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  1. The Weekend Essay
5 June 2024

India’s fateful election

Narendra Modi has spent a decade remaking the country into a one-party state. What happens now?

By Shruti Kapila

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 25 May 2024. It was updated on 5 June, after the election results revealed that Narendra Modi was headed for his third term as prime minister. However, his Bharatiya Janata party lost its majority for the first time in a decade as the opposition coalition INDIA won more votes than many pollsters predicted. Below, Shruti Kapila explores a decade of Modi rule and how the opposition was able to capitalise on public concerns over the economy.

On 22 January 2024, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, helmed the ceremony to inaugurate the newly erected temple to the Hindu god Ram at Ayodhya in northern India, the deity’s birthplace. As Indian Air Force choppers showered petals on the precincts of the temple, it was clear that the majesty of the Indian state was being used to consecrate the power of Hinduism. Commentators from India’s mainstream media, which only competes to flatter Modi, breathlessly announced the installation of the Ram temple as a “civilisational” moment with some even anointing it as the coming of the “Second Republic”. 

Erected on the site of a Mughal mosque that was torn down by Hindu nationalist mobs in 1992, the Ram temple is synonymous with the ascendancy and now hegemony of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a once marginal, even fringe, party devoted to Hindu nationalism. Highways across the country were strewn with billboards featuring images of the temple. City squares, too, were drenched in saffron flags, the sacred colour for Hindus and the colour of choice for the BJP.

Against this backdrop, Modi is now confident that he is about to make history. With voting in the general election underway since 19 April, he is projected to take office for a third consecutive term. Only India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has accomplished this feat in the world’s largest and arguably most competitive democracy. This election is India’s largest ever, with nearly a billion people eligible to vote. Scheduled over six long weeks that coincide with rising temperatures during peak summer, the victor will be declared on 4 June. 

No other Indian national election has grabbed as many global headlines and interest as this one has. In significant part, the international interest has much more to do with turbulent geopolitics than the domestic contest itself. As the West seems to have fallen out of love with China, India’s vaunted democracy has attracted new levels of attention. In terms of its economy and polity, India’s scale is truly continental. 

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In 2022 India replaced Britain, its erstwhile imperial master, to emerge as the fifth largest economy in the world. In 2023, India overtook China with 1.4 billion people to become the most populous country on the planet. Its regional diversity makes Europe look monochromatic, as there are more than 20 official languages spoken. With 205 million Muslims – 15.5 per cent of the population – it has the second-largest Muslim population in the world. With the youngest and largest population in the world, India can be seen as carrying the future of humanity. 

Yet for all the scale and diversity, this election is in effect a plebiscite on one man. At 73, Modi has held the top Indian office for a decade already. In fact, Modi has continuously held high public office since the opening years of this century. First as the chief minister of the commercially powerful western state of Gujarat from 2001, moving to the most powerful office in 2014. It was Modi in 2014 who scripted a mandate for his BJP that committed India’s government to Hindu nationalism. His subsequent and even bigger mandate in 2019 began to overtly legislate for a Hindu-first India.   

In the immediate run-up to the elections, Modi – who has not held a press conference in a decade – made himself available to select global and Indian media for carefully curated interviews. From the US magazine Newsweek to India’s largest news agency, Asia News International, in print and on screen, Modi has asserted his certitude of his victory in a serious and deliberate tone, claiming the remaking of India as his personal mission.  

Nothing less than the identity of India is at stake in this election. Modi’s vision is that of a new India – or a return to its older name of Bharat, which he seeks to popularise (or even institute as the country’s official name). Even as this proposal projects notions of civilisational grandeur or a long-gone golden age, it hints at a future in which global status games and an exclusionary national culture dominate. 

In fuelling such debates, Modi and his BJP are consciously signalling a new political, economic and global vision for India. Analysts and critics often describe India under Modi as an “illiberal democracy”, even an “electoral autocracy” that is in effect a “majoritarian” democracy in action. Neither quite captures the wholesale transformation of the country – rather than merely a style of rule – that is underway. In short, if modern China could give the world capitalism without democracy, could India be on the verge of giving the world a one-party state in a multi-party polity? 

In May 2023, Modi inaugurated a new state-of-the-art parliament building. Built amid the devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, it symbolises Modi’s signature in stone and is the latest addition to Delhi’s monumental and imperial architecture. As Modi pirated the global left’s fixation on decolonisation at the time, he was unequivocal in declaring the new building’s inauguration as the real end of India’s long servitude, wrought first by Muslim empires and then briefly by the British. In a single stroke, Modi dismissed India’s now reviled English-educated elite as corrupt purveyors of foreign political values while directing ire at India’s besieged Muslim population. 

Cast as a coronation, the pageantry projected Modi as king, as he walked down the building’s long corridor with the ritual silver sceptre, the Sengol, from the erstwhile southern Indian Hindu kingdom of Tanjore. The ritually significant sceptre had originally been given to the staunchly republican Nehru, who had housed it in a government museum. By installing it in the new parliament building, Modi signalled the coming of new sovereign arrangements.  

Southern India has resolutely denied Modi any popularity, let alone the devotion that he has commanded over great swathes of northern and western India. Crucially, the new parliament building will seat close to 900 members. With its rise in population, India is set to go through a delimitation exercise by 2030 that will increase the number of constituencies. India’s demographics are regionally divided with much higher and denser population rates in the north. The new delimitation exercise is set to disempower economically superior southern India, while rewarding the economically backward north.  

If his back-story of humble origins once made Modi a relatable figure, a decade on there is little that distinguishes national pride from the strident chauvinism that he embodies. Modi has transformed himself into a messianic figure who is aiming for even a bigger mandate. 

It would be a categorical error to see this political contest as one between religion and secularism. Unlike in the West or even in its newly partitioned neighbour of Pakistan, neither linguistic nor religious identity was given primacy in India’s constitution of 1950 that made diversity the principle of unity. The constitution provided the blueprint for a bold future as it became the document of its democracy and the vehicle that guaranteed radical new rights to India’s citizens.   

Animated by a post-colonial piety, Nehru spearheaded a political revolution that laid down democratic institutions with a commitment to a multi-religious polity and a protected economy. His era created, and was ultimately dependent on, a small elite which was zealously self-enclosed and snobbish, and the greatest beneficiary of India’s freedom. Identified today as “Lutyens’ elite” – after the architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens who gave Delhi its stunning if forbidding aesthetics of imperial power – the scornful label conveys contempt more for Nehru than for the British colonial rulers.  

Modi was quick to tap in to the resentment against the liberal establishment and its elites that has fuelled what the public intellectual Pankaj Mishra has called our age of anger. Before Brexit Britain and even Trump’s Maga momentum, Modi attacked India’s so called ancien régime as corrupt and nepotistic, in order to foster a politically resurgent Hindu identity.  

New India has found many votaries. A new cultural and intellectual establishment has amplified Modi’s image and message in broadsheets and television studios. Through global summits and a new and sprawling network of think tanks, an incantation of keywords advertises the ambitions of this new identity. From “Made in India” through to “Digital India” via the “India Way”, Modi’s campaign straplines have evolved over the decade; the current catchphrase is “Viksit Bharat”, or “Developed India”. All have prioritised the spectacle and symbolism of branding over substance. As global indices have today deemed India to be a “backsliding democracy”, Delhi – highly attuned to status – has responded by announcing its very own new metrics housed by its leading establishment think tank Observer Research Foundation.  

This image-making sits alongside the criminalisation of dissent, the imprisoning of leading figures from India’s opposition and the erosion of liberty at home. But India is not in the grip of “populist authoritarianism”, as it is so often portrayed. For all the concentration and personalisation of power in Modi, a new political order akin to the party-state defines India’s latest political avatar. A party-state implies the absence of boundaries between state, society, government, party and, indeed, cadre. By contrast, modern states prize and thrive on the distinction between the different organs of government and their policing via checks and balances and, above all, seek to represent rather than overwhelm society.  

As a cadre-based party, and at twice the size of China’s Communist Party, the BJP is not only the world’s largest political party, with 180 million members, but it is also one of the world’s richest parties with nearly $6bn in its coffers. With a number of other affiliates – notably the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary body, founded in 1925 and committed to the realisation of Hindutva or political Hindu-ness with over five million volunteers – Modi helms a massive and efficient political machinery.  

From vigilantes who violently police inter-faith romances to neighbourhood associations that enforce Hindu dietary practices, the boundary between culture and politics, party and state has blurred. Even though Hindu-Muslim riots have receded in the last decade, mob lynchings – especially those targeting India’s Muslims and Dalits (the caste known as “untouchables”) – have emerged as a new, violent trend. 

Bureaucracy, the so-called steel frame of India, has remained supplicant, and Modi has rarely chastised the faceless but all-too-powerful civil service. Marked by a near absence of whistle-blowers, Modi’s decade of rule has witnessed a complete alignment between the ruling politicos and administrators. India’s widely regarded supreme court judges are now routinely given to making sanctimonious speeches espousing liberal values such as support of same-sex marriage, that are in stark contrast to their consequential judgements that have been largely status quo-ist. 

Modi has been astute in creating a direct connection between himself and the vast populace, which is dependent on the state for its everyday existence. Enabled by technology, direct cash transfers are given for everything from food rations to vaccinations. Dubbed as “Modi’s guarantees” – which are in part bankrolled by a new centralised but indirect sales-tax regime and a universal identification programme and online banking – India’s emerging digital state is the new leviathan. The mobile phone has emerged as the key instrument which now determines the relationship between the citizen and the state. For all the dangers of a Silicon Valley-led Big Tech that is fast absorbing the state in the West, India’s digital life is invisible, intrusive and altogether statist. Yet, crucially, this new welfarism has only helped Modi’s popularity soar.  

To counter the Modi personality and the emergent party-state, Nehru’s great grandson Rahul Gandhi, an MP for the opposition Indian National Congress party, has emulated Mahatma Gandhi (who is no relation) by walking the length and breadth of the country twice. Effectively the face of India’s opposition, Rahul Gandhi has – first through the Bharat Jodo Yatra (the Unity March) in the winter of 2022 and 2023 and the recently concluded Nyaya Yatra (Walk for Justice) – created a distinct campaign in Modi’s India; his supporters say the act of walking has symbolically countered violence with non-violence. Reduced to a factionalised rump, Gandhi’s Congress party wrested Karnataka, one of the richest states and the tech-hub of India, from the BJP in a consequential federal election in 2023, making it a powerful launch pad for a national campaign against Modi. 

Twenty-six small and big parties, including Congress, have forged an unprecedented, united bloc against Modi. Responding to the seductive power of symbols, it has named itself after the nation: I. N.D.I. A. (Indian, National, Inclusive Development Alliance). It has a long way to go in occupying the national government, but it has nevertheless set the terms of the contest pushing economic justice as the key electoral issue. With record levels of unemployment and inequality, and surging prices of everyday goods, most media encounters with the voting public have focused on the strained economy. Aspiration, which had buzzed through the political landscape for a decade, has been replaced by a prosaic realism. This is to say, while Modi has focused on New India, the opposition has succeeded in shifting focus to the lives of Indians.  

Despite support for Modi across the mainstream media, social and online media has been dominated by the opposition. In symbolically holding up the Indian constitution repeatedly in rallies, Gandhi has effectively placed rights and the future of Indians as another key choice for voters, offering an alternative to the potential advent of the party-state. After six long weeks of campaigning and as voting concludes on 1 June, the overall effect is a distinct lack of euphoria let alone an electoral wave for Modi. For all the passion and pride that Modi may incite, it’s clear that exhaustion has set in with the relentless cultural and political remaking of the country.

Narendra Modi may still be confident that he will make history, but the future of India no longer appears fated.  

[See also: The grim reality behind Russian advances in Ukraine]

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