Modi’s election victory must not be misread


Narendra Modi is garlanded during a reception at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi a day after the party won in key state legislature elections. AP Photo

Remember America’s supposedly post-racial election? In 2008, the US elected a black man as its president and everyone naively thought this signified the end of racial divisions and the polarising politics of colour.

In India, something similar is said to have just occurred, albeit with the caste distinctions that divide the majority Hindu community. Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party has won by a landslide in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. It was a decisive victory in a state so big — its population exceeds 200 million — that UP would be the world’s sixth largest country if it were independent.

To the victor goes the defining narrative and the BJP is casting its UP election win as an epochal moment in India’s 70 years as an independent nation. Mr Modi grandly declared that he was “seeing a new India”, one that was committed to an inclusive agenda of development, hard work and opportunity rather than the old-style identity-driven politics.

His supporters took to television and social media networks to hail the win as a great leap forward. India, they said, was finally leaving caste and communalism behind and uniting behind a party and a leader that championed one-nation growth and good governance. Indians of all backgrounds, they added, were tired of the manufactured secularism parroted by liberals who learnt it from the West. Jitendra Singh, one of Mr Modi’s trusted ministers, described the victory as a “new chapter in the history of India”, one in which “the Indian voter has learnt to rise above caste and creed and vote for development and the future of India”.

Hyperbole is a given in the aftermath of great events, but Mr Modi and his army of fans seem to want to be taken literally. So, just how literally game-changing was this election victory for India and its confounding politics, where complex calculations of caste and community have long determined alliances between political parties, their electoral strategies and voters’ inclinations? Is it really the case that 21st century India is finally maturing into a democracy that votes for a non-sectarian political manifesto rather than limiting and limited promises to benefit specific sections of society?

These questions are best answered by considering what really happened in UP. Mr Modi’s party won by an unexpectedly large margin on a manifesto that portrayed India as a Hindu nation and without fielding a single Muslim candidate in a state that has nearly 40 million Muslims. And in the dog days of the campaign, the prime minister made rather less inclusive and more Muslim-baiting public comments than his lofty “new India” victory speech suggested. Using coded language, he hit out at UP’s Muslim minority and the politicians who paid them heed. Every “kabristaan” or Muslim graveyard, he said, must be matched with a “shamshaan” or Hindu cremation ground. Uninterrupted electricity during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, he added, should be matched during the Hindu festival of Diwali. The innuendo — UP’s majority Hindus were right to feel aggrieved and Mr Modi alone could fix it — was amplified to a full-throated “us versus them” cry on social media, with BJP supporters calling on Hindus to ignore caste divisions and vote for “our” interests. In the less wired hinterland, the Hindu vote was consolidated by portraying other political forces, not least the BJP’s main rivals in the state — the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party — as overly sympathetic to Muslim voters and insufficiently mindful of the majority community’s interests. Some BJP activists went about making overt appeals to “Hindutva”, a Hindu first ideology.

The result, of course, was stupendous for Mr Modi, but it was not an election victory that marked a new post-sectarian India, just one that will have a more unified majoritarian politics in the foreseeable future. This is already obvious in the triumphalism of the post-election commentary. It is striking that many Hindus are expressing great joy at getting past the communal and caste politicking, while Muslims say the future seems more forbidding than ever before.

Some argue that the Muslims fear political irrelevance in Mr Modi’s “new India” and that is precisely the problem. India’s Muslim minority, say Mr Modi’s supporters, has got so used to being courted as a vote bank it is unable to make the transition into an inclusive egalitarian political system. They have a point and it would all make sense if Mr Modi’s politics were truly one-nation.

It has not been unifying and inclusive so far but this is the moment when it could conceivably metamorphose to his and India’s benefit. As Sushil Aaron, of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, recently wrote that “the BJP has achieved dominance but will India be stable? That depends on how the party chooses to govern.”

If Mr Modi were so minded, he could seize the day — and the agenda — by genuinely embracing a big-tent development agenda that would add jobs, attract foreign investment, cut red tape and trigger sustainable growth across caste, communal and regional divides.So far, there is not much to indicate that Mr Modi and his party will abandon their reliance on Hindu-nationalist winning strategies.

It’s too early to say, but in that case, India’s allegedly post-sectarian election might wind up like America’s post-racial one that never was.