Understanding India’s general election 2019

It is not all about Narendra Modi. And that might not be a good thing.

It took the nation six week to get voting boots into less than 2 km from every one of the 900 million people who were eligible to vote. In the end about 600 million did vote, and on May 23th, the verdict was released.  Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to win 303 seats of 543 in the Lokh Sabha, an increase of 21 seats over the 2014 result that was termed already historic. The Indian National Congress, the only other truly national political party, won a paltry 52 seats.

Most pundits concluded that the overwhelming succes of the BJP was basically the succes of te incumbant. Even though, as Amartya Sen points out: ‘In his recent campaign, Mr. Modi could not brag about his achievements: He has accomplished little of what he had promised. Unemployment is very high, a 45-year peak, economic growth is faltering and uneven in its impact, elementary health care remains comprehensively neglected, and there has been no striking decrease of red tape and corruption.’ That may be true, still ‘we can do a lot of sophisticated sociological analysis’, said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice-chancellor of Ashoka University, ‘but ultimately this election is about two words: Narendra Modi.’

‘Modi was very willing to have the 2019 campaign revolve around himself’, writes historian Ramachandra Guha. ‘This is because he had already been working assiduously towards personalizing the very process of governance. Government advertisements attributed every act of State largesse to the prime minister. The message that these were Modi’s personal gifts to them was carried by BJP workers to voters. If a woman in a village got a subsidized gas cylinder, it was because Modi had given it to her. If a farmer got a loan, it was because Modi had personally made sure the farmer would get it. If a school got a new blackboard, it was because Modi had thought of giving it to them. Even if a new bridge was built across the river Brahmaputra, a project spanning the regimes of several prime ministers and involving dozens of engineers and thousands of construction workers, both State and party propaganda made sure that it was seen as the work of Modi alone.’

Also Amartya Sen points to the irreplaceble role Modi played: ‘There can hardly be any doubt that Mr. Modi is an exceptionally skillful and charismatic political leader. To seek a part of the explanation there might appear to some to be a lazy thought, but there is nothing wrong in trying to examine the role of Mr. Modi in the startling rise of his party. A fiery orator, he has been able to influence others’ thinking with his striking readiness to make political use of hatred and loathing — for people with different ways of life (leftists, rationalists, liberal intellectuals) and for those with different origins and religious beliefs, such as Muslims.’ But Sen continues: ‘If Mr. Modi used his charisma in electioneering, he also poured money into electoral spending — many times more than the Congress Party and all the other political parties. This is in addition to the asymmetry in media coverage: the state-owned television network, Doordarshan, gave the ruling B.J.P. twice the amount of airtime than it offered to the Congress Party in the important month of May.’

Author and fierce Modi-critic, Pankaj Mishra, adds the ‘lavish donations from India’s biggest companies’ that ‘allowed his party to outspend all others on its re-election campaign. A corporate-owned media fervently built up Mr. Modi as India’s savior, and opposition parties are right to suggest that the Election Commission, once one of India’s few unimpeachable bodies, was also shamelessly partisan.’ But, Mishra insists, ‘None of these factors can explain the spell Modi has cast on an overwhelmingly young Indian population.’ To find that missing piece of explanation, Mishra turns to social inequities: ‘A great majority of Indians, forced to inhabit the vast gap between a glossy democratic ideal and a squalid undemocratic reality, have long stored up deep feelings of injury, weakness, inferiority, degradation, inadequacy and envy; these stem from defeats or humiliation suffered at the hands of those of higher status than themselves in a rigid hierarchy… No politician, however, sought to exploit the long dormant rage against India’s self-perpetuating post-colonial rulers, or to channel the boiling frustration over blocked social mobility, until Mr. Modi emerged from political disgrace in the early 2010s with his rhetoric of meritocracy and lusty assaults on hereditary privilege.’

Narendra Modi not only resembles Trump or other New Authoritarians in that he captures popular ressentiment, but also by his apt use of social media. Still, Pratap Bhanu Mehta sees a fundamental difference: ‘The way I think he quite differs from Trump is that he has access to an astonishing array of deeply entrenched civil-society organizations that have been doing the ideological groundwork for his victory for years and years. And what the base of that organization does is it gives him an army of foot soldiers whose target is long-term.’


To get a really good understanding of the shifting sands of Indian politics, and especially of what caused the massive election victory of Hindu nationalism, I asked Ramachandra Guha, Amartya Sen, Pankaj Mishra, Gulchan Sachdeva, Jean Drèze and Achin Vanaik to share their insights. The latter three could be reached for answers to my questions.

My impression is that Modi 2014 was built on economic promises about shared prosperity and high growth, while Modi 2019 was all about Indian/Hindu nationalism. Is that correct? And what does it tell us about the state of India that the second approach was even more succesfull than the first?

Gulchan Sachdeva: You are right. In the background of corruption scandals, 2014 was a year of hope and promises of economic prosperity under a ‘decisive’ leadership of Modi. The economic record of the last few years, though, is not at all impressive. In fact, exports are down, unemployment is at record levels, there is a serious farm distress and banking sector is in a difficult situation. Major economic policy measures like demonetization and faulty implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST) have impacted small and medium enterprises very badly. As a result, the major issues highlighted in the BJP’s election campaign – supported by pliant media – were terrorism, Pakistan etc. So it is fair to say hindutva or Hindu nationalism was the number one issue raised by BJP. All other issues were much lower in their campaign. It seems, however, some token welfare measures like providing cooking gas to poor households and subsidies for toilets have also helped to some extent.

Jean Drèze: I think you are partly correct. Modi certainly tried to rally the public behind him after the so-called “surgical strike” on Pakistan, and it worked to a large extent. But that would have worked in many other countries too, so it does not necessarily tell us much about India. And Modi did not quite abandon the development agenda in 2019. He continued to play that card along with nationalism.

Achin Vanaik: The 2014 elections the BJP message was economic – bringing in development. Failures on this front meant the principal pitch in 2019 was indeed an aggressive and belligerent nationalism against enemies without and within, namely Paksitan, Muslim appeasement at home, Muslim terrorism generally. Also central was the need for building a strong India requiring a strong leader and saviour, being accidently, Modi. Hence also the personalisation of politics. The public voted much more fo Modi than for the BJP, though he embodies the BJP and Sangh Parivar’s ideology.

Will the BJP survive Modi? Or has he become the centre of power, much more than the BJP itself?

Achin Vanaik: Modi has indeed become the centre of power within the BJP, still he and the party cannot do without the much wider other structures of the Sangh Parivar. Modi has to coordinate and negotiate with those other structures. State power is one thing, implantation and mobilisation within civil society is another . It will remain a partnership between BJP-Modi and the rest of the Sangh and subject therefore to various compromises within the framework of a broad political-ideological unity and commitment to consolidate Hindutva and expand the BJP to all parts of India.

Gulchan Sachdeva: At the moment Mr Modi is of centre of power in BJP. So long as he is winning elections and more or less following the RSS agenda, he is bigger than the BJP itself. He has made senior leadership redundant and has not allowed any serious second line of leadership. However, BJP is a cadre based party with strong links with the RSS. If his electoral appeal diminishes after few years, the RSS can always intervene and project someone else. For the next five to seven years, however, he is the supreme leader within the BJP.

Congress has not been able to rebuild itself during the past five years. Is that the responibility of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty? Is the party at large defunkt? What would be needed to ressurect it? Or should a new, national party be build up from scratch or from regional bases?

Gulchan Sachdeva: Congress for quite some time was an amalgamation of various interest groups. So long as they were in power, it was easy for many groups to come together. The leadership provided by different individuals from the Nehru-Gandhi family has been an important factor to keep various factions together. This is still the only pan India party which can counter the BJP nationally. One of the major problems for them has been that in the last twenty-five years, Congress been pushed out by regional political parties from two major Hindi heartland states –Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Congress was able to form provincial governments in three other important states recently – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Elections in India are a regular feature, not happening every five years. It is true that federal elections happen every five years. However, many important elections will b happening in the next two three years. Now with such a mandate BJP has to perform. If the Congress is able to cobble new alliances, and able to highlight weakness of the government in the coming months and years, they can still be quite relevant in Indian politics.

Jean Drèze: I feel that the problem with the Congress is less at the top than at the bottom or rather at all levels. The party has no cadre and no clear agenda, so it is basically a refuge for opportunists. The fact remains that it is still the second largest national party, with a vote share of more than twenty percent, even at the worst time, and it has routed the BJP in three major states as recently as December 2018. Given that it would be extremely difficult for a new national party to carve space for itself in India’s first-past-the-post system, rebuilding the Congress may be more realistic than trying to replace it. But how that is to be done is not a question intellectuals are well placed to answer.

Achin Vanaik: Congress failure has much less to do with questions of leadership but that it has no distinctive ideology which the leadership can embody. On economic and foreign policy the thrust of all parties is neoliberalism,  modulated or otherwise. On foreign policy the strategic line is the same – alliance with the US against China, but with minor variations about how much flexibility or freedom to associate with countries the US is against to push for. On domestic matters, Congress has long pushed a soft Hindutva and unlike the Sangh has no mass ideologically committed cadre base  or structures rooted in civil society to push its politics which is not sufficiently different from the BJP/Sangh. Other regional parties – with the exception of the mainstream Left parties, the CPM and CPI whose crisis now is even deeper than that of the Congress – have never had any national or international programme or vision worth the name. 

The BJP expands it geographical and social (class and caste) reach. Does this reflect an already present national identity on the basis of religious culture, or is the Sangh Parishad just very succesfull in building that identity, and then converting it into electoral support for it’s own party?

Gulchan Sachdeva: To some extent the BJP has been able to present itself as a Hindu nationalist party and they have been able to break some of the caste base political arithmetic. But it is more of a careful calculation and a matter of local alliances with smaller castes groups like lower OBCs in UP. While looking at the list of candidates from all political parties, including the BJP, it is clear that caste is still a very significant factor in Indian politics.

Achin Vanaik: Hegemony requires construction and this process of construction has been going on for a very long time with significant elements of a Hindu political identity existing and developing, even during the National Movement pre-independence period. But obviously it is Sangh politics and mobilisation and cadre activism allied to opposition failures and weakness that has deepened and widened  the belief and acceptance of Hindu-ness as a political and not merely religious identity.

Jean Drèze: My feeling is that most people here, at least among the working classes, don’t care about Hindu nationalism. The ideology of Hindu nationalism appeals mainly to the upper castes, because it plays into their hands. The inroads the BJP have made, seem to be largely based on the image they have built of Modi and his achievements. How real these achievements are, and how far they are due to propaganda, is not entirely clear. In my view, the BJP’s massive propaganda machine has played a larger role than the real achievements, which are far from remarkable. When you peddle lies for five years, using every possible means from massive government budgets to a vast social-media network, it is not surprising that you get some results.

With the BJP (and thus RSS and the broader hindutva movement) in power again, would you expect more “gau rakshak” type of violence? A move to start constructing the Ram mandir in Ayaodhya? More agressive posturing towards Pakistan? Or would this commanding position translate into statemanship, a more centrist politics, a more autonomous party versus the more militant movement? 

Jean Drèze: This massive victory is certainly going to embolden the radical and militant elements in the hindutva movement. In principle, they could be restrained, but there is no sign of Modi or other influential leaders of the BJP or RSS trying to do that. On the contrary, there is a pattern of implicit approval, visible for instance in the absence of punitive action against those guilty of lynching or other acts of violence. Often it is the victims, not the perpetrators, who are harassed by the police. So, the outlook is bleak.

Achin Vanaik: More micro-violence against Muslims on various counts e.g„ gau-rakshak and other excuses? Yes. Will there be Ram Mandir construction? Yes. Do I expect more aggressive posturing towards Pakistan? Yes.

Gulchan Sachdeva: Some minor incidents of violence against minorities may continue. The issue of Ram temple and aggressive posturing towards Pakistan will be out of discussion for the moment. In fact, one may see some limited positive movement in India-Pakistan relations. These issue will again come to the forefront during any next major election.


It would be a mistake to draw one grand conclusion from a process so large, fragmented and difficult to read. But the three conclusions Ramachandra Guha formulates, do seem relevant to quote: ‘1: The BJP is today India’s sole national party, with a major presence in a majority of the states of the Union. It is to national politics now what the Congress [of the 1950s and 1960s] once was. 2. India is becoming ever more of a Hindu country. 3. Large sections of the electorate have become captivated by a cult of personality…

Of these three conclusions, the first should worry us the least. Parties rise and fall, grow and decline. The cult of personality should worry us somewhat more. For, Modi will see the election results as an absolute endorsement of himself and seek to identify party, government and nation even further with his wish and his will. What should worry us the most, perhaps, is the insidious recasting of the Republic of India as a Hindu State. The forces of hate and bigotry unleashed during the five years of the Modi government and further intensified during the election campaign have seeped deep into the marrow of everyday life. The traditions of pluralism so nobly nurtured by the nation’s founders have never been more fragile. On how quickly and how effectively they can be restored may depend the future of the Republic.’

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