Modi’s re-election could turn the world’s biggest liberal democracy into an illiberal one

India’s electorate is unpredictable, but the BJP will do much to cement its power.

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Narendra Modi’s resounding victory in the 2019 Indian elections may well pave the way for India’s transformation from the world’s biggest liberal democracy into its largest illiberal one. By the time of the next election, India’s key public institutions – its media, universities, and law courts – may have been subordinated to a government that regards opposition as an illegitimate obstacle to an overarching aim: creating an India entirely different from the secular dream of Nehru and Gandhi.

There’s a gradualism in the tactics of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its first three governments (1996, 1998-9, 1999-2004) were relatively moderate. The party’s former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a Hindu nationalist who failed to confront communal violence against Muslims, but he was also adept at presenting a relatively consensual face to the country. Modi’s government has become a different enterprise altogether. Crucial to that change has been the increasing power of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a volunteer ultranationalist organisation founded in 1925 that acted as a progenitor to the BJP.  As New Delhi-based journalist Pragya Tiwari recently said, the BJP and RSS combination is a “counter revolution” that seeks to eliminate secularism, the non-communal basis of Indian politics since independence, and instead define India as an essentially Hindu state. 

Some of the previous bulwarks against elected dominance are crumbling further. For nearly half a century, the state of West Bengal has been a bastion of oppositional politics. When Congress dominated in New Delhi in the 1970s, Bengalis voted for the communist Left Front. When the left finally fell from power in 2011, the state came under the control of the centrist and secular Trinamool Congress (or TMC, a separate party from the Congress of Rahul Gandhi). 

The TMC, led by one of India’s most powerful female politicians Mamata Banerjee, remained the dominant party in the state’s parliamentary seats this time around but lost a swathe of seats to the BJP who increased its number to 18 of 34, up from just 2 in 2014.  A poll from The Hindu newspaper this week showed the number of Hindus voting BJP in West Bengal increased by 36 per cent, while Muslim votes for TMC candidates rose by 30 per cent. The result was a shock to liberal observers. West Bengal used to be one of the most secular states in India, but its increasing support for the BJP reflects a national trend. The same poll suggested that some 51 per cent of Hindus in India had voted for the BJP, even communities such as the Dalits, who are one of India’s most socially isolated and economically excluded groups.  At the same time, 80 per cent of Muslims who were surveyed declared that they disliked the party.

The political polarisation seen in many Western democracies has arrived in India too.

The BJP’s dominance owes much to the power of charismatic leadership. The same force can be witnessed elsewhere. Donald Trump in the US, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines have all shown how swagger, hardline language and a willingness to overturn civic norms can lead to repeated electoral success. Modi has joined the club of elected leaders who have little time for the fabric of democratic life: free media, a lively opposition, and a strong civil society. 

The BJP leader’s back story is striking; he successfully portrayed himself as a man of humble origins. This stood in stark contrast with Modi’s main opponent Rahul Gandhi, who, whatever his merits, was clearly the latest scion of a family that has exercised a dynastic right to rule since 1947.  Meanwhile, other sources of opposition are being delegitimised. Amit Shah, the BJP president, provides much of the political strategy that holds Modi in place, doing his best to smear the party’s opponents, referring to them in 2016 as “snakes, rats and cats.”  

Nur Laiq, a fellow at Oxford’s TORCH centre for the humanities, observes that Modi’s government will now be empowered to dominate yet more of the civil society institutions, including the courts, civil service and Reserve Bank of India, which have for years been the liberal current in the country’s democracy. These institutions may find their freedoms curtailed. As James Manor of the University of London puts it, in India, “universities will be silenced in two to three years.”

Yet it would be misleading to see Modi’s victory simply as the product of one man’s will to power. The BJP has spent the past five years refining its grassroots politics, pounding the ground in India’s villages to make connections with locals with a solid social media strategy. On WhatsApp in particular, the BJP has done much better than Congress in creating chat groups that affirm the party’s world view. Louise Tillin, reader in Indian politics at King’s College London, says that although the discussion of the economy during the 2019 election was “extremely marginal,” there is some substance to the party’s argument that they have undertaken effective social welfare policies, including the supply of cooking gas to rural areas, the introduction of a very basic health insurance scheme, and the upgrading of toilet facilities. These issues were a shrewd strategy to attract female voters; polling in some areas ahead of the vote showed a significant lead of up to 20 per cent for the BJP among women.

What will the next five years bring? The BJP will try to further consolidate its rule. For instance, it is likely to propose that India’s cycle of elections, which often brings opposition parties to power at the state level at mid-term points, should be changed to one set of elections every five years. The ostensible justification is preventing a change of administration getting in the way of economic development, but if it happens, this would also close another space for opposition. 

Yet the past few years have shown that India’s electorate is unpredictable. The BJP lost several regional elections last year. And India’s voters have shown their claws before. In 1975, Indira Gandhi effectively suspended Indian democracy by declaring a state of “emergency.”  In 1977, the subsequent elections saw her swept from power. Modi’s tactics of consolidation are by no means guaranteed to succeed.

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at St Cross College, Oxford University.