The 2019 general elections have been won by Narendra Modi – like the previous ones, but in a different context. In 2014, the Modi wave relied primarily, it seemed, on the promise of development. Five years later, Modi did not even mention vikas in his election campaign, simply because his government has failed on that front – as evident from the rise of joblessness. So, for what reasons could he attract such a massive support?
The growing acceptability of Hindu nationalism needs to be factored in first because this ideology has been the main motivation of the traditional BJP voters and this core group is now expanding. It has clearly appreciated the communal overtone of the past five years, an unprecedented phase of Indian history which have been marked by recurrent campaigns against love jihad, in favour of ghar wapsi (reconversion) and cow protection (including dozens of lynchings of innocent Muslims). These hardcore supporters have also approved of the mainstreamisation of erstwhile fringe elements of the Hindutva nebula, including Pragya Singh Thakur whose election to parliament will remain the symbol of this election.
But only a fraction of the BJP voters would say that they support Modi because of Hindutva. What about the others? There are several possibilities here. First, they do believe in the same brand of Hindutva – at least they have no problem with Hindu majoritarianism – but they prefer to give other explanations for their votes. Indeed, Modi offered another good reason to vote for him this time: national security. The Pakistan-centered turn that the election campaign took after Pulwama enabled the Prime minister to present himself as the protector of the country. He argued that India needed a strong man in this context and that his opponents would give a weak government because it would inevitably be based on coalitions. Some voters did not use this rhetoric of the strong man as an excuse but took it at face value. Among them, many considered indeed that the opposition did not offer a viable alternative because Rahul Gandhi was not a sufficiently experienced leader.
This reading of the 17th Indian election, that is supported by the findings of the Lokniti-CSDS exit poll, suggests three conclusions.
First, India has made one more step in the invention of a de facto ethnic democracy. While this formula has been coined by an Israeli political scientist, Sammy Smooha, for defining the regime of his country, a de jure jewish state, India continues to be secular on the paper but in practice minorities are becoming second class citizens – as the underrepresentation of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha shows.
Second, India has also made one more step on the way to an illiberal democracy. This trend, during the election campaign, has been reinforced by the loss of credibility of the Election Commission and the media. It flows logically from the populist idiom of Indian politics: when a man embodies the nation and projects himself as its savior against all kinds of threats, to question his authority becomes illegitimate. And the stronger he is, the smaller the space for exerting a critical mind. As a result, there’s been no press conference worth that name, hardly any assessment of the past policies – not to say anything of the traditional debates between the main contenders that are the most exciting episodes of liberal democracies. Instead, Narendra Modi has saturated the public space, benefiting from a hugely imbalanced access to electronic media on prime time and record electoral expenditures which have transformed the official ceilings into a farce. All this reflects the growing convergence of India with other ethnic, illiberal and national-populist democracies, including not only Israel, but also Brazil, Hungary, Turkey and, to some extent, the US. In these countries too, a man has projected himself as the savior of a nation reduced to the majority community against external and internal threats, polarizing society and the public opinion to such an extent that those who are not with them are against them – a way to divide not only society, but also families. Indeed, in this new form of regime, political adversaries have been transformed into enemies – enemies of the people and the nation – in the name of security. Most of the illiberal democracies are also, therefore, security states as their populist leaders need threats to fight in order to divert attention from their socio-economic limitations and to mobilise their supporters.
Third, in Indian politics, policies do not matter as much as before: while an election campaign used to be a moment for assessing the achievements of the outgoing PM and compare programs, this time the campaign was not about jobs, the crisis of the peasantry, environment, but about emotions – fear, anger and mangoes, a cocktail that is part of the populist recipe across the world. Incidentally, the Congress program addressed some of the major issues India is facing – including ecological disasters, liberticide laws and mass poverty – but it was not discussed…
However, some Indian citizens have also voted for Modi by default, because they did not consider that the opposition offered a viable alternative. In fact, the same people who have supported his opponents at the state level in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh six months ago, have given their vote to Modi this time. Why has the opposition failed to make any dent in the Modi mania?
Not only because the competition was biased – Modi had more money and more support in the media, including the social media where an army of paid trolls has demolished the reputation of Rahul Gandhi the way Trump did vis-à-vis Clinton few years ago -, but also because the opposition has not been able to show the voters what kind of government it would offer. To win against Modi, it needed to rally around a leader who could be projected as a PM in waiting. Many state party leaders, including Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee and Prakash Ambedkar, considered that BJP was posing a threat to democracy, but they did not resign themselves to go for seat adjustments with Congress. Why? First explanation: they may think that they can live with a BJP government in New Delhi if they are still in a position to govern their state. Second: their attachment to democracy and secularism is rather shallow and, in fact, many of them have been allies of the BJP in the past – why not again? Third, many opponents live in wonderland – or in the past: they have not adjusted to the “new normal” of the majoritarian era. Some of them even dream of a tabula rasa on which they could build an ideal state. They even ask Congress to commit suicide, forgetting that the making of a party from scratch is not an easy task – Kejriwal has tried… – and any waste of time damages democracy further.
Liberals are facing similar problems elsewhere: they lack the discipline of their rivals and before they realise that they should close ranks, the populists have changed the rules of the game for good – or for the span of time during which the strongman is in command.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 24, 2019 under the title ‘A victory foretold’.