India's Right Wing Tightens Grip As Modi And BJP Set To Sweep Elections

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party are set to win by a large margin, five years after he was first elected.

NEW DELHI — Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on Thursday won a second consecutive five-year term as prime minister of India, months after bringing India to the brink of war with Pakistan, its nuclear-armed neighbor.

The BJP and its allies won a sizable majority in India’s lower House of Parliament, proving Modi’s continuing popularity despite his inability to provide jobs for India’s legions of unemployed youth — a central promise from his 2014 campaign.

Five years after he was first elected, the economy remains sluggish and the credibility of many of India’s democratic institutions — from the judiciary, to the election commission, to the media, and even the country’s central bank, Reserve Bank of India — have been compromised.

Yet enough of India’s 900 million voters felt Modi deserved another chance. His victory suggests that the global rightward shift — from Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines — is likely to endure.

Shiv Visvanathan, a social anthropologist and professor at OP Jindal Global University, said that like Russia under Vladimir Putin and the Philippines under Duterte, India under Modi faced a “tyranny of the demagogue.”

“Modi is going to be ruthless and vindictive, and we don’t have civil society to counter it,” he said. “Majoritarian democracy is the death of democracy. Elections are no longer a solution. We are left with caricatures of democracy.”

In India, majoritarianism means Hindu nationalism or Hindutva, an ideology that envisions over 170 million Indian Muslims accepting that they are, in effect, second-class citizens.

Modi owes his victory in large part to the opposition’s inability to project a viable leader to replace him, the BJP’s stranglehold over most of the English- and Hindi-language media, and the party’s massive social media presence.

BJP supporters celebrate in their party's Assam state office in Gauhati, India, on May 23, 2019. 
BJP supporters celebrate in their party's Assam state office in Gauhati, India, on May 23, 2019. 

Even Yashpal Saxena, a Delhi-based electrician who famously prevented a religious riot after his Hindu son was murdered by his Muslim girlfriend’s family, said he saw no alternative to Modi.

“This is the first time that I will vote with a heavy heart for the BJP,” Saxena told HuffPost India. “But you tell me: Is there any other leader who can lead the country right now?”

Ahead of the election results, Ashutosh Mishra, who teaches political science at Lucknow University, warned that Modi would likely double down on majoritarian politics upon his return, sending a signal to strongmen across the world.

“Modi preceded Trump. Then came Poland, Austria, Hungary,” Mishra said, referencing a talk given by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon in which he linked Modi’s 2014 win to a global “center right” revolt.  

Bannon, who headed the right-wing Breitbart News Media in 2016, had said, “Modi’s great victory was very much based on these Reaganesque principles.”

“This nationalist resurgence in terms of religion, culture and the emergence of Hindutva cannot be stopped,” Mishra said. “Others will have to fall in line.”

The Pakistan Factor

Modi’s victory appeared far from assured earlier this year ― the opposition’s efforts to highlight his gross economic mismanagement, as well as public anger over rampant unemployment and agrarian distress, were gathering steam. 

Then, on Feb. 14, a suicide bomber drove a van laden with explosives into a troop convoy in Kashmir, killing 40 paramilitary soldiers.

Modi lost no time in whipping up nationalist sentiment by ordering an airstrike on Pakistani soil. The airstrike formed a cornerstone of his reelection campaign. 

Shortly before the election, the government tested a new missile capable of shooting down low-orbital satellites, while halfway through the election, China finally dropped its decadeslong objection to the United Nations Security Council designating Masood Azhar, chief of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, as a global terrorist.

Each of these developments was amplified by a largely supine national media that sought to silence anyone questioning the government.

“After the attack in Kashmir, Modi took action. That is how it should be,” Rashmi, a homemaker from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, told HuffPost India. “He has a great personality. He has put India on the map.”

For Modi supporters, words like majoritarianism, lynchings, xenophobia and intolerance are now just empty words. Ashutosh Mishra, political science professor at Lucknow University

“Modi is finally doing what other leaders failed to do,” Rakhi Srivastava, a homemaker from Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, told HuffPost India. “There will be no more deaths because for the first time someone is going after these terrorists who have killed our soldiers for decades. One way or the other, this has to end.”

Even in the era of strongmen, winning an election in a country as diverse, caste-ridden and religiously polarized as India is hard work. Not only does Modi work harder than anyone else at winning, he makes sure everyone knows it.

Two days before the final day of polling on May 19, he donned the saffron robes of a Hindu priest and headed to a shrine in the Himalayas with a phalanx of cameras in tow.

The carefully crafted images of an ascetic Modi “meditating” were faithfully beamed into millions of homes by the media, and lapped up by his followers.

“Modi ji must have been under a lot of pressure because of the month-long election,” said Radhe Shyam Chaurasia, a street vendor in Delhi. “He must have wanted to clear his mind and find some peace. I don’t think it was for votes.”

“Modi is not an idea,” said Visvanathan, the social anthropologist. “He is a piece of propaganda.”

Muslim And Minority Fears

In 2014, when Modi first became prime minister, many voters and commentators wondered if he would focus on development and leave behind his past tainted by the slaughter of over 1,000 Muslims by Hindu mobs in the state of Gujarat in 2002.

Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time, and he showed no sympathy for those killed in the riots.

Instead, his tenure as prime minister was marked by the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim hatred most visible in the murders of at least 46 people on the suspicion of eating beef, or slaughtering cows.

“For Modi supporters, words like majoritarianism, lynchings, xenophobia and intolerance are now just empty words,” said Mishra, the political science professor at Lucknow University.  

Muslim dairy farmers of Haryana. 
Muslim dairy farmers of Haryana. 

India’s 172 million Muslims are left wondering how much worse it could get.

“It is a question of life and death. Muslims are afraid,” said Danish, a 25-year-old Muslim man whose father was lynched on the suspicion of slaughtering a cow in 2015.

“You want to make India a Hindu country? Would you kill all the Muslims or turn them out of the country?” said Danish, who was almost beaten to death by the same mob. “Please tell us to what extent you would go to finish Muslims?”

Azmat, a Muslim dairy farmer whose neighbor — a man called Pehlu Khan — was lynched on the suspicion of cow slaughter in 2016, told HuffPost India, “One Pehlu Khan is dead. We are afraid that a 100 Pehlu Khans could die.”

The 26-year-old, who was nearly beaten to death by the same mob, said he wants to give up dairy farming, an occupation practiced by the Meo Muslims of Haryana for centuries.  

“We are already living half a life,” he said. “Living in fear is very tiring.”

With the existing political parties trying to boost their Hindu credentials and no party or leaders of their own, Indian Muslims today are practically without a voice.

Afreen Fatima, a 20-year-old first-time voter, said she would have liked to have voted for someone who represented the interests of Indian Muslims instead of voting with the sole purpose of defeating the BJP.

“Political parties have stopped using the word Muslim,” said Fatima, who is president of the Aligarh Muslim University, Women’s College Students’ Union. “Where is the Muslim political movement?”