Narendra Modi, India’s powerful prime minister, is seeking a second term. But in 2019, he is sounding less like the man who campaigned in 2014 and much more like his previous avatar — the abrasive, vitriolic and inflammatory chief minister of Gujarat.
His first national election five years ago was built on aspiration. Then he used to proclaim that the country’s constitution was his only holy book; he promised “achhe din” (good days) and “vikas” (development).
This campaign, by contrast, has been built on fear and on the othering of his political opposition as anti-national, anti-Hindu and, in antithesis to Modi’s own projected machismo, wimpish.
There is little or no conversation about the performance of his government, the economy or jobs. A leaked report from the National Statistical Commission (which the government contested) placed unemployment numbers at a four-decade high; a certain amount of deflection and changing the subject is political compulsion.
But the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party campaign has descended from spin to brazen coarseness, fear-mongering and Islamophobia.
In the 2019 production, Modi has cast himself as the “chowkidar,” or watchman — the guardian at the gate who will defend the country against predators and terrorists. The decision to order an airstrike inside Pakistan as retaliation for the terrorist attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, that killed 40 paramilitary police officers has become a major element in his narrative.
Modi even delivered a speech with photographs of the men who were killed in the Kashmir strike forming the stage backdrop; he also asked young voters to dedicate their ballot to the military personnel who led the assault inside Pakistan. Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-robed monk chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically important state, added insult to injury by describing the military as Modi’s “sena” — or Modi’s army, comments for which he has been censured by the Election Commission.
The BJP has defended this by arguing that because the prime minister took a great risk by sanctioning the Pakistan strike — in contrast to the Congress, which took no military action even after the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008 — the party has every right to politically own the decision. But given the flamboyant nationalism the party claims as its defining characteristic, this debasement of India’s armed forces is, frankly, impossible to justify.
The young daughter of a soldier killed in the Pulwama terrorist attack called out the bluff. “My father did not die for Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi. He died for India,” Apoorva Rawat, 20, told me. “Can’t you run a campaign without using our families to win votes?”
Using soldiers as political fodder is bad enough. But even worse is the Modi campaign’s message to India’s 172 million Muslims. In the past few years, Muslim cattle traders have been repeatedly targeted by right-wing mobs on fabricated charges of trading in beef. During this campaign, the men charged with the 2015 lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq, a Muslim ironsmith in Dadri, were given front-row seats at a BJP election rally.
A prominent government minister has warned Muslims to vote for her or face the consequences. And in one of the worst election speeches of the season, the prime minister taunted Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, for running away from Hindu voters to a constituency in the south where “the majority is a minority.” His comments were about Gandhi’s decision to fight from two seats, Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala in addition to his long-standing parliamentary seat in the north. Attacking the Congress is fair but implicit in this particular attack was the suggestion that a parliamentary seat dominated by Muslims is something to be embarrassed of.
Every single day, the marginalization and humiliation of India’s Muslim citizens are being reinforced.
The final blow came from the BJP president, Amit Shah, Modi’s second in command and said to be the only person the prime minister trusts. Shah has vowed to create a national citizens’ registry that will “remove every single infiltrator from the country” unless they happen to be Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. The official sanction of crude religious majoritarianism did not even bother to disguise its anti-Muslim bigotry. It was tweeted out by the party handle with the hashtag #NaMoForNewIndia — a model of "New India” eroding the very basis of old India: constitutionally protected pluralism.
So far, despite the virulence of the campaign he is steering, Modi seems to be comfortably ahead. There is no visible backlash to even his most divisive words. His persona as a spartan, non-corrupt bachelor, who is “not in politics for himself” — this I’ve heard repeatedly from voters — and his reputation as a decisive leader seem to offset the flaws voters now concede he has.
Admittedly, there is no euphoria of the kind that India witnessed in 2014. But nor is there any widespread anger. And when it comes down to it, voters often add “who else is there” to their criticism of Modi’s first term. It’s like the post-romance phase of a personal relationship — you’re no longer smitten, the sheen has worn off, but until a better option comes along, in your mind he or she is as good as it gets, with all of the flaws. You tell yourself that the relationship is better than being single.
For this, India’s opposition must take the blame. Crude and sexist language by leaders from within their own ranks — such as Azam Khan, the regional leader who commented on the underpants of his female adversary — have somewhat blunted the moral force of their attack on the BJP.
The opposition also remains fragmented and divided. It has been too slow to produce a counter-narrative, and this has only bolstered Modi’s chances. It suits Modi to make himself the central issue of this election and ask, Modi vs. who?
The answer to that would be Modi vs. math.
In the absence of any other national persona to take on the tough-as-nails, ruthless and charismatic Modi, the opposition’s best bet is to bury its differences and work on a series of local alliances. Modi wants a presidential-style election. The opposition can only counter that with regional coalitions of varied caste groups and communities.
For the moment, in one of India's ugliest election campaigns, the advantage is with Modi.
Chances are that he will be prime minister again. But there has been absolutely nothing prime ministerial about his campaign.