The Narendra Modi years – as the post-2014 period of Indian history should be known – redefined the nature of politics in India in three different ways.
It has changed the nature of political and electoral competition. It has changed the way political power is exercised. And it transformed the political and social realities on the ground. Each of these elements together changed the nature of the Indian state.
First, how did Modi come to power and how does he maintain political power?
The most telling statistic that explains the story of the post-2014 years is the number of voters who rested their faith in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2009, 78 million voters supported the party. In 2014, in an election held solely in Modi’s name amid anger at the United Progressive Alliance and hope for a better future, more than 171 million voters backed the BJP. And in 2019, after five years in power, in an election that was again a referendum on the Modi years, at least 220 million voters backed the BJP.
This unprecedented expansion of the party’s support base in a decade – from a 19% vote share to a 37% vote share – was due to Modi’s ability to be a Hindutva mascot, a modernist, a development-oriented leader, a pro-poor welfarist, a clean political figure with no vested interests, and a strong nationalist whom opponents feared and the world respected. Whether there is a contradiction between some of these avatars or whether they correspond to reality is not the question. Voters picked and chose what they wanted, they trusted his intent and rallied around him.
Read also | 8 Years of NDA 2: Key Schemas and Ease of Delivery High on NDA Governance Agenda
The personal combined with the social. Modi, along with Amit Shah, reshaped the BJP into an inclusive Hindutva party. This meant there was a steady expansion of his base of support, and for the first time in his history, a political offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had come closer to his vision of unifying Hindu society. The BJP is India’s Dalit party – having the most Dalit legislators in two successive election cycles and having garnered more Dalit support than any other national or regional party during this period. It is India’s Other Backward Classes Party (OBC) – which has the largest number of community representatives as legislators in its ranks in 2014 and 2019. And it has continued to be among the ‘upper castes’ . It’s a Hindu men’s party, but it’s also a Hindu women’s party.
This ability to weave a multi-caste Hindu coalition has another element. If the language of inclusion, representation and social welfare programs played a role in bringing together diverse Hindu social groups under a single formation, so did the explicit communal politics, directed strongly against the Muslims.
Muslims, in the dominant BJP narrative as communicated on the ground, have exercised their political veto over Indian politics for too long; they and the parties seeking their votes cannot be trusted to protect India’s national interests; the task of seeking historical justice for the sins committed by medieval Muslim rulers is not yet complete; Muslim men seek to attract Hindu women and trap them; there is an effort, through the influx of Muslim refugees and the uncontrolled growth of the Muslim population, to change the demographic reality of India and make Hindus a minority. All of this means that Hindus must remain united and Muslims must be viewed with skepticism and kept out of political power.
Read also | 8 years of NDA 2: Confluence of foreign and domestic
Regardless of the distortions that had crept into the old-fashioned politics of secularism (and indeed it had become a hollow ideological endeavor equated with appeasing the more orthodox elements of Muslim leadership), the current political narrative may not be reflected in the realities on the ground (apart from some aspects being downright insidious) – but there’s no denying that it has popular resonance. The systematic political exclusion of Muslims and their demonization is not a bug but an essential feature of the post-2014 political system. And it not only defined the rise of the BJP, but also redefined India’s electoral landscape, with other parties muting their support for Muslims, remaining silent in the wake of discrimination and emphasizing their Hindu religious credentials to stay electorally salient.
All of this happened from the back of a 24/7 organizational machine. A motivated cadre, relentless messaging across every conceivable platform, boots on the ground when it comes to voter mobilization at the booth level, and constant communication between party leadership and workers, and workers and voters helped the BJP communicate its policy but also listen to feedback and adapt.
The remarkable electoral success – and the factors that enabled that electoral success – shaped Modi’s stint as prime minister.
On the one hand, Modi is the strongest PM since Indira Gandhi during her stint from 1971 to 1977. That’s no surprise. The BJP is in power thanks to Modi’s appeal. The difference between a BJP led by Modi and a BJP without Modi is arguably almost 150 seats. The 140 million extra votes the BJP has won since 2009 are largely due to Modi’s appeal. All of this means that there is a remarkable concentration of political and executive authority within the Prime Minister’s Office. This is not a cabinet where Modi is just the first among equals; it is not a system with a team of rivals. It is a political system where a leader decides.
This had obvious advantages.
The prime minister has cracked down on the decentralized corruption that has marked recent governments when ministers and bureaucrats have felt empowered enough to demand bribes and respond to entrenched lobbies. The Prime Minister has identified projects that matter to his governance agenda and made sure the whole system is supporting his weight – from rural housing to the distribution of gas cylinders in the first term to ensure safe and adequate drinking water in the second term. The PM has undoubtedly revolutionized the delivery of social care in the country, using existing tools (Aadhaar and mobile) and specific initiatives (Jan Dhan) and then expanding them. Modi has invested his personal political capital in initiatives that were once footnotes in government programs, for example, Swachh Bharat.
And he put forward a vision that is based on supporting entrepreneurship, creating a hospitable climate for domestic and foreign capital, prioritizing domestic manufacturing and self-reliance, reducing regulatory bottlenecks and legal and supporting national champions capable of going global. But while the concentration of executive power has brought benefits, it has also had other consequences.
Political and economic decision-making arguably does not go through the rigorous process of checks and balances that would help think through all the implications. This has led to impulsive political movements, demonetization being the most obvious example. And because key decisions bear the prime minister’s stamp, it becomes difficult to backtrack for fear of eroding the prime minister’s position. This was most evident in the case of the Farm Bills, the most serious policy setback the government has faced during its eight-year tenure.
As in the days of Indira Gandhi, a powerful executive has also led to the decline of other independent institutions, from the legislature to the judiciary, from the media to civil society, and a growing tendency to treat dissent as anti-national. It also reduces the incentives for others within the system to speak truth to power, as minimizing trouble is seen as a more effective route to political survival. The slogan of “strong government” appealed to Indian voters, but it may well have come at the expense of democratic accountability.
If Modi’s centrality has shaped both the BJP’s electoral success and governance record, so too have the party’s ideological outlook. For the first time in its history, the post-2014 period offered the BJP the opportunity to govern India with an absolute majority. This allowed him to shape laws and institutions in a way consistent with his program, his political promises and the social coalition that brought him to power. From the Citizenship (Amendment) Act to flirting with the idea of a National Citizens Registry, from officially celebrating the Supreme Court’s verdict on Ayodhya to revoking the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP has not given up on implementing what have been demands of the Sangh for decades.
Historians will wrestle with precisely this paradox of the Narendra Modi years.
It made the Indian state more efficient by improving its performance, but also made it more intolerant by reducing the instruments of accountability. It was socially revolutionary with its real initiatives for the poor across religions and castes, but also politically exclusive with its unstated policy of treating the country’s largest religious minority with suspicion. This reinforced a cult of personality around a leader, but also reflected a deeper democratic undercurrent where existing social biases and impulses were mirrored in state politics. Modi’s political history remains incomplete, as does the story of the current phase of Indian politics. But what is certain is that by the time Modi ends his political reign, India will be radically different from what it was when he took power.