India is the World’s largest true democracy (no ‘Electoral College’), with a population of approximately 1.3 Billion people, and a base of 900 million or so eligible voters of whom an estimated 67% (some 600 Million) voted in this most recent general election. From that perspective, this election was an exercise in democracy that is truly impressive. But beyond that there is a lot that is wrong with India’s political processes and principals. In a country that is most completely defined by its incredible history, diversity of languages, cultures, religions and races, its continuing turn towards the old afflictions of tribalism, separatism, disunity, all rolled into a strategy of magnified identity politics, is very troubling.
Unlike China which is of comparable population size, India’s sprawling and diverse population is basically free to choose, with as wide a political landscape to choose from as the country’s legendary diversity itself. But from all accounts, this recent general election in India, across its 29 States and 7 Union Territories, was about one man alone, and that was the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, of the ruling Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (the BJP).
And, this time around Modi won a stronger mandate for a second term, with a landslide victory that stunned a generally skeptical India, and a nominally interested World.
There are a number of reasons as to why Modi won such a decisive electoral victory. A lot of the post-election analysis deals with the usual comparisons of political strategies employed by the successful Modi campaign and the mistakes and deficiencies of the opposition campaigns.
Other discussions focus on his favorable political, administrative and economic performance in his first term, to that of his various rivals’ in their previous stints in power. And then there is the observance of how Modi threw away independent India’s historical secular constitutional makeup, and embraced a fully open, aggressively religion based Nationalist Hindu majoritarianism, appealing directly to the approximately 80% of India’s population which is ‘Hindu’, and by doing so, launched India on to the path of damaging identity politics on a national scale.
But there is also the more mundane reason. India’s population on the whole is fed up of status-quo politics and politicians (reflecting the prevailing worldwide sentiment), and they just wanted a relatively ‘clean’ leader who in spite of obvious shortcomings gave them the best chance of improving their lot in life. [Not unlike the election of Trump in America; Brexit in Britain; and the swing away from the center in the recent European elections.]
In India, the population is vast, a very large number abjectly poor, and their daily problems are life destroying. And even though Modi’s first term fell far short of general expectations, the voting public at large did not find amongst the opposition a more promising candidate to put their hopes and trust in, than Modi.
And since India’s vast majority are Hindus, the Hindu Nationalist rhetoric condemning the opposition’s pandering to ‘Minorities’, especially the Muslims, of which there are approximately 200 Million in India (the second largest Muslim population in the World), the ‘back to the Hindu glory days’, devoid of ‘foreign influence’ theme found additional fertile ground, resulting in a ‘thumping’ majority for Modi, and his ever increasingly militant Hindu Nationalist Party, the ‘BJP’.
India’s full turn towards divisive ‘religion based politics’ is now complete.
India is one of the fastest growing economies in the World, if not the fastest at this time. But, this growth is less from government intervention and policy, and more from the fact the latent demand of a 1.3 Billion of some of the poorest people in the World (per capita), is enormous. So in spite of incredibly erratic policy making and the poor execution of such policies, India is still growing fast.
Modi’s first term as Prime Minister was full of anticipatory promise, because of his rather uniquely (among the other States) admirable record of guiding the development and economy of his home State of Gujarat, as Chief Minister.
He was widely admired within India and abroad for his administrative abilities; his success in the development of Gujarat, his reputation of being ‘clean’ and corruption free, his ability to get things done in a country that is notoriously corrupt, lethargic and inefficient, and for his general political astuteness and his alleged ability to control India’s legendary bureaucracy.
All these qualities favored his first time candidacy as a strong national leader, and he didn’t disappoint by winning decisively his first-time foray into national politics by becoming India’s much anticipated ‘this time different’ Prime Minister.
And though there were the reasonable doubts and questions as to whether he could replicate his performance at the State level, to the much-much larger stage of India itself, yet people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
And, there was great anticipation in his being elected because India desperately needed an honest, hardworking, politically and bureaucratically effective leader on the national stage; one who could effectively manage India’s vast and generally counter-productive, stultifying, and notoriously inefficient bureaucracy.
In the end, generally speaking, his first term as PM was quite disappointing.
To a lot of people in India, including some of his supporters, and to most people abroad, where they judged him more dispassionately on his performance versus promises made during the election, and were not caught up in, or influenced by, the religious and nationalist overtones of his ruling party, Modi failed to deliver on most of the key basic structural reforms that were required to unshackle the Indian economy, and its people, from the morass of inefficiency, low-productivity, soul destroying regulations, controls, and pervasive corruption that defines modern India’s general governance, both at the State and National levels.
That is not to say he was a complete washout; no, but his performance was less than sterling, with some successes and a lot of disappointments, including one huge misstep - the very dramatic and ultimately damaging policy of overnight ‘demonetization’ – the elimination of India’s most commonly used large bills, in his much publicized effort to curb corruption, tax evasion, the black market, and the counterfeiting of notes in India’s largely cash economy.
That dramatic move by Modi did not achieve any of the objectives it was supposed to accomplish, but instead it caused a lot of grief to the lower echelon of the Indian public that lived and transacted primarily in cash. The ones that the policy was supposed to hurt, the wealthy, the black-marketers, the tax-evaders and the hoarders, it apparently did little damage to, and thus changed very little.
But the high profile and spectacular public failure of his ‘Big Move’ rather than hurting Modi, as it should have done (that ill-conceived move is estimated to have shaved 2% of off India’s GDP), boosted his reputation as a corruption and crime fighter, even among the large segment of the public that had suffered the most as a consequence of the ill formed and very poorly executed policy.
Additionally, the other and the darker aspect of his popularity has come from the rise in absolute power of his fiery brand of Hindu Nationalism. This brand of Nationalism has given license to the more extreme elements of his support base to intimidate and persecute the non-Hindu minorities in India, primarily the Muslims, and the Christians, who were looked upon as ‘sellouts’ because of the foreign origins of their respective religions, and the resulting ‘cultural’ differences as espoused by the Hindu Nationalists who only considered those practicing the Hindu ‘religion’ as ‘True Indians’, and others as de-facto traitors.
This stance, which has often manifested itself in violent persecution of Muslims and other minorities, is of course against the ‘Secular’ constitutional makeup of the 1947-on, independent and modern India, but as in Trump’s America, parts of the constitution have come to be seen as pandering to the ‘spoilt minorities’.
During Modi’s first term, the visceral hatred of Muslims among the extreme Hindu fundamentalists was given full vent to by the general approval of the Hindu majority that had long felt subjugated by ‘foreign powers’, cultures and languages, particularly Islamic, and to a lesser extent ‘Western – Christian’.
Along with the open cultivation of religion based divisive politics, Modi and his Hindu Nationalist support base gave vent to their feelings of resentment towards the ‘westernized, educated, elite Indians’ who they felt had sold out to foreign values and in fact had held back the full potential of the majority Hindu population by pandering to ‘Secularism’, which in their mind was nothing short of pandering to minorities, at the expense of India’s Hindu majority.
And more than anything else, it was this mantra of ‘Hindu First’ ideology, reminiscent of Trump’s better known ‘Make America Great Again’, that gave Narendra Modi the overwhelming majority-win, for his second term.