An Indian Political Theorist on the Triumph of Narendra Modi’s Hindu Nationalism
On Thursday, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) handily won another five-year term from voters across India, cementing Modi’s control of the country and making clear his formidable popularity. Not only did the Hindu-nationalist B.J.P. show surprising strength in parts of the country where it has historically been weaker but the crushing defeat of the Congress Party means that there is no real alternative to Modi’s rule. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi—the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Prime Ministers and the current face of the Nehru family dynasty—even lost his seat in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Modi will now have five more years to pursue his agenda, with even less opposition.
That agenda ought to worry people. Modi came to power after serving for more than a decade as the chief minister of Gujarat. During his tenure, in 2002, more than a thousand people, the vast majority of them Muslim, were killed during several days of rioting. Modi, who at the very least looked the other way, has been accused of complicity in the massacre and for years was banned from travelling to the U.S. Since he became Prime Minister, in 2014, ethnic violence in India has increased significantly, and it has often been met with purposeful silence from Modi and his party, which is intent on creating an explicitly Hindu nation. During Modi’s 2014 campaign, many commentators were willing to overlook this side of his candidacy in hopes that he would bring economic growth and rid India of corruption and dynastic politics. Not only did Modi fail to deliver on those promises; he weathered the fallout from his own disastrous demonetization scheme, and he finds himself in office with an ever greater mandate.
To discuss what Modi’s victory means for India’s future, I spoke by phone with the writer Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the vice-chancellor of Ashoka University and the co-editor of “The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the reasons for Modi’s huge win, the differences between him and other authoritarians, and what the future holds for India’s Muslims.
This feels like a very bleak day.
Yes, indeed, absolutely unprecedented. Not only do we not have any framework to understand what’s happened but, since India’s independence, actually, I don’t think there has been a mandate which concentrates power in one person to the extent that this mandate does. Not even Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. It is really quite extraordinary.
The columnist Mihir Sharma wrote, of today’s results, “We do not live in Modi’s India. We live in Indians’ India, and the reason so many Indians adore Modi is because he represents their preferred conception of the Indian state and the Indian nation. No other explanation for these results is as compelling.” Do you agree, and, if so, why?
I absolutely agree with that, for the following reasons. Let’s just take Mr. Modi’s own words in this election. Whether you agreed or disagreed, or believed or disbelieved Mr. Modi, the striking thing about the 2014 campaign was how much it concentrated on economic issues, how much it tried to spin a narrative of hope for India. What was striking about this campaign was that the two things which dominated it were nationalism and a nod-nod-wink-wink gesture toward majoritarianism—consistently. So his self-presentation was clearly much, much more visibly majoritarian.
Second, the Indian economy was not doing very well. Most analysts would argue it feels more like a four-to-five-per-cent growth rate than the seven to seven-point-five per cent that the government is projecting. Many of the indicators—including private investment, exports, rural demand—have all been falling consistently. And I think for someone to win this kind of mandate in a context where there is no rosy economic story to tell—I think the only interpretation can be that he got this mandate despite a less-than-rosy economy. So both his self-presentation and the surrounding circumstances—in old parlance, we would say the objective conditions—would not warrant such an extraordinary mandate.
I think the third feature that is very striking is, typically, from 1990 onward, when the B.J.P. started mobilizing around Hindutva [Hindu nationalism], the commonsense story was that Indian politics is a contest between two different forces. There are the forces that are trying to consolidate Hindutva into one larger Hindu identity. And then there are these sub-identities of caste and, in some cases, region that act as a bulwark against that consolidation. One hope was that a lot of caste-based parties or region-based parties will never let a consolidated Hindu majoritarianism emerge. I think one of the striking things about this result is how it completely throws that hope out with the bathwater. It is very clear that the salience of traditional ways of thinking about caste are declining, and it is allowing the B.J.P. to mobilize a fairly wide cross-section of Indians across different castes into a larger Hindu narrative.
Hindu majoritarianism traditionally appealed more to higher-caste Hindus than to lower-caste Hindus and non-Hindus. And you are saying that this might be beginning to change?
Yes, that is significantly beginning to change. And I think the political evidence of this is that the B.S.P. [the Bahujan Samaj Party, the third-largest party, which represents lower castes and ethnic minorities] in Uttar Pradesh, which is headed by Mayawati—a very, very formidable leader—had one of its worst performances. It’s not clear she will turn out most of the Dalit [the lowest caste] vote in U.P., let alone transfer it to her allies. That is the most visible political manifestation. I think the attempt to create Dalit social movements, which would traditionally have opposed Hindutva, are at their weakest. Hindutva is no longer simply an upper-class or élite phenomenon. It is spreading across social groups, and the incentive to oppose it, even if you don’t want to actively participate, certainly seems to be declining.
Modi is often talked about as a populist. Is there more of a history of populism in post-independence India than people realize, or is his way of campaigning pretty sui generis?
I think there are elements of continuity and elements of change. The elements of continuity are that mobilizing elements of nationalism and Hindutva have a long history in Indian politics, and that has been an undercurrent since partition. I think where he represents a radical departure, and I think this is part of the appeal he projected, is that he has been able to basically say that India’s power structure was constituted by Anglicized élites, and that secularism has become a cultural symbol for a contempt of Hinduism rather than a constitutional philosophy of toleration. That there was an élite that was very comfortable, for the most part, with what Modi and the B.J.P. call dynastic politics. That [other parties] are largely family fiefdoms whose intellectual legitimacy was sustained by élite intellectual culture. That what politics should aim for is also a cultural regeneration of Hindutva and an open assertion of cultural majoritarianism. In that sense, it is of a piece with populists elsewhere who try to combine cultural majoritarianism with anti-élitism.
How is Modi distinct from other demagogic figures whom we see rising? He seems both more broadly popular and more ideological, no?
I think both of these things are true. He is a genuinely popular figure, and I think the level of popular identification that he has managed to produce is, in a sense, truly astounding. We can do a lot of sophisticated sociological analysis, but ultimately this election is about two words: Narendra Modi.
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. These are people who have a very simplistic and clear-eyed goal, namely, the entrenchment of cultural majoritarianism in the Indian state. And I think the extent of the success of those organizations—that they have managed to transform what used to be the default common sense of public discourse, which was a certain kind of embarrassment about majoritarianism—has played a significant part in this victory. He is not just a political phenomenon; he is also a large social movement.
You mentioned that Modi ran his campaign in 2014 based more on the economy. You and other intellectuals have been criticized for taking him at face value in 2014 and for being too against the Congress Party, which was in power and seen as very corrupt. When you look back at your own work, do you think that there really was an alternative path, or was this inevitable, and you and other people should have seen it coming?
I think we should let people judge. Many of us remain critics of the Congress Party. I think this was, in part, a cry of desperation. It is trying to convince your own friends to actually take the challenge very, very seriously. And I think the frustration right before 2014 was that it was very clear that the old order was really crumbling, so deeply and so profoundly, and not just because it had been tagged as corrupt, which it was. And I think the ramifications of that corruption are still being played out. It was also that they had no will left to fight.
They lost in 2014, and, even five years later, even among those of us who were rooting for Congress to do much better in this election, it is very hard to point to anything as a sign that the things that made Congress weak are being transformed. Here is Modi running on a platform that says he is against old feudal India, which is a shorthand for dynastic politics. What does the Congress Party do? They win two state elections, and the first act of the two chief ministers is to give their sons [key positions], even though the sons have no visible track record of political achievement. And I think one of the most remarkable things about this election is how many of those dynasts have actually lost in some ways. Part of it was this desperation, was trying to get your friends to see the precipice they are walking on.
My position on Mr. Modi in 2014, which I still do maintain, was that one of the big mistakes that those of us who disagree with him made is to not recognize his political strengths. I got a lot of flak for saying he has deep democratic legitimacy. You cannot deny the fact he is an absolutely extraordinary politician, in terms of thinking about the aesthetics of politics, in terms of thinking about what communication means in politics, in terms of thinking about political organization. One of his remarkable gifts—and I will use the word remarkable—is that he actually takes politics seriously. Most other political parties were in thrall of a certain kind of sociological determinism that says, so long as I can keep this caste behind me or create some sort of [caste] alignment, I will be successful. What he does as a politician is to say, “You can create a new reality. You are not trapped by inherited categories of thinking.” His ability to think politically—and, through that thinking, make lots and lots of people feel democratically empowered—is quite astounding. It is precisely that ability that also poses a major danger.
If there were two dangers implicit in 2014 that have become explicit now, they are the dangers of concentration of power and the deification and personification of one leader. This has happened to an extraordinary degree. I think, in 2014, we were a little more sanguine that the fragmentation of power in Indian society and Indian institutions would act as something of a check on his worst excesses. I admit we were a little more sanguine that this did not pose a fundamental existential threat to the Indian constitutional order. And I think with this mandate it is very clear that those hopes were belied. It is almost an electoral authoritarianism, and I think this time it is very explicit that the mandate is for an open invasive cultural majority.
O.K., but, just to be clear, he was written about a lot, and you referred to him in one of your columns as an economic reformer. Look at the way Obama embraced him. This is a guy who presided over a mass murder in 2002.
I don’t quite understand why this took so long to register.
Look, I completely agree with you. I think one of the reasons India’s big capital and capitalist classes jumped on the Modi bandwagon was that, in 2014, they had high expectations he was going to be a major economic reformer. In their own minds, the narrative was, “Mr. Modi does major economic reform. And India once again reaches eight-per-cent economic growth. It will decrease the pressure to resort to cultural majoritarianism.” In this election, what has become very clear is that he has not been able to go to the electorate with a triumphalist economic narrative. He could not go to the electorate and say he has India back at an eight-per-cent growth rate.
I think this has become a problem not just for him but in the Congress campaign and the entire Indian establishment across political parties, who are struggling to articulate a new economic paradigm that can meet the new challenges of India’s economy. What is the big-picture strategy? Does India want to integrate into the world economy? Or does it, like the rest of the world, want to de-globalize a bit and insist on ethno-nationalism? What is our strategy for generating manufacturing jobs? Indian agriculture has been subjected to shock after shock, including the shock of demonetization. No political party has been able to articulate a coherent and believable story around these themes. If you don’t have a coherent economic story to tell, the temptation to foreground the politics of fear and the politics of nationalism becomes greater.
What are your biggest fears about the next five years?
I think we have already seen evidence, particularly in the last year, that democracy requires some fragmentation of power. There has to be some credible opposition that can hold the government to account. And I think with the kind of mandate they have got—and potentially the B.J.P. can get an even bigger mandate in the upper house of parliament—means their ability to get through constitutional amendments and legislation is enhanced a great deal. Plus, they control most of India’s states now. So I think the absence of even a minimal opposition is certainly a worrying sign because there will be no one holding the government to account..
Secondly, I think what we have seen over the past year and a half is that a lot of India’s independent institutions—the Election Commission of India, even the Supreme Court of India, and, at the edges and margins, even the armed forces of India—are being accused of deep and significant political partisanship. If these institutions inch toward the government, or become more executive-minded than the executive, then I think the checks and balances of constitutional government will be significantly weakened.
And what do you think the next five years might mean for India’s Muslim minority?
On the specifics, it is hard to tell. I think what we can say, based on the track record of this government, is that certainly the attempt to culturally marginalize them will continue. Will there be a large-scale outbreak of violence? I hope not. I think the strategy in the previous government was to let small-scale incidents fester, specifically lynchings of people allegedly trading in cattle and beef. And those lynchings had the remarkable political effect that they could be ignored, because they were not, like, a large riot, like in 2002.
Yet they were always sending subtle signals to communities to stay in their place. I suspect some of that will continue. Whether that escalates into large-scale violence? I hope not. Given the mandate they have, there may not be a need to engage in that. But I think that subtle politics of signalling will continue. I think there will be regional variations. The state of West Bengal is the state I am most worried about, at this point. It has a long history of electoral violence. I think that the political context in West Bengal will mean a lot of violence. But I think the politics of saying to India’s minorities that you are irrelevant to India’s political and cultural life is likely to deepen.