On 23 May 2019, the results of India’s seventeenth general elections were announced: the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party with Narendra Modi at the helm had secured another five years in power, and overwhelmingly so. Indeed, the BJP’s 2019 win outstripped the impressive results of 2014 as the party increased its seat share from 282 to 303 out of a total 543 seats in the lower house of India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) now controls a huge majority of 353 parliamentary seats. The BJP also made substantial inroads into parts of India where the party had previously been on the margins of electoral politics. The eastern states of West Bengal and Odisha, where the BJP is now the second largest party, are cases in point, and so is the southern state of Karnataka, where it won 26 of 28 seats.
As in 2014, when Modi first came to power at the national level in Delhi, corporate funding was crucial to his electoral campaign. For example, we know that the BJP received 94.5% of the bonds issued under the Electoral Bond scheme introduced by the party’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. As observers noted, the scheme, which yielded 31.18% of all party funds for the 2019 campaigns, enables unlimited anonymous corporate donations. There is no doubt that this was instrumental in furnishing Modi and his party with the means to spend somewhere between 45 and 50% of the 8.65 billion U.S. dollars that went into funding the 2019 elections. However, the plot behind Modi’s victory is thicker than just corporate funding – not least because it defies some very basic laws of political gravity. For instance, under Modi, unemployment has reached its highest level in 45 years, rural India’s agricultural crisis has deepened, and inequality has increased dramatically. But despite all this, Indian voters have handed Modi and the BJP a resounding new mandate. How can this be explained? And what does Modi 2.0 have in store for the future of the world’s largest democracy?
To answer these questions, we have to understand the politics that the BJP pursued under Modi’s leadership. When Modi trained his sights on the pinnacle of power in Delhi in the 2014 general elections, he spearheaded a project of authoritarian populism – that is, a form of conservative politics that constructs a contradiction between common people and elites, and then uses this contradiction to justify the imposition of repressive measures by the state. Authoritarian populism under Modi is constructed first around a narrative of development that seeks to address frustrated subaltern aspirations in the context of increasing unemployment while opposing dynastic elitism and promulgating individual entrepreneurialism. A key strategy in this regard was to foster a narrative and an image of Modi as a man of development who had demonstrated leadership skills during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, and to build a national cross-class and cross-caste consensus around the imperative of giving power to a strong man who could make headway where others had failed. The developmental narrative was linked to a putative anti-elitism that pivoted on opposition to the dynastic politics of the Congress party. Modi’s objective of achieving a Congress-free India was portrayed as a quest to rid India of a privileged and corrupt elite that was out of touch with on-the-ground realities of common people.
To some commentators, this focus on growth, good governance, and development amounted to a move away from the Hindu communalism that had been so central to the BJP’s expansion from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Such views, however, fail to grasp the ways in which the market-oriented developmental narrative is linked to a majoritarian cultural nationalism and an ever-more aggressive authoritarianism. Hindu nationalism was in no way entirely absent from the BJP campaign trail in 2013-2014, and after the 2014 elections it became more and more central to the party’s agenda. A majoritarian cultural politics has crystallised around issues such as cow protection, the communal policing of inter-religious love and of women’s sexuality, and the promotion of religious reconversion among Muslims and Christians. Hate speech has proliferated, and majoritarian rhetoric is clearly linked to communal violence against Muslims and other marginal groups, such as Dalits. In fact, more than 96% of all vigilante attacks on Muslims and Dalits over the past eight years have taken place since Modi came to power in 2014. In this way, through rhetoric and through violence, the Modi regime has constructed the ominous Other that authoritarian populism depends on in order to frame a unitary conception of the nation and national culture.
These majoritarian constructions of the Other are closely linked to a sustained effort to draw a line between true Indians and their enemies, and rallying popular support for a crackdown on those enemies. And crucially, the Other is not just the Muslim or the Dalit, but also the political dissident who dares to question and challenge a government that is acting in the interest of the people. Accordingly, dissidents are accused of being ‘anti-national’ and subjected to harassment, silencing and – as evidenced by the assassinations of scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals such as M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh – murderous violence. Raids, arrests, and harassment of human rights activist are commonplace under Modi’s regime, and testify to the authoritarian pattern that is beginning to emerge in the Indian polity.
What is crucial about Modi’s authoritarian populism is the fact that it has enabled Hindu nationalism to extend its sway downwards in India’s socioeconomic pyramid. Indeed, the 2019 elections saw an intensification of this trend: compared to 2014, the party increased its vote share from 34% to 44% among lower caste groups, from 24% to 34% among Dalits, and from 37% to 44% among Adivasis. Whereas the party increased its vote share across all classes, the largest increase happened among poor Indians – from 24% in 2014 to 36% in 2019. To be sure, the core vote BJP vote base remains the upper castes, 61 per cent of whom voted for Modi, and the upper class and the rich, 44 per cent of whom voted for Modi. However, there is no doubt that the BJP expanded its support base among disadvantaged socioeconomic groups who have previously not given their votes to the party.
It is of signal importance to note that these gains happened in the context of a campaign where the BJP entirely discarded its message of growth and development in favour of unbridled and unapologetic Hindu nationalism. The 2014 image of Modi as vikas purush – a man of development – gave way to Modi as a chowkidar – a watchman – who would keep India safe from both foreign and domestic enemies. This enabled the BJP to side-line questions of policy and thorny issues such as unemployment growth, agrarian distress, and escalating inequalities, and to assert itself as the primary defender of the Hindu nation. Coupled with clever electoral engineering – the party reached out to specific lower caste and Dalit groups who were not represented by established lower caste parties and enlisted their support by offering both representation and public resources – this paid rich dividends in the form of a solidification of the Hindu vote: in 2019, 44% of all Hindu voters supported Modi, up from 36% in 2014. The ramifications of this for Indian democracy are potentially dramatic.
In order to fully understand why, we have to remind ourselves that the BJP is part of a wider Hindu nationalist movement. The backbone of this movement is constituted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – a deeply ideological volunteer organization formed in 1925, which today has more than 50,000 branches and somewhere between five and six million members across India. Working towards the goal of making India a Hindu nation, the RSS is the central node of a network known as the Sangh Parivar – literally, the Sangh family – that comprises of organizations that operate in specific domains and work with particular groups throughout Indian society (for example, students, workers, women, and youth). Over time, the Sangh Parivar has successfully embedded itself deeply in the institutional fabric of civil society, and as a result the Hindu nationalist movement wields considerable power and influence in India today. The BJP is the electoral wing of the Sangh Parivar, and after the consecutive victories of 2014 and 2019 elections, its mandate is far stronger than during its previous period in power at the national level in India (1998-2004). It goes without saying that this is a crucial advance for the wider Hindu nationalist movement and its majoritarian project. Indeed, it represents nothing short of the forging of a majoritarian democracy under Hindu nationalism.
In one year from now, the continued rise of Hindu nationalism as a deeply entrenched hegemonic project and the strengthening of the power of capital in India’s political economy might receive a further boost as is very likely to achieve a majority in the Rajya Sabha – the upper house of India’s parliament – by November 2019. With majorities in both houses, the BJP will be in a position to push through major legal reforms without significant opposition. The fact that the party has already populated public institutions with its henchmen and will continue to do so – specifically in the judiciary – only adds to the momentum of this process. On the ground, violence and coercion has continued unabated since 23 May. For example, within four days of Modi’s election victory, Indian media reported six incidents of violence against people from vulnerable and marginalized communities – among them was a Muslim man who was severely beaten up for wearing a skullcap. And in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, a freelance journalist was arrested and kept in jail for close to a week for social media posts about the state’s chief minister, the Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath. Given these circumstances, there are no grounds for falling back on complacent assumptions about the resilience of Indian democracy. As historian Federico Finchelstein (2019) has pointed out, we live in an age where populism fuels fascism, and India under the authoritarian populism of Modi 2.0 might very well prove to be an example of precisely this.
Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Professor of Sociology, University of Pretoria
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