This election has proved how wildly popular he really is, and Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party see a clear mandate to transform India for an additional five years. The big question Indians were asking Friday: What is he going to do with that?
Many ask that question in hope, approving of the way he and his allies have already enhanced Hinduism’s role in public life, or of how he moved to help the poor and update the economy — or of both. This is what he has been doing his entire political career, simultaneously pushing Hindu traditions and modernizing India. Most analysts believe he will continue along this path.
But there is a sizable chunk of India that voted against Modi’s party, and many members of this anti-Modi crowd are deeply worried about his having a stronger hand.
They see India as increasingly divided along caste and religious fault lines and their concern is that an emboldened Modi will send India farther down the path of becoming a religious Hindu state, which could be dangerous for minorities.
Hindu extremists did very well in the election. Though Modi has not publicly used their same language, he has also done nothing yet to separate himself from them.
Locals walk through a former residential area which had been partially cleared to widen access to a nearby temple complex in Varanasi, India, May 22, 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s blend of local development and Hindu nationalism has often unsettled Varanasi, the ancient pilgrimage city on the Ganges that is his home constituency. (Rebecca Conway/The New York Times)
On Thursday night, during the election celebrations, Modi took a victory lap with Amit Shah, the head of the BJP and the man many consider an architect of the party’s electoral sweep. The two men stood shoulder to shoulder as they were showered with rose petals. Shah is also the man who recently referred to illegal Muslim immigrants as termites.
Many observers see Modi’s deepening reliance on Shah as some sort of signal of the agenda ahead.
“Is Modi a soft liner? He is not a soft liner,” said Zoya Hasan, an emeritus professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Critics of Modi say he is inherently inseparable from the BJP, the Hindu-first party his charisma has lifted to new heights and consecutive parliamentary majorities. And with his mandate will come pressure from within his base to deliver on contentious planks of the party’s platform. Those include building a Hindu temple over the ruins of a destroyed mosque in the city of Ayodhya and removing special protections that allow India’s minority Muslim community to follow its own system of family law.
“He is, all in all, in the party,” Hasan said. “There is no reason to think that he is going to deviate from the core agenda. He has no reason to, because he received an unprecedented mandate despite the poor economic record and social disharmony.”
Many of the questions about India’s path forward in Modi’s second term hinge on just that kind of calculation — an attempt to divine who the real Modi might be.
Does he stand above Hindu nationalist politics, harnessing it to achieve other ends? Or is he driving it, furthering a religious agenda with a canny blend of grassroots populism and appointees who do the actual enshrining of Hindu ideology in governance?
Those who study him closely agree that Modi, 68, is a complicated man: isolated, ascetic, trusting few, close to even fewer; a blend of populist, nationalist and a self-made success story. Clearly, he is passionate about his Hindu beliefs and also genuinely committed to economic development.
Supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party celebrate election returns in New Delhi, May 23, 2019. Modi is returning to power by an astonishing margin — defying expectations, leaving the political opposition gutted and securing nearly two -thirds of the lower chamber of Parliament. But his next moves remain uncertain. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)
In his second term, some analysts expect him to keep emphasizing practical development programs and not get too dragged into divisive religious issues. The economy, after all, is not doing as well as Modi had promised in 2014, when he won his first term, and he is keenly aware of how that issue could define both his legacy and his future political fortunes.
There is also his demonstrated desire to take his place on the global stage as the decisive leader of a true world power.
“I don’t think he’s as fired up about religion as his critics make him out to be,” said Harsh V Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London. “What gets him going is the role India can play as a global power, and to bring India to the level of an advanced state.”
Political analysts say he will likely keep walking a fine line between the United States and China, the old superpower and the new one. Even though the Trump administration likes how open he has been to the idea of growing closer to the United States and cooperating to check China’s influence, India has clear interests in seeking good trade relations with its Chinese neighbors as well.
In Kashmir, a mountainous region that both India and Pakistan claim, Modi might try to tighten control. Right now the Indian military is deployed across much of Kashmir and India’s attempts to stamp out dissent have bred only growing resistance. Any further pressure put on Kashmir, which many in Modi’s party want, could mean more tension with Pakistan, India’s nuclear-armed neighbor and rival.
Part of Modi’s election-season surge indisputably came from his appearing tough on Pakistan, trading military strikes across the border after a Pakistan-based militant group killed a busload of Indian soldiers in Kashmir in March. The brinkmanship caused anxiety around the world, and Modi may well decide to continue that stance.
Given the electoral victory he just won, after all, he is unlikely to see any reason to change what has worked for him.
Using the past five years as a guide, several analysts say he will continue to take from both columns: pushing economic and foreign policy initiatives in similar ways, while presenting himself as a moderate. At the same time, some analysts expect that he will continue to allow others in his party to push extreme positions when it comes to Hindutva, the belief in the primacy of the Hindu religion.
Devotees leave offerings in the Ganges ahead of a nightly ceremony in Varanasi, India, May 22, 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s blend of local development and Hindu nationalism has often unsettled Varanasi, the ancient pilgrimage city on the Ganges that is his home constituency. (Rebecca Conway/The New York Times)
“He will try to be very spiritual, he will try to detach himself from these elements,” said Josukutty Cheriantharayil Abraham, a political science professor at the University of Kerala, speaking of the most extreme parts of the BJP. “But at the same time, they will all have his blessing in promoting such an aggressive agenda.”
Despite his bold statements, part of Modi’s strategy over the past five years has, in fact, been a tendency to move carefully, balancing different agendas to appeal to a broad cross section of Indians. That has clearly worked. Look at the election results, which stunned most analysts who only a few weeks ago were predicting that Modi’s support was dropping because of rising unemployment and social polarization.
Instead, he performed even better in this election than in 2014. His policies of helping the poor with very concrete programs, including installing toilets in rural areas and delivering tanks of cooking gas to each home, were well received across the country. He won votes in places where his party almost never attracts support, like West Bengal, a leftist bastion, and from Muslim women and people in the lower castes.
Some analysts think he will use his mandate to push more grand social programs, such as a universal health care plan, which is off to a slow start. (It is nicknamed Modicare.) But at the very top of his priorities is the urgency to create more jobs, and that is likely to require new laws to grant the government the power of eminent domain to seize land for companies to use to build factories.
In his first term, he attempted such land reforms, but they stalled in parliament. If he tries again, Modi knows he needs support from the upper chamber of parliament, which his party does not control.
But he and Shah, who constantly travel around India as if they are always in campaign mode, have a strategy for that.
State legislatures appoint the members of the upper chamber, and the BJP is already trying to topple legislatures in a few states that have narrow anti-BJP majorities.
The plan would take years. But if Modi’s allies could flip the party affiliation of some lawmakers in these states, the logic goes, then they could gain control of the state assemblies. That would eventually help them get control of the upper house and totally control the parliament. Then they would have a freer hand to do what they want.
And, perhaps, what Modi wants.
c.2019 New York Times News Service