The mandate of India’s general election silenced the ‘if not Modi then who’ debate which had been brewing given the country’s economic instability and rising communal polarization. The historic re-election of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister fundamentally re-ordered the country’s political landscape and reaffirmed people’s faith in him to fulfil their economic aspirations. While critics are wary of the ethno-nationalism that fueled social turmoil under the new government, others look forward to Modi’s promised vision of a ‘New India’ in his second term.
Political analysts called the phenomenon a ‘Modi wave’ that gripped the nation, when in May 2014, Narendra Modi – leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was first elected as the Prime Minister of India by the greatest mandate the country had witnessed in over 30 years.
Five years later, Modi was expected to come back to power but with reduced numbers, however, Modi proved the naysayers wrong. Not only did he get re-elected, but his party won 303 of the 542 parliamentary constituencies, breaking its own record of 282 in 2014. The Modi wave, stronger than ever before, consumed whatever came in its way. BJP candidates, including one with terrorism charges against her, piggybacked on Modi’s popularity and rode their way to the Parliament. The biggest casualty being India’s Grand Old Party- The Indian National Congress which was sent back to the pits as it failed miserably to even win enough seats to become the leader of opposition.
The two sides of Modi’s staggering victory were captured by the Time Magazine days before the election ended. The magazine’s May cover called Modi “India’s Divider-in-chief”- a play on his religious nationalism which has resulted in a hostile environment for Muslims who constitute 14% of India’s population.
However, the magazine also carried a counter-view –‘Modi the Reformer’ where it pinned Modi as India’s best hope for economic reform. A similar line was towed by many publications and political analysts back home- India needs change, the opposition is in shambles and Modi remains the only person who can deliver.
The unassailable megalomaniac
This election and the BJP’s historic mandate raises fundamental questions about the values of secularism and liberalism that are the cornerstones of the world’s largest democracy. While India has taken pride in its diverse social fabric- something that its founding fathers and mothers had cherished deeply as the nation’s strength- Modi’s victory acted as a mirror to the Indian society. Blow by blow, he decimated the popular perception of ‘Unity in Diversity’ and appealed to the darkest corner of the middle-class Hindu’s mind.
Modi fanned, and vehemently so, the burning yet unexposed cauldron of religious intolerance in the Indian society. Issues of rising unemployment and farm distress raised by the opposition were overshadowed by Modi’s hyper nationalism. A strategically crafted election campaign coupled with Modi’s gift of the gab roused powerful emotions in the electorate who were made to believe that Modi was the one who would protect the cow (a sacred animal for Hindus) and the country (in the wake of attacks by Pakistan-based terrorist groups).
To be sure, if the BJP’s thumping victory was a result of a toxic ethno-nationalism which painted the country saffron (the colour of India’s Hindu right wing), it also reflected a resonance with Modi’s economic and foreign policies in the last five years. To his credit, Modi’s first tenure saw improved relations with the United States, China, and Japan. Hugging his counterparts on foreign visits not only made for great optics but also earned him the praise of millions of voters for putting India on the world map.
Back home, his social sector schemes helped him expand the BJP’s voter base from upper-caste Hindus and penetrate the lower caste votes.
The pro-incumbency votes mean that people still believe in Modi’s hallmark motto ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’ (Collective effort, inclusive growth) and expect him to deliver on reviving economic growth and addressing rising unemployment and farm distress.
Just a day after the BJP government was re-elected, unemployment figures were released showing unemployment at a 45-year high in India. Many allege that the government suppressed the information until the election was over. While the Modi government’s aversion to transparency is the subject matter for another article, let’s just say that the next five years will make or mar the aspirations of millions of unemployed youth constituting more than 50% of the country’s population.
The government also has the task of reviving India’s aviation sector and continue working on the hard-pressed infrastructure sector with the same rigor as shown in its previous term. Challenges will also arise in the health sector for which the government has announced affordable universal health coverage, popularly known as ‘Modicare’- another testament to Brand Modi.
Economic policies aside, Modi’s next term will also shape what political scientist Yogendra Yadav calls ‘the idea of India.’
Concerns have been expressed about the alarming rise of anti-intellectualism as well as subversion of democratic institutions under the BJP government. For example. the appointment of Hindu nationalist ideologue, Swaminathan Gurumurthy (the key person credited with advising Modi to undertake the disastrous demonetization drive in 2016) to the board of the Reserve Bank of India in 2018. However, this is just one of the salvos of the BJP government privileging Hindu religion and identity politics over science and rationality. BJP ministers have in the past dismissed Darwin’s theory of evolution as unscientific.
The next five years will also be crucial for minorities (mostly Muslims and Dalits) who have suffered episodes of mob lynching by self-appointed cow vigilantes who seem to be getting emboldened since the BJP came to power. Silence on Modi’s part and inflammatory statements made by BJP leaders to incite communalism do not bode well for the minorities in India.
The absolute majority with which Modi won has bolstered the already aggressive Hindu right wing and has heightened fears of India heading towards an authoritarian democracy. Nevertheless, the mandate also gives him the legitimate power to decide, act and deliver and, take India on the path of progress.
Meanwhile, the world watches India to see whether the absolute power wrested in Modi would make our worst fears come true. I hope not.
About the author:
Meenal Thakur is from India and is currently pursuing her masters in Governance and Development Policy at The International Institute of Social Studies. A former journalist, she wrote on politics and development for one of India’s leading national dailies before joining ISS.