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The two-month long, seven-phase election to India’s lower house of parliament (the Lok Sabha) is finally over. The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is back in power with a thumping majority. With the announcement of the results still pending, the alliance seems all set to win over 350 seats in the 545-member house.
The man of the match is Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi. In 2014 when Modi won the national election for the first time and formed a BJP-led NDA government, the blame for his victory fell on the Indian National Congress (Congress) party. The corruption and policy paralysis it bred under Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh who had been in power since 2004 lead to the rout of the Congress-led political alliance called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
With this victory, Modi is the first non-Congress Prime Minister to return to power after a full five-year term. He is also the third prime minister of India, after Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, to be able to retain power for a second term with full majority in Lok Sabha.
Most polarizing leader
Modi is the most polarizing national leader in independent India. One half of the nation adores him and the other half hates him. Those who hate him say, Modi and his party do not represent the nation for which Gandhi fought and Nehru toiled.
The BJP, which Modi represents, is a Hindu nationalist right-wing party, a political offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is a volunteer organization seeking to unite the Hindu community and pursues the idea of India as a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation).
The RSS was founded in 1925 by Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, however it was under the tenure of its second saranghchalak (chief) that the organization found its most emphatic ideological voice. Madhav Sadashiv Golwarkar, popularly known among his followers as Guruji (teacher) was the outspoken proponent of the Hindu nation. In his book Bunch of Thoughts, Golwarkar questioned the nationalism of minorities in India and wrote:
“They are born in this land, no doubt. But are they true to its salt? Are they grateful towards this land which has brought them up? Do they feel that they are the children of this land and its tradition and that to serve it is their great good fortune? Do they feel it a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone are the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.”
Hindutva and origins of the BJP
As a political party, the origins of the BJP lie in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, founded in 1951 by Syama Prasad Mukherjee as a political arm of the RSS in response to the politics of then-dominant Congress party. Having failed to find much political success, the party reconvened as the BJP in 1980. The BJP grew in strength as a political movement of ‘Hindutva’ by which it sought to bring about the consolidation of Hindus on the back of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement demanding the construction of a temple dedicated to Lord Ram at the disputed Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The man credited with the invention of the concept of Hindutva is another Hindu nationalist leader named Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. As pointed out by former UN diplomat and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor in his book, ‘Why I Am A Hindu,’ Savarkar chose the term ‘Hindutva’ to describe the ‘quality of being a Hindu’ in ethnic, cultural and political terms. He explains that:
“Hindu is one who considers India to be his motherland (matrbhumi), the land of his ancestors (pitrbhumi), and his holy land (punya bhumi). India is the land of the Hindus since their ethnicity is Indian, and since the Hindu faith originated in India. (Other faiths that were born in India, like Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism also qualified, in Savarkar’s terms, as variants of Hinduism since they fulfilled the same three criteria; but Islam and Christianity, born outside India, did not).”
Uncanny similarity to Muslim nationalism
There is an uncanny similarity in the idea of India as propounded by the BJP’s ideological fountainheads like Golwalkar and Savarkar and the concept of the nation as argued by Muhammad Ali Jinnah when he demanded Pakistan for Muslims. Jinnah argued that British India is not one but two separate nations divided along religious lines. “It is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality,” he said.
According to Jinnah, “Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs and literary traditions. They neither intermarry nor eat together, and indeed, they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions.” The resonance that these divergent views create is hard to miss. Seventy years later, one would expect that the pangs of partition would have healed. Sadly, however, Pakistan remains a bête noire, and Muslims in India carry the burden of Jinnah’s skewed ideology.
A shrewd politician’s rise to power
Modi’s rise to power in 2014 with a full majority (first for any government in 30 years) brought these decades-old conflict full circle. Political Hinduism that started with the demand for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya is finally here to stay. Religion is a potent force in India. The temple remains unbuilt, but it remains key to the political mobilization of the BJP’s core Hindu vote.
It was under his watch in 2002 as chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat that over 1000 people, mostly Muslims, lost their lives in communal violence. Despite a direct request to Modi, the army columns, deputed to the state capital to maintain law or order, lost a crucial day waiting for transportation.
Modi realized that the communal violence would be used by the opposition to pin down his political aspirations. He fought back by dissolving the legislative assembly, calling for elections in a highly polarized state. He was returned to power with a thumping majority and since then remained the chief minister of Gujarat until 2014, winning every election in the state before moving to the national stage.
Throughout his tenure in Gujarat, Modi worked hard to overcome the blot of 2002. He ignored his critics, refusing to debate on the violence, and focused his attention on the development agenda. Soon Modi began to be seen, not as the culprit, but as a victim of a political conspiracy to defame his home state of Gujarat in particular, and the Hindu community in general. Although Modi said the violence pained him, comparing the feeling to a puppy coming under a car analogy, he never apologised for what happened.
The greatest boost for Modi came when the Tata group decided to shift its small car project from Bengal (where they faced violence from local communities) to Gujarat. With Modi by his side, Tata Group Chairman Ratan Tata called the decision as a “homecoming.” Modi could not have asked for a better endorsement. Corporate India was now eating out of his hands.
National Ambitions & Brand Building
As a precursor to his national ambitions, Modi invested heavily on building his brand. Professional brand managers worked hard to portray Modi as a self-made man who had come up in life with hard work and was strong, efficient and inspiring as well as incorruptible. The country saw him as a welcome change from the seemingly inefficient, indecisive, and weak Dr Manmohan Singh whose UPA government was steeped in allegations of corruption. Modi appeared to be a credible and committed leader. People were yearning for change, Modi promised to deliver it, and they believed him.
As Prime Minister, he continued his Gujarat model of governance, with a centralized approach to decision-making and administration. It is a model that worked well for him as chief minister of a state, but as the prime minister of a federal nation, the model has its pitfalls. By his critics Modi is described as authoritarian, self-obsessed, narcissistic, and megalomaniac.
One-man governance model
In the last five years under Modi, some highly respected robust government institutions were either undermined, weakened or lost their credibility and reputation. The prestige of institutions like the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the Election Commission of India (ECI), the Central Information Commission (CIC), the National Statistical Commission (NSC) stands shattered. Experts and economists have repeatedly warned the government on the growing trust deficit regarding the country’s official data, particularly GDP growth and unemployment figures. As recently as March, 108 economists and social scientists from across the world raised their concerns over political interference in statistical data in India. In their appeal, they called for the restoration of institutional independence and integrity of statistical organizations.
In these years, Modi has also shown his disdain of intellectuals. “The Prime Minister does not believe intellectuals, writers and artists contribute anything to the society because that’s his own impression and that’s his own experience, and that goes right down the line,” said renowned historian Ramchandra Guha giving a talk on “Eight Threats To Freedom of Expression” at the fourth Bangalore Literature Festival.
Modi’s first tenure will be remembered for his fascination for showmanship and his love for the camera. He launched campaigns like Make in India, Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Standup India, and Digital India as opportunities to showcase innovation and change. Even the launch of the goods and services tax in the Central Hall of Parliament at midnight was reminiscent of India’s independence celebration.
The boldest decision that Modi made as prime minister was on November 8, 2016, when he announced that 500 and 1000 rupee notes would no longer be legal tender. He claimed that the decision was aimed to weed out black money and curb corruption. But the sudden decision to demonetize 87 percent of the currency turned out to be a disaster, wrecking the economy, particularly small and medium enterprises. A development economist and leading voice of welfare policies, Jean Drèze, termed the decision of the Modi government to demonetize in a booming economy as “shooting at the tyres of a racing car.”
Liberals feared that BJP’s obsession with Hindu nationalism and Modi’s tainted past as a polarizing leader would destroy the secular fabric of India. These fears have partially played out in the past five years. Although Modi and core leadership of the BJP have resisted the urge to push forth the Hindutva agenda, they have failed to restrain fringe elements with the party and groups aligned to BJP’s ideology. For instance, attacks on minorities and mob lynching in the name of cow protection have been frequent occurrences.
In the past five years, any criticism of government policy has been seen by Modi supporters as a personal attack on the man. Liberals, journalists, activists and opinion makers have all been at the receiving end of such vicious personal attacks for expressing their opinions. Recently, columnist and author Aatish Taseer was at the receiving end this attack for his Time magazine cover titled ‘India’s Divider in Chief’ in which he asked if the world largest democracy can endure another five years of a Modi government.
It is to Modi’s credit that he has returned to power with a bigger mandate than in 2014. However, his victory defies logic. The past five years have seen an economy in jeopardy, rampant joblessness, undermining of institutional credibility, widespread protest by farmers, students, and workers, and attacks on lower castes and minorities. Given his government’s failures on the economic front, the BJP successfully shifted its campaign rhetoric to identity politics, terrorism, nationalism, and national security issues. It helped Modi to convince the nation to secure a second term.
Winning over the masses
Modi’s success lies in his ability to take politics to the masses. He has been able to communicate across sections of society. From daily wage labourers to highly paid professionals, Modi’s success traverses the class divide. Everyone has a different reason why they vote for Modi. A taxi driver in Mumbai expects Modi will build the temple to Lord Ram in Ayodhya, while other supporters of the BJP say that the Congress party has pandered to the Muslims for long. At the higher end of the social spectrum are the professionals — technologists, doctors, lawyers, business managers and others — who believe that Modi has the vision and leadership skills to make India a global power. Everyone who voted for Modi seems to have a reason to defend their choice. In such a scenario, questions of democratic values and secular fabric of the nation does not count for much.
Voting for Modi meant that people were ready to risk the very idea of India, the ideals of diversity and secularism, which have characterised the country’s democracy. In 2019 as in 2014, Indians faced the same question and they again chose Narendra Modi.
Sunny Peter is a writer and freelance journalist based in Mumbai, India.