The omens for an electoral victory were unfavourable, given Narendra Modi’s openly discriminatory policies against Muslim and Christian minorities and his dire social and economic record. Yet, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister was returned with an increased majority in May. In the parliamentary election, in which 900 million people (around a tenth of the global population) could vote, Modi and the BJP won 303 of the 543 seats, meaning his government has no need of the other parties in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition.
During his campaign, Modi sidestepped awkward issues and diverted attention from India’s economy, currently at its most turbulent since the 1990s: unemployment is at a 40-year high and agriculture is in crisis; investment is down, as are exports despite a weakening rupee; inward direct investment has plummeted and consumption is depressed.
Modi’s 2014 manifesto had economic development at its core, but this year the emphasis was on security, including a promise to crack down on clandestine Bangladeshi migrants. He opportunistically made use of a terrorist attack in Pulwama (in the state of Jammu and Kashmir) in February in which more than 40 members of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) died. A jihadist group based in Pakistan claimed responsibility; Modi ordered retaliatory air strikes on Pakistan; Islamabad downed an Indian plane. This allowed Modi to portray himself as India’s defender, bragging about his unprecedented boldness. His bellicose, nationalistic election campaign prompted 150 veterans, including former generals and admirals, to call on him to stop using the armed forces for political ends(1).
Modi’s challenger, as in 2014, was Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party, who failed to measure up despite a comprehensive programme that included a guaranteed basic minimum income for India’s poorest, anti-pollution measures (the government denies the severity of the problem(2)), and legislation to end the army’s immunity from prosecution over repression in Kashmir. Gandhi also campaigned against corruption and crony capitalism, as Modi did in 2014(3).
Most expensive election ever
Modi focused on perceived external threats and managed to keep attention on them rather than his own failures. He refused to take part in debates and press conferences where he might be challenged, confining himself to prepared interviews with friendly media whose proprietors are keen to stay on the government’s good side.
During his campaign, Modi diverted attention from India’s economy, currently at its most turbulent since the 1990s: unemployment is at a 40-year high and agriculture is in crisis; investment is down, as are exports despite a weakening rupee; inward direct investment has plummeted and consumption is depressed.
Money was the other big factor, as this election was the most expensive in the history of democracy, with parties spending a total of almost $9bn, according to reliable sources(4). The election commission ordered the seizure of the highest number ever of small-denomination banknotes at the homes of candidates and party offices.
The BJP broke all records for election spending(5). In 2016, the Modi government passed a law that allows businesses and individuals to donate to political parties anonymously – ‘legalising crony capitalism’, as former chief election commissioner Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi put it(6). The huge sums that flowed in were spent on vote-buying – giving gifts on the eve of voting is a necessary but not sufficient condition for victory – and, more importantly, funded electoral propaganda.
India has followed the trend that has made social networks the main means of political communication: politicians still hold rallies, but they use WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook when they want to make an impact(7). The BJP invested massively in multilingual staff for disinformation and trolling campaigns online. Gandhi’s opponents portrayed him as a Muslim, using an old photo of him praying in a mosque as a child (he had accompanied his father to Peshawar for the funeral of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the great Pashtun leader and disciple of Mahatma Gandhi).
Modi and the BJP also shamelessly used the Hindu religion. Party president Amit Shah mocked Gandhi, falsely accusing him of standing in a Muslim majority constituency and claiming he couldn’t tell whether a photo of Gandhi’s supporters had been taken in India or Pakistan(8).
Moreover, the BJP accepted the candidature of Pragya Singh Thakur, accused of terrorism as part of the far-right Abhinav Bharat (Young India) movement, which is suspected of involvement in four anti-Muslim attacks that caused scores of deaths in 2008; she had been granted bail on health grounds. She praised Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin during the campaign. Hindu nationalists have always treated Gandhi as an enemy because of his doctrine of non-violence and religious pluralism.
Many Indians voted for Modi not out of nationalism but to keep a strongman in power or by default, because they distrusted the opposition, although it is significant that Hindu nationalist rhetoric did not put them off. For five years this ideology has been evident in attacks on Christian and Muslim minorities, including the lynching of around 40 people accused of eating beef or taking cattle to slaughter. India’s minorities will have trouble being heard in the Lok Sabha (lower house), dominated by the BJP, which fielded just a few minority candidates.
The BJP broke all records for election spending. In 2016, the Modi government passed a law that allows businesses and individuals to donate to political parties anonymously – ‘legalising crony capitalism’. The huge sums that flowed in were spent on vote-buying – giving gifts on the eve of voting is a necessary but not sufficient condition for victory.
There are 25 Muslim parliamentarians (4.6 per cent of the house), though Muslims make up 14.6 per cent of India’s population. Women remain marginalised although they made some advances, with 78 representatives (14.3 per cent) compared to 66 in the last Parliament, and for the first time their participation rate in the election was equal to men’s.
Demographically, the 2019 election confirmed the return of higher castes to Parliament that began a decade ago and is a result of the BJP’s elitist composition. Out of 147 BJP candidates in India’s Hindi Belt(9), who represent almost half the BJP candidates elected to the Lok Sabha, 88 belonged to higher castes (12 per cent of the population); 80 were elected: 33 Brahmins (the highest caste) and 27 Rajputs (a warrior caste just below the Brahmins).
The new Parliament is also notable for the high numbers of scions of old political families. These ‘dynasts’, as they are called in India, have increased from 25 per cent of members in the 2014 Parliament to 30 per cent, and in some states the figure is much higher: 39 per cent in Karnataka, 42 per cent in Maharashtra, 43 per cent in Bihar, 62per cent in Punjab.
This tendency has always been marked in regional parties, often handed down from father to son, but is present in national parties too: 31 per cent of Congress party candidates and 22 per cent of BJP candidates were dynasts, though the BJP campaigned “against the dynasties that govern India” and especially against the most prominent, the Nehru-Gandhis.
Modi refused to take part in debates and press conferences where he might be challenged, confining himself to prepared interviews with friendly media whose proprietors are keen to stay on the government’s good side.
This proportion is surprising given the BJP’s expressed desire for new blood. Newcomers have replaced 100 members from the previous parliament, and their blood is new, but it is still blue, since presenting the offspring of political families is a guarantee of success. The presence of women on candidate lists is now a given but the opportunities tend to go to politicians’ wives, widows and daughters to maximise chances of success. That was the case with 54 per cent of successful female candidates for the Congress party and 53 per cent for the BJP.
MPs with criminal records
The last notable characteristic of the new Parliament is the increased number of members who have been charged with a crime or have a criminal record. This is a result of the growing role of money in politics and the political protection sought by many criminals. Out of 539 MPs investigated by the Association for Democratic Reform, a respected NGO, 43 per cent have faced or are facing criminal charges (compared with 34 per cent in 2014). Eleven (five in the BJP) are accused of murder, 30 of attempted murder and 19 of violence against women. Of the total in trouble with the law, 119 are in the BJP and 29 in the Congress(10).
Modi’s second term cannot be a rerun of the first. There may be continuity in essentials, such as the concentration of power in Modi’s hands, but the scale of the economic crisis demands tough decisions. The most urgent concern is the agricultural sector, already in a poor state and about to suffer the effects of a bad monsoon. The government will probably have to raise agricultural prices, even if that means higher inflation and losing support among its urban electoral base, which will limit its room for manoeuvre.
Some tensions are likely to grow over the next five years. Relations between central and state governments run by opposition parties are turning poisonous (the most salient example is Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, a state that was long a communist stronghold but which the BJP now has in its sights). Minorities may be under much greater pressure now that the Right-wing of the BJP is a major parliamentary force.
The legislature may end the 30-year saga of Babri Masjid, the mosque destroyed in 1992 by Hindu nationalists, as a Supreme Court ruling is expected within months on whether Hindu nationalists can build a temple on this site, which they believe is the birthplace of Lord Rama. If the court says no, nationalists will probably organise huge demonstrations; if it says yes, young Muslims, who currently suffer many forms of discrimination in silence, may revolt.
Written by Christophe Jaffrelot. Courtesy Le Monde diplomatique.
Christophe Jaffrelot is a director of CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS. His publications include L’Inde de Modi: national-populisme et démocratie ethnique (Modi’s India), Fayard, Paris, 2019. Translated by George Miller
- (1) ‘Over 150 veterans write to President on “politicisation” of armed forces’, The Hindu, New Delhi, April 12, 2019.
- (2) ‘Environment Minister rejects global reports claiming 1.2 million deaths in India due to pollution’, The Hindu, May 5, 2019.
- (3) See Christophe Jaffrelot, ‘Le capitalisme de connivence en Inde sous Narendra Modi’ (Crony capitalism in Modi’s India), Les Etudes du CERI, no 237, CERI, Paris, September 18, 2018.
- (4) Bibhudatta Pradhan and Shivani Kumaresan, ‘Indian elections become world’s most expensive: This is how much they cost’, Business Standard, New Delhi, June 4, 2019.
- (5) ‘In 2019, is BJP riding a Modi wave or a Money wave?’, The Wire, New Delhi, May 6, 2019; ‘BJP flush with poll cash, no questions asked in these elections’, Telegraph, New Delhi, May 2, 2019.
- (6) Adil Rashid, ‘Electoral bonds have legalised crony capitalism: ex-chief election commissioner SY Quraishi’, Outlook, New Delhi, April 7, 2019.
- (7) Madhumita Murgia, Stephanie Findlay and Andres Schipani, ‘India: the WhatsApp election’, Financial Times, London, May 5, 2019.
- (8) “Can’t make out if it’s India or Pakistan”: Amit Shah on Rahul Gandhi’s Wayanad roadshow’, The News Minute, April 10, 2019.
- (9) This consists of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh.
- (10) ‘43% of newly elected MPs face criminal charges: ADR report’, The Wire, 27 May 2019.