Going into the new year, there was a near-consensus among political punditry that, while not suffering an overall loss, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would emerge from the country’s unusually long general election a diminished figure. Fast forward to the present, however, and such forecasts could not have been further from the truth; confounding all expectations, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – along with the rest of its right-wing coalition, the National Democratic Alliance – would take 353 seats in the Lok Sabha, an increase from its take of 336 in the previous election, and comfortably above the 272 seats needed for an operational majority. How did the BJP so dramatically reverse its fortunes? Yet more importantly, what implications does the result have for the country’s future?
For much of India’s existence as an independent state, the Indian National Congress – the party of Mahatma Gandhi (and, for the most part, his family) – has effectively dominated its political landscape. However, as is often the case with political organisations that rule without meaningful opposition over a number of decades, the INC would increasingly be perceived in the eyes of the masses as a symbol of elitism, corruption and stagnation that had beset the country. Indeed, the party’s predominantly secular orientation would leave many fervent Hindus dissatisfied in an era characterised by identity politics, with socialistic leanings facilitating the cultivation of a seemingly boundless state bureaucracy - the “licence raj”.
Enter Narendra Modi, a figure whom upon initially running for national office in 2014 appeared to be the antithesis of what for much of the electorate were the negative aspects of Indian society that the INC had come to embody. Unlike Sonia Gandhi, the INC’s leader at the time (and her successor, Rahul), Modi didn’t earn his position through birth-right, but rather worked his way up the rungs of Indian society, an experience he was forced to undergo as a result of his lower caste background. In addition, he pitched himself as a fierce advocate of the free market, and centred his campaign around a comprehensive programme of economic reform that promised to transform India’s economy and liberate the average citizen from the shackles of bureaucracy. With such a powerful message, few were taken aback when Modi and his party resoundingly defeated the INC, and assumed control of the government thereafter.
Over the next few years, however, it became evident that things weren’t quite going as planned; the economic boom that Modi promised failed to materialise, and in its stead the Indian public were subjected to a series of poorly thought out policies, many of which yielded undesirable outcomes. The most dramatic of the first Modi government’s policy failures came in the form of its demonetisation drive. In theory, it was a novel solution to an increasingly prevalent problem – by declaring 99% of the country’s currency void with extremely short notice, it was hoped that immense quantities of untaxed “black money” in the economy could be flushed out – yet the numerous flaws in its execution (such as the failure of banks to print enough new notes to meet demand) quickly became apparent, and inadvertently ended up damaging the livelihood of millions of ordinary civilians.
While the government maintained a strong base of support, the wider Indian public were not completely reticent to its failures either. As a result, the BJP faced a string of underwhelming results in various local and regional elections, reflecting discontent with their lacklustre economic management. One of the largest shocks to the incumbents came in May last year, when the BJP failed to win enough seats to form a local government in the strategically crucial state of Karnataka.
It is against this backdrop that, faced with a new general election and the prospect of being removed from office, Modi fell back on a familiar, but divisive strategy: identity politics. For those familiar with the BJP, this would not come as too much of a surprise – after all, the party has its roots in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS for short), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary and volunteer organisation established in the 1920s that by most metrics would qualify as a far-right movement, having exhibited strong fascist tendencies for much of its existence. In particular, some among the group’s founders explicitly expressed strong admiration for the Nazis during their ascendance in the 1930s.
It is undeniable that since entering office five years ago, the BJP has on numerous occasions either cast a blind eye to, or even outright indulged in incidents perpetuated by far-right Hindus. In a report released by Human Rights Watch, they found that 90% of the religion-based hate crimes that have occurred in the last decade did so under Modi’s tenure (primarily against Muslims). However, it would not be until the BJP’s domestic failures began to take a toll on their popularity that Hindu identity politics supplanted economic reform as the central component of their political platform, and given the party’s extremely strong election result – it is unprecedented for incumbent governments to increase, let alone maintain, their grip on power in subsequent elections – it is easy to see why the temptation is strong among the right to further promote and normalise the use of nationalistic rhetoric; after all, why promise an ambitious, high-risk programme of economic reforms that you may well struggle to deliver when mobilising the passions of an ethno-religious group that constitutes almost 80% of the electorate is a safer strategy for securing mass support? Indian politics is about to get a lot uglier - for Modi’s political survival depends on it.