modi’s ultra-Hindu nationalism

As the world’s largest democracy goes to the ballot booths, at stake is whether India becomes an authoritarian Hindu nation or a diverse and equal country.

Will India’s incumbent Prime Minister and political strongman Narendra Modi retain power for the second term is the question as over 900 millions Indians began casting their votes on 11 April in one of the world’s biggest elections.

The outcome of the 2019 general elections will not only be a referendum on Modi’s stewardship of the emerging economic giant and “development for all” assurance, but will also give a verdict on his hyper-Hindu nationalism that raised his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in 2014.

Most pre-poll surveys indicate that the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) combination has the edge over the principal opposition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by Indian National Congress, with some giving the BJP a clear majority and others predicting the NDA alliance close to a majority. Eurasia Group, a political consultancy firm, has predicted that opposition Congress holds only a 15% chance of reclaiming power.

Modi has sought to put India’s national security, recent Balakot strikes against Pakistan, and the NDA government’s nationalistic agenda as his campaigning pitch. Five years earlier, Modi’s slogan – “Achhe din aane waale hain” (Good days are coming) – resonated with the Indian masses, and the BJP won a landslide victory by taking 282 seats of the 543 at stake. Modi then promised to accelerate the country’s economic growth, create millions of jobs and provide corruption-free governance.

The pitch to propel India’s industry towards “Make in India” (encouraging companies to manufacture their products in India), cracking down hard on separatist leadership and militant groups in the contentious Kashmir region, and a strong stand to regional arch-rival Pakistan on the issues of cross-border terrorism, allowed Modi to garner a popular sentiment for a major portion of his current tenure.

Problems for Modi & Co

In recent times leading up to the elections, however, Modi found his regime grappling with economic distress owing to intensifying agrarian crisis, increased joblessness, controversial defence deals, accusations of supporting crony capitalists, and losing a military-diplomatic edge to Islamabad. A Reuters’ analysis of 50 pledges from Modi’s 2014 manifesto showed his government only partly fulfilled, or did not fulfil, most promises on the economy. These challenges have not only made Modi’s re-election seemingly an uphill task, but also reinvigorated the rival opposition Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi.

In 2014, Congress suffered its worst defeat ever, winning a mere 44 seats. Led by a more vigorous Rahul, the party seems on recovery after it managed to seize three key BJP states in the Hindu heartland. Supported by his charismatic sister Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul has positioned himself as a more open and approachable leader in contrast to the strong one-man leadership style of Modi.

Congress’ revival has also helped rejuvenate a fractured opposition. Numerous regional parties such as the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal led by Mamata Banerjee, the Telugu Desam Party of Andhra Pradesh, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the crucial Uttar Pradesh region have allied with the Congress Party to present a unified stand against the Modi-led BJP. A unified opposition may become one of the biggest determining factors in the election outcome.

Such challenges have forced Modi and his ruling party to realign his 2019 poll campaigning to right-wing assertions of India’s Hindu civilisational identity, anti-Muslim narratives and a hyper-nationalistic security agenda vis-a-vis Kashmir and Pakistan.

Stoking Hindu nationalism

The critics of Modi and his emboldened Hindu nationalistic supporters consider the nationalistic “Hindutva” narrative – which effectively conflates being authentically Indian with being Hindu – divisive, polarising and as a threat to the country’s secular and democratic fabric. More than 800 theatre artists recently issued a statement urging the electorate to vote Modi out of power, accusing his government of “throttling dissent and promoting an environment of hate and violence.” Earlier, more than 200 prominent writers including Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh and Nayantara Sahgal also made an appeal to vote out “hate politics” and choose a “diverse and equal India”.

Despite India being a Hindu majority, it is a diverse nation that includes various religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities. In recent years, domestic and international human right groups such as Human Rights Watch have heavily criticised Modi’s government for fostering Hindu vigilantes. These groups consider the cow a sacred animal and they have mounted a violent campaign against those in the cattle trade and the Muslim community for eating beef. In all, it has claimed at least 44 lives, including 36 Muslims.

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In March this year, the UN human rights chief Michele Bachelet warned India that its “divisive policies” could undermine economic growth, noting that minorities, mainly Muslims and Dalits, were being targeted under the Modi regime. Amnesty International also condemned the BJP-led government for creating “a culture of impunity for hate crimes”.

On the economic front, Modi’s monetary policies have come under severe flak. Experts say joblessness has worsened despite a healthy economic growth. Modi’s government has been accused of hiding uncomfortable jobs data that show a decline in job numbers. A group of 108 economists and social scientists recently sounded a pre-poll alarm over the Modi government’s move to “tweak” unfavourable economic data. In an open letter, they accused Indian statistics and the institutions associated with it of coming under “a cloud for being influenced and indeed even controlled by political considerations”.

Two of Modi’s major economic policies – the 2016 demonetisation initiative and a new central Goods and Services Tax (GST) – have come under heavy criticism. Experts say not only were these two reforms badly implemented but they also ended up putting a significant economic strain on middle- and lower-income people, indigenous small scale industries and the informal sector. “Demonetization was a big reason growth slowed this year, as many workers went unpaid and consumers delayed spending,” wrote author and journalist Adam Roberts in his New York Times column.

To make matters worse, some of India’s state-owned banks are drowning in bad loans with rich defaulters escaping the country, allegedly with political support. Economic factors are among the reasons many analysts assert Modi’s party suffered heavy losses in recent key state elections.

The problem with Pakistan

On the security front, Modi sought to maintain a hawkish stance both internally in the restive region of Kashmir, and externally against Pakistan. Modi ensured that national security was a key plank of his campaign, with the opposition unable to come with a persuasive counter-narrative.

In February, the Modi government launched air strikes in Pakistan following a deadly suicide bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir that left more than 40 Indian soldiers dead. The escalation saw Islamabad carrying out tit-for-tat strikes in Indian territories. Observers felt that Modi used the aerial strikes to whip up nationalistic sentiments for electoral gains just before the country was going to the polls.

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Modi also received criticism for carrying out the anti-satellite (A-Sat) missile test amid the Indo-Pakistan standoff, and for making a televised announcement about the successful testing of what is named “Mission Shakti”. The opposition parties questioned the timing of the test and deemed that it was “yet another limitless drama” by a “government past its expiry date”. The opposition contends that Modi’s special broadcast two weeks before the national elections is a blatant attempt to take credit for years of work by scientists and to gain political points. Observers and opposition leaders have accused Modi’s BJP of using armed forces for political purposes.

The Modi government has also found itself engulfed in a controversy over the mysterious broadcasting of NaMo TV – a channel exclusively promoting Modi and the BJP ahead of the elections – which showed up on satellite networks in March without broadcasting rights, drawing protests from the opposition. The Election Commission of India (ECI) was also forced to stop the release of a Bollywood biopic, PM Narendra Modi, which glorified Modi.

Who will win?

Modi was once a full-time foot soldier of the ultra-Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – an organisation that has been banned three times in post-independence India, and also accused of plotting the murder of India’s national icon Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Modi’s BJP has ensured that right-wing Hindu extremism is mainstream and enjoy political patronage for carrying out its goal of a “pure Hindu nation.”

An effective orator and campaigner, Modi has seemingly managed to re-engineer India’s polity and society, which may not be reversed anytime soon. Modi will continue to be a challenge for India’s democracy and plurality both in and out of power. A week before the polls, senior BJP leader and former India Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani cautioned in his blog about the far-reaching systemic implications for India by his own party’s brand of politics. “The essence of Indian democracy is respect for diversity and freedom of expression. Right from its inception, the BJP has never regarded those who disagree with us politically as our ‘enemies’, but only as our adversaries,” noted Advani, who was the poster boy of Hindu nationalists in the 1990s.

Despite a note of caution coming from a topmost Hindu nationalist leader, the signs of India’s transcendence into an authoritarian Hindu nation seem only ominous. The Indian election 2019 will not essentially be a judgement on Modi’s economic, governance and political policies but more so about his vociferous brand of Hindu nationalism. Modi’s return to power seems inevitable in a country that strongly imagines itself as a new global power.

Contextualising Indian elections

India follows a Westminster-style parliamentary system in which the lower house (Lok Sabha) comprises elected representatives. There are a total of 545 seats, two of which are nominated by the president, while the rest are contested.

The polls will cover all the 543 seats by 19 May and the counting of votes will be held on 23 May. All Indians aged 18 and above can participate. An estimated 900 million people are set to exercise their franchise. In the 2014 general election, more than 830 million Indians were eligible, and almost 550 million voted.

A total of one million polling stations will be peppered across India. According to data published by the ECI, about 1 279 candidates will battle it out in 91 constituencies in the first of the seven-phase polls.

The party that wins the majority of seats in the lower house will form a government. If no party wins a clear majority, coalitions will have to be formed. At the moment, there are two major coalitions: the NDA is led by Modi’s BJP and makes up the current government while the INC leads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

The key battleground state is Uttar Pradesh in the north, which has 200 million inhabitants. It accounts for 80 seats in the lower house, making it critical to the formation of any government in Delhi. Other crucial states include Maharashtra in the west with 48 seats, West Bengal in the east with 42, Bihar in the north with 40 and Tamil Nadu in the south with 39.

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