What led to the return of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister?
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP have won again.
The BJP-led alliance has won 350 parliamentary seats out of 543 routing all opposition and topping its previous record of 336 in the 2014 elections. Of this, BJP alone has secured 303 seats, surpassing a single party win of such magnitude in the last five decades.
This eye-popping success comes in the wake of the requiem for BJP and Modi that was sung even a few months before these elections by all who hated Modi. They called Modi a pretender who manipulated the populace first time around with his piety, modest living, and pseudo-nationalism.
He was called a populist who manoeuvered a population tired of being led by feckless leaders by promising a corruption-free government and society, fast economic growth and prosperity, and rebuilding the image of India in the legend of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
But the irony is, Modi used these castigations in his favour and fought his campaign with the same slogans that he had used before. And he succeeded in bamboozling his opponents once again.
So much so that even in West Bengal -- an anchor point for BJP opposition led by its Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee -- the party has captured 18 seats, something that never happened before. The party has boldly captured seats in states where the party was just a name in last elections.
Pundits will have many explanations for this massive victory, key among which will be India’s economy, healthy state of its agriculture, and Modi’s stature vis-a-vis that of his main opposition, the Indian Congress led by a relative neophyte Rahul Gandhi.
The opposition was not able to cobble together a strong alliance that could provide a credible alternative to Modi. But these factors alone do not explain the Modi phenomenon.
Modi’s rise is synonymous with the rise of a different breed of politics in India, away from the secular politics of Nehru and the party which led India to its independence. The Indian Congress was moulded in ideals of secularism, and a concept of nationalism that went beyond religion, caste, or creed.
It embraced anybody who believed in this ideology and worked for it. For years the party won elections under this model and led successive governments both at the centre, and most of the states.
But then everything started to fall apart, emanating from party squabbling after the death of Nehru and later iron-fisted control of the party and its politics by his daughter Indira Gandhi. The erosion in the party’s superstructure would invariably affect its ability to continue to hold the ground, which first came apart with the capture of power at the centre by a dissident party led by Morarji Desai of Janata Dal in 1977.
Congress, led by a repentant Indira Gandhi, did return to power a couple of years later and would be still leading the government under her son who got elected largely on sympathy vote after Indira Gandhi was assassinated. But, by then, Congress had mostly been decimated in real strength.
What was happening in the background since Nehru’s death was the slow but sure emergence of an alternative politics in India that drew its strength not only by opposing Congress and the status quo, but by a strident group of Hindu conservatives with its call away from secular politics.
The pioneers of this alternative politics were Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani who had originally formed a right-wing political party under the banner of BJP, which drew its cadre from the extreme right-wing Rashtriya Sayam Sevak Sangha.
Jana Sangh later entered into an alliance with similar minded smaller parties to contest elections with moderate success, and in 1980 its leaders would form a new party under the banner of BJP. Atal Bihari Vajpayee became its first president, who would later become India’s prime minister when the party captured majority in the elections.
Although BJP had contested elections during Vajpayee on a more moderate platform and was able to attract some minorities to its agenda, it transformed into a more right-wing political party after the assumption of the presidency by Lal Krishna Advani.
Advani was a devout Hindu who had strident views of Hinduism and a passion for Hindu ideology, took upon himself to mould Indian politics in his belief. He had a leading role in the campaign against Babri Mosque and re-establishment of Ram Janma Bhumi in the location.
His leadership of BJP would direct the party to a new direction not only for the party but also India, away from secularism. Narendra Modi, a loyal acolyte of that ideology barnstormed the country in 2013-14 with a call for return of India to the golden days of Hinduism, which according to him would ensure India its proper place in history.
But it would be an over-simplification to explain the Modi phenomenon to the rise of Hindu nationalism and ideology only. This rise in Modi’s popularity and that of his party goes beyond that. There are several other factors.
First is the growth of right-wing voters over the years through length and breadth of India from North West to North East. BJP won seats in faraway states like Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Manipur where the party was hardly known before. This has happened because the country has put on a more nationalistic identity advocated by Modi and his party.
Second is Modi’s narrative of India’s military prowess demonstrated by his strong tackling of foreign intrusion (the Kashmir incident), and handling of terrorism.
Third is Modi’s exploitation of the economic success of India and his appeal in rural areas through his clean toilet campaign and aid to farmers with direct cash aid.
Fourth is Modi’s relatively clean and corruption free image which stands in direct contrast to the motley collection of opposition leaders. Several of Modi opponents such as Mayavati of UP and Laloo Prasad Jadav of Bihar have their political careers tainted with crime and corruption (Laloo Prasad suffered a jail sentence).
Last but not the least is his ability to draw the support of India’s youth, who he successfully recruited to campaign for him and his party. They viewed Modi as a leader for modern India as he had no baggage from the past. Modi may be a devout Hindu at heart as well as in his work. But he is also a shrewd politician and a strategic vote getter.
But he knows that, even though India has moved away from secularism, a modern India cannot be sustained by a slogan of religion. After all, Modi is just not a leader for the largest Hindu population of the world, he’s also a leader of a country that has the third largest Muslim population of the world. Hindutva is just a strategy, one of many that Modi has in his bag.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.