India's voters – by far the largest electorate in the democratic world with over 800 million people – surprised many observers in May by granting Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party a clear mandate for a second five-year term in New Delhi. The ballot was historic: it marked the first time in the 69-year-long electoral history of democratic India that a Hindu-nationalist government won a second straight term. Up to this point, Indian voters had treated Hindu nationalism more as a short-term corrective. It had served as a way to rein in the excesses and rebuke the failures – corruption, dynastic politics, inability to deliver public goods – of the Indian National Congress party, which had held power for most of those seven decades either on its own or in broad coalitions. And the result was a resounding – and to many Indian democrats, disturbing – endorsement of Modi's perverse and often disingenuous take on democratic politics.
Modi's five years in power had showcased a leadership style that fused authoritarianism, jingoism, rhetorical flair, meticulous media (and social-media) management, and a lack of respect both for constitutional democracy and its institutions and for other political points of view. Beneath him, his partymen and cadre enthusiastically and unselfconsciously expounded a view of Indianness rooted in religious identity – that of Hindus, who make up about 80 percent of the population – rather than a platform of equal rights as guaranteed by the Indian constitution. Often, their words were touched with the threat of physical violence, held to be justified whenever “religious sentiments were disrespected”.
Sometimes these threats were activated: there was a wave of sectarian violence in the country related to the real or suspected consumption of beef, a sacred animal to most Hindus, by Muslims. “Cow protection” mobs killed at least 10 people in 2017, creating a new environment of fear and intimidation that went far beyond the actual numbers of the dead. And Modi’s arrogance peaked in November 2016 with “demonetization” – Modi’s sudden, shocking announcement that he was invalidating all the existing paper money in India within four hours and would replace it with new notes, ostensibly as a clean-up of the economy. For weeks on end, Indians scrambled to buy goods, encash their savings, or even be paid their wages.
Many Indians of a secular and liberal persuasion had hoped that the BJP would be punished in the elections for this arrogance, which cost at least 1.5 million people their jobs and badly affected the economy. But their hopes were in vain. If anything, in winning the election Modi and his party had vanquished not only their political opponents, but also, it seemed, a certain long-standing and progressive idea of India. Hence the feeling that the 2019 election was a crucial hinge in modern Indian history. Had it been interrupted at age 5, the BJP’s divisive agenda would have been seen as a short, ugly episode in the life of a maturing democracy, and Modi would have been defanged. Allowed beyond this point, the party could hold power for two or three decades until it had reshaped India completely, and Modi (who, to give him his due, also has a talent for policy and administration) could be followed by even more divisive politicians.
But is the older vision of India as a progressive, secular democracy – the first outside of the west to set itself upon this course – now effectively finished? Or could it be that in a democracy with relatively weak institutions and still fairly low levels of education and literacy, ideas and foundational principles do not exist as a perennial reality but always in the concrete and material form of particular parties and personalities. Therefore, maybe it was not the idea of a secular and liberal India itself that was exhausted, but rather its apparent representatives who were fatigued and directionless?
Over April and May, during election season, I went on a series of journeys by road and train across India, seeking to ask my countrymen about how they understood the idea of Indianness and the future of Indian democracy. Overwhelmingly, I found voters saying not so much that they were going to choose Modi, but rather – and this does not mean the same thing – that they felt there was no choice other than Modi. “There’s no one else who has the energy and capability to run such a big country,” an auto rickshaw-driver in Varanasi, the ancient city of Hindu temples and Modi’s own parliamentary constituency, said to me.
A large section of voters – especially young Indians born after the 1991 liberalisation of the economy– did not say that they would never vote for the more liberal Congress, but rather that would never vote for it as long as it was headed by Rahul Gandhi, heir of a line of prime ministers that goes down from Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, through his daughter Indira and her son Rajiv. Voters found the Congress arrogant and complacent in its reliance on a single family for its existence and leadership. They thought of the Congress, too, as beholden to a cult of personality. “This is not the feudal India of old, where it was enough just to be somebody’s son and you would get respect and power,” a taxi driver in Mumbai said to me. “Whatever the problem with Modi, he was born in poor family and has worked his way to where he is.”
A grand tension in democratic politics of our time – a politics changed almost beyond recognition from politics in the year 2000 by technology, mass media, and social media – is that between reason and rhetoric, facts and fabulation. And it has to be said Modi tells a good story – one of unity, progress, modernization, and self-confidence. His is a production machine buttressed by vast funds not just from industry (which poured money into his campaign), but from the state itself. For five years the prime minister’s face has been on every poster put out by the government advertising its schemes and programs.
Most craftily, Modi rarely gives interviews to the press (he gave a few to sympathetic journalists in the election campaign) but is always presented by his partymen as someone continuously in touch with the massed through his widely heard radio programme (he is a masterful orator) “Mann ki Baat” (“My Deepest Thoughts”). The party holds all the keys in its relationship with the media; where it fears criticism, it just tries to reach the citizen directly and preemptively through its own press channels and social media (a strategy also now followed by Trump, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and recently Boris Johnson in the UK). A classic example was its recent action in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state and a territory also claimed by India’s neighbour Pakistan. For 70 years, Kashmir enjoyed special rights under the constitution – a red rag to most Hindu nationalists. Three months into its second term, in August, after having cleared the state of tourists by circulating a warning of a possible terror attack, the BJP government suddenly swooped to revoke Article 370, the law under which Kashmir enjoyed significant autonomy. Kashmiri leaders were put under house arrest, other protesters taken into detention, and all communications shut down, allowing the government complete control of news from the region. There was no consultation with the opposition in Parliament about the move, or no dialogue in civil society – it was an act of pure force.
The BJP’s worldview is archaic – what unites most of its cadre and many of its most committed supporters is the dream of a temple in honour of the mythic hero Ram in the north Indian town of Ayodhya – but in terms of democratic practice, it has perfected modern methods of election management and communications strategy. Democracy is not part of its core values but rather its core mechanism: the means by which it gains legitimacy and authority, and which it praises and undermines simultaneously.
But in truth democracy is always in tension with authoritarianism; to survive as a noun, it must have a flourishing life as a verb. True democratic practice in India has floundered. The challenge for Modi’s political opponents – most crucially the Congress, the only other party with a political presence all across India – is to make the story of democratization and liberalism interesting and attractive again to a new generation of Indians who do not have the same relationship to modern Indian political history as voters in the twentieth century, and who are tempted by the seductions of the politics of religion. For now, and for at least a decade to come, India has a Modi; what it needs as a challenger to the prime minister who can restate the large-hearted principles of Gandhi and Nehru for the 21st century.