Narendra Modi has won again in India, with initial results showing his vote share may have even risen by 10 per cent. While the post-mortem for main opposition party Congress begins in earnest, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of which Modi is leader will celebrate deep into the night.
But while Modi’s supporters might rejoice, his victory poses a very serious question. Does the continuing electoral success of a far-right Hindu nationalist demagogue finally mark the end of secular democracy in India?
In the wake of Britain’s colonial rule, India’s democracy was conceived of as secular with a civic form of citizenship. Yet when Modi’s BJP came to power on 2014, critics warned against the challenges that democratic institutions were set to face. These warnings were not far off the mark.
BJP’s record in 2015-2019 has been divisive to say the least. The party has marginalised religious minorities, especially Muslims, from public life with many, as a result, being lynched by Hindu nationalists in the name of “cow protection”. They have incarcerated dissidents accused of being “urban Maoists”, created a cultural revolution of their own by Hinduising the bureaucracy and media; and crushed the seeds of progressive movements in universities, cultural institutions and on the streets.
Yet despite his divisive politics, the country’s underperforming economy and the BJP’s poor record on improving the lives of its citizens – the country has its highest unemployment rate in 45 years – Modi is set to be the prime minister again.
Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy stupid” assumed a certain form of rationality based on economic interest. Narendra Modi, like many other populist leaders such as Donald Trump in the USA or Recep Erdogan in Turkey, has chosen a different political formula: a lethal kind of majoritarian nationalism. While minorities are scapegoated, the majority is represented as the victim of a liberal and secular elite, with critics of the government bullied and rejected as anti-leader and hence anti-India.
The election results come with no silver lining. Jingoism and Islamophobia has propelled the BJP to an even stronger showing than in 2014. The results so far show the party by itself securing a simple majority; a coalition with its allies would make its majority huge. With the opposition parties remaining weak, its clear majoritarian nationalism is the hegemonic political force in India.
Majoritarian nationalism in its essence is the idea that since Hindus are the numerical majority, the political parties should privilege their identity and aspirations and do away with the secularism, that in their view, is nothing more than the appeasement of minorities. The fact that Muslims as a religious minority, around 14.2 per cent of the total population, have suffered persistently from economic, social and political marginalisation over decades will simply not be allowed to puncture the myth of minority appeasement. The fact is that the BJP and Modi have won not despite the divisive politics they espouse but precisely because of it.
The election was successfully framed as a vote for or against Narendra Modi, as he cultivated an image of himself as a strong leader who would stand against secularist ideas of minority rights; speak for the nation imagined primarily as Hindu; crush resistance against Indian rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir; and take on the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
The BJP put up controversial candidates such as Hindu religious figures who called the killer of Mahatma Gandhi a “patriot”; called for the expulsion of all Muslims out of the country and some who are under trial for acts of terrorism against Muslims. Others have insisted there is no need for future elections because Narendra Modi – a member himself of India’s far-right Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – will implement a Hindu Raj.
The party’s messaging was no longer a mere dogwhistle but a strident and visible Hindu nationalist politics. And it was a gamble that could not have paid off had a significant section of the electorate not been radicalised already.
The danger for secular democracy in India does not come only from a ruling party that has a Hindu nationalist agenda but from a conspicuous section of the citizenry that has proven itself to be complicit. Violence against Muslims is a regular occurrence. It was that combination of an all-powerful political party and a colluding citizenry that drove the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany. There are parallels here, however tempting it is to sidestep the comparison – the RSS-backed BJP see themselves as the authentic embodiment of the Indian nation.
This was an election that has given an electoral mandate to majoritarian nationalism at best and Hindu fascism at worst. It will embolden the reactionary elements at work in India, unleashing them even further, and lead to even more violence against Muslims. This we know. Whether India’s hard-earned secular democracy can survive the years ahead is yet to be seen.
Dibyesh Anand is a politics lecturer at the University of Westminster and is the author of ‘Hindu Nationalism in India and the Politics of Fear’