The world’s largest democratic elections have concluded — and India’s pro-Hindu nationalist prime minister and his party are on pace to win by a landslide.
The early results from India’s weeks-long general election show a clear victory for incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which has so far won 300 of a total of 543 seats in parliament. The BJP seems to have trounced its main rival, the Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of a famous political dynasty.
Modi and the BJP swept into power in the 2014 elections with a majority win, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in 30 years, promising to clean up the pervasive corruption plaguing the country and improve the economy.
But once he came into office, Modi began pushing a strident form of Hindu nationalism that inflamed tensions with many of the country’s minorities, including India’s sizable Muslim population.
Media reports have noted a dramatic rise in hate crimes during the five years Modi has been in power. Vigilante groups have sprung up around the country to protect cows, which are sacred to Hindus. A report by Human Rights Watch found that at least 44 people were killed between May 2015 and December 2018, most of them Muslims accused of storing beef or transporting cows for slaughter. Oftentimes, the guilty were not punished, and hate crimes were encouraged by speeches from senior BJP leaders. In May 2017, the Modi government banned the sale and purchase of cows for slaughter.
Meanwhile, Modi’s grand economic promises have not been met — unemployment in the country is now the highest it’s been in 45 years, and there are growing concerns of an economic slowdown.
So when the 2019 election rolled around, Modi decided to lean into his nationalist platform, which served to divert attention from the country’s more pressing problems. And now that the results are in, it’s clear his gamble paid off.
Modi’s economic record was his biggest liability in this election — but he clearly managed to overcome it
When Modi won in the 2014 election, his party defeated the Congress Party-led government by winning 282 seats. The Congress Party, routed at the polls, managed to win only 44 seats.
Modi’s sweep in the 2014 elections was based on a platform of development. His slogan was “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas,” or “inclusive growth through collective effort.” He promised to wipe out corruption, improve infrastructure, and boost the economy. For a citizenry and businesses tired of rampant corruption, Modi’s slogan offered a hopeful change.
But those promises have not materialized. Unemployment reportedly grew to 7.2 percent in February. And a leaked government report on unemployment revealed that the numbers were the highest in 45 years.
Some of Modi’s economic policies have also gone horribly wrong. In 2016, he introduced demonetization — in a surprise move, he pulled all 500- and 1,000-rupee currency notes out of circulation. He claimed it would get rid of corruption, as it would flush out unaccounted cash that had not been taxed.
He also claimed that the move would check the circulation of fake currency that was being used to fund terrorist activities in India. But experts say it’s had no effect on this type of money. Instead, small businesses were severely hit.
There are other problems, too: Farmers in India have been distressed for years as costs have gone up several times while their incomes have stagnated or even declined. In fact, suicides by farmers because of their debt are depressingly common. Farmers played a big role in helping Modi sweep to power in 2014, as he’d promised to double their incomes.
But that hasn’t happened, either. The BJP government announced it would provide cash support of 6,000 rupees (about $86.22) for individual farmers in its February budget, one of a raft of policies aimed at securing the farmer vote before the election. Yet there was no guarantee that last-minute gambit would work, as farmers want more lasting solutions, including better prices for their crops — something Modi also promised in the last election.
Modi played to voters’ nationalist sentiments to distract from the country’s problems
When he released this year’s election manifesto, Modi announced a new slogan: “Nationalism is our inspiration.” It was a stark contrast to his previous economy-focused slogan and a clear signal of the kind of campaign he planned to run.
And sure enough, as political scientist Ashutosh Varshney, whose research focuses on India, explained in an email, Modi and his party campaigned on a “plank of nationalism and national security” rather than on their governance record.
In his campaign speeches, Modi used divisive language. At a public rally, he accused Congress of committing the “sin of defaming our more than 5,000-years-old [Hindu] culture.” And in keeping with the Hindu nationalist ideology of India’s glorious past, he promised a “new India,” and a return to its “glorious past.”
A recent conflict with neighboring Pakistan may have also helped him in this regard. In February, a group of militants launched an attack in the Indian-controlled region of Kashmir, killing dozens of soldiers. As anger mounted in India in the wake of the attack, Modi promised forceful retaliation.
His government later claimed to have struck a major terrorist training camp located in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir and killed “a very large number” of militants in response. Modi’s approval rating surged to 63 percent on March 7 after this action, up from a dismal 32 percent on January 1.
“National security was one of the loudest themes of the campaign,” Varshney said. The message that Modi had “hit back [against Pakistan] strongly, was decisive, and had taught the enemy a lesson worked well.”
It also helped that Modi’s main opponent, Rahul Gandhi, failed to convince voters to support him over Modi.
Gandhi comes from a famous political dynasty: His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was India’s first female prime minister, and his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first prime minister following the end of British rule. His father, Rajeev Gandhi, was also prime minister of India. Both his grandmother and his father were killed violently while still in office.
In this election, Rahul Gandhi promised a “final assault on poverty.” He said that if elected, his government would provide a minimum income for the poor and waive farmers’ debts. He also promised to increase the education budget, and, in an attempt to woo women voters, said he would reserve 33 percent of government jobs for women.
However, the Congress Party has come to be perceived as one that favors the Gandhi family — Rahul is the fourth generation to lead the party — over the country.
And Modi has used this to his advantage, taking repeated swipes at “dynasty politics” and speaking about the costs India suffered as a result of one family’s “desire of power.” He specifically pointed to the 21 months of emergency in 1975, during which then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s opponents were imprisoned, the press was censored, and civil liberties were curbed.
For many Hindus, the Congress Party was also seen as a party that “appeased” minorities for political gains, an issue that resonated strongly with Modi supporters. In what was seen as a clear attempt to counteract this perception, Gandhi and his sister Priyanka, who campaigned alongside him, were often seen frequenting Hindu temples.
But it seems that wasn’t enough to overcome the seductive power of Modi’s nationalism.
The new government will now have to address the growing economic crisis.
Modi’s party may be victorious, but that doesn’t mean its troubles are now over.
Recent media reports have pointed to worrying signs of an economic slowdown. The BBC reports that economic growth has shown a decline, and sales of cars and SUVs are at a seven-year low. Kaushik Basu, former chief economist of the World Bank, told the BBC that the slowdown is “much more serious” than he initially believed.
Another big challenge facing the new government is providing jobs to an increasing number of young Indians. Some 84 million young voters became eligible to vote this year. Additional employment opportunities are urgently needed, but the unemployment data is not promising.
A recently leaked report based on official government survey data revealed that unemployment hit a 45-year high of 6.1 percent in 2017. A 2018 International Labour Organization (ILO) report also showed that the number of unemployed people in India is projected at 18.9 million by 2019.
Even more concerning, though, is whether Modi will continue to try to distract from the country’s economic troubles with even more overt appeals to Hindu nationalism.
Experts such as Varshney told me that if Modi comes back with a strong mandate from voters, a Hindu nation is almost certain, in practice if not constitutionally. This means that India’s rich and diverse culture — as well as its very identity — may be under threat.
Kalpana Jain worked for many years at India’s leading national daily, the Times of India, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 2009.
For more on India’s 2019 elections, listen to this episode of Today Explained, Vox’s daily news podcast.