Narendra Modi’s win: India is looking for the “strongman”

NEW DELHI – The results of the 2019 general elections for the lower house of India’s parliament leave no room for doubt: a new India has emerged from the ballot box and it has the face of Narendra Modi. The hard-line Hindu nationalist leader was recently featured on TIME magazine’s cover, with the title “divider-in-chief” questioning whether the world’s largest democracy can endure another five years of his rule. Yet, the democratic process with its electoral arithmetic has provided him with another mandate. Once again, like in the 2014 elections, exit polls failed to represent the mood of such a wide and diverse electorate, as predictions heavily underrated the possibility of such a striking, historic victory.

“Thank you India”, tweeted Amit Shah, president of the winning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while vote counting was still underway (even partial results were indicating the margins of a landslide win). Alongside Modi, the party frontman and leader, Shah has been a crucial driver of the incredible journey the BJP has taken from a relatively small, ethnic-nationalist party in the ‘80s to the country’s leading party today. These elections have revealed its tremendous appeal and popularity among various social groupings—the middle-class, the youth and Indians living overseas. The party scored an unprecedented majority with 303 seats out of 543 (353 if considering also those of its allied parties), overshadowing the 282 seats it gained in the 2014 elections. Indeed, this is the first time since 1971 that a single party has attained a parliamentary majority for two consecutive mandates. And it is the first time the majority party is not the Indian National Congress.

The Congress—India’s historic grand old party, led for generations by the Nehru-Gandhi family—again cashed at these polls, winning just 52 seats, only slightly better than the 44 it received last time. Rahul Gandhi, scion of India’s influential political dynasty, conceded defeat after having lost his party’s historic bastion of Amethi, which both his parents, Sonia and the late Rajiv, contested in the past. Rumour has it that he offered to resign, having now led Congress to two consecutive defeats. Many believe that Rahul lacks political charisma and erred in not refreshing the party’s face ahead of such polarized elections. Others simply see him as embodying the privilege and nobless oblige typical of the anglophone, westernized élites that have ruled India for most of its independent history. Now, claims the BJP, the Congress and its clientelism and corruption have been more or less erased from India’s politics.

Anyone believing these ballots would be influenced by the failures racked up during Modi’s tenure and that he might face some anti-incumbency wave was proven terribly wrong. Despite the many flaws and unfulfilled promises of his first mandate—the disastrous currency ban, the tax reform, the worsening agrarian crisis, the unparalleled levels of youth-unemployment— the BJP’s support base is intact. What is more, the party has now been vested with a massive new mandate.

 

The “strongman” image that wins back consensus 

 

Thus, in the wake of these elections the figure of a powerful yet divisive leader—a strongman who has nonetheless managed to convince most Indians he is a humble self-made-man and a devoted “guardian of the nation”—looms large. This image was only reinforced by a deadly attack on security forces near Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir last February that triggered a dangerous show of force with its nuclear rival, Pakistan.

In the months leading up to the elections, Prime Minister Modi shamelessly banged the drums of war, bringing forward a narrative centred on an aggressive and jingoistic nationalism that quickly moved to the centre of his campaign. He even exhorted first-time voters to dedicate their vote to the slain jawans (i.e. the soldiers killed in last February’s suicide attack in Kashmir).

Think tanks and research centres had warned that the attack had set in place a campaign dynamic that was sure to affect the outcome of general elections. “The BJP did very poorly for the country but after [the terrorist attack in] Pulwama everything has changed and he won again”, claims Abdul Ahmed, 55, a Muslim rickshaw-puller from the border state of Gujarat, the birthplace of Modi. He goes on to note: “These five years have been very bad for all minorities; many people have been killed in the name of Hindutva so we live in fear. India is not a Hindu country; many other religious communities live here and want to coexist in peace”.

When Modi became prime minister five years ago, political analysts were uncertain about whether he would focus on vikas—expanding progress and economic growth—as he boasted he would during the election campaign, or whether he would be driven back to his controversial past. As a youth, he was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) a far-right Hindu paramilitary voluntary organization widely regarded as the BJP’s armed wing and ideological sibling.

Modi is also infamously accused of having turned a blind eye during anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat—where he was chief minister at the time—in 2002. The turn towards Hindutva—a form of ethnic-ultra-nationalism that seeks to establish a Hindu Rashtra, a country belonging exclusively to Hindus, and allows violence towards minorities—has become more and more evident, especially since 2015. This is when the first killings of Muslims took place against a backdrop of official silence.

During the elections, Pragya Singh Thakur—the Hindu nun accused of a terror attack near a mosque in Malegaon, who contested these elections on the ticket for the BJP—noted casually that Mahatma Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, an RSS militant “was, is, and would remain a deshbhakt, a patriot”. Her victory in the Bhopal constituency marks clearly the turn towards the legitimization of a certain kind of militant discourse.

During his first press conference in five years, Modi—accompanied by his inseparable right-hand man, Amit Shah—took no questions but asserted he would not forgive Pragya Thakur for what she had said. Endorsing or simply not walking back an open attack against Gandhiji, the father of the nation, would have meant a faux pas for Modi, and could have alienated his moderate supporters.

 

An unfinished businnes

 

“Modi has become a symbol of hope, of aspiration and he gave us [during the campaign] a message which is very important—a message of unfinished business. His government has only just begun to implement certain policies, especially on welfare”, explains Mahesh Rangarajan, author, historian and academic at the Ashoka University. He goes on to say: “He [Modi] is a man of great energy, but what is most important is that the BJP articulates an idea of India that is quite different from that of the Congress, of composite nationalism—it’s a cultural–nationalist idea”.

The BJP ideology of Hinduness includes both a strong India and development, claims Rangarajan. “Modi has redefined the notion; he has refined it and taken it to a different level. Cultural–nationalist issues have always been foregrounded by the party in less subtle ways so there should be no doubts that this is their intended goal”, says Rangarajan. “But, he continues, “we have to underline that these five years saw no major communal riots, which were common in the past.

There have been other very serious occurrences, of course, and there is no doubt the party has a cultural–nationalist agenda—they have never made a secret of that. The question is: has their agenda now been embraced by the majority of Indians?”

In casting India as a majoritarian state80 per cent of its population is Hindu, yet not all Hindus endorse the normalization of violence and the ethnic-religious project underpinning it—the fear is that India’s many minorities (Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhist) face growing alienation. This concern extends also to oppressed groups like dalits (outcasts of India hierarchic social structure), and adivasi (tribal communities). “In the last five years, communal violence has increased dramatically. In my previous workplace they called me Pakistani”, claims Suhal S., a 28-year-old unemployed Muslim from Delhi who studied economics. Like many educated youths in India, Suhal struggles to find work. “India will just get worse in the next five years”, echoes his friend, Javeed S., also 28 and unemployed, “Now there is no difference between humans and animals here [referring to the mob-lynching and killings of people in the name of protecting cows, which are sacred animals to Hindus]. Together with the Hindutva ideology, impunity is also growing under Modi”, he says in a whisper.

That India is becoming an increasingly dangerous and inhospitable place for its minorities and is drifting away from the secular character its founding fathers fought for is no longer in doubt. This is something Modi himself must realize, since at his address to the first meeting of his MPs after the pool he mentioned India’s “misled minorities” and promised to rule the country in the interests of all citizens.

Yet, the nominations for the new cabinet left many commentators wondering whether the fringe of the party is gradually becoming mainstream: 22 ministers on 58 new members have pending criminal cases against them. Not surprisingly, Amit Shah, the man behind the BJP’s two electoral successes who has 4 pending cases, has sworn in as the new Home Minister. But it’s another nomination that rocked the social media this week: Pratap Chandra Sarangi, the BJP’s man in the state of Odisha, leader of the right-wing Hindu organization Bajrang Dal accused of being behind the murder of an Australian Christian missionary and his two children back in 1999, is now in charge of two portfolios.

As Modi himself noted, this is the dawn of a “new India”; it is precisely this that many fear.

 

Photo: PRAKASH SINGH / AFP


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