Narendra Modi’s unprecedented victory in the 2019 elections is proof that India and her politics have been irrevocably altered.
Modi gained a historic mandate in 2014 when he became prime minister for the first time, sweeping the polls with the biggest margin in 30 years. But back then many pundits considered his victory a sort of aberration in the life a diverse, pluralistic democracy that has shunned ideological extremity and has mostly been governed from the center of the ideological spectrum. Modi’s first win was framed within the larger context of rage against the outgoing Congress government, which was besieged by corruption scandals and an eroded authority.
Now that Modi has surpassed the 2014 record — his party is poised to take more than 300 seats in Parliament — it’s clear that his politics are much more than just a temporary disruption. And 2014 was not a black-swan moment; it was a preview.
India has changed. The kind of traditional patchwork politics that threaded together varying personalities and points of view under one coalition umbrella are now a thing of the past.
By delivering Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party a clear majority of its own, Indians have shown a preference for strong, decisive, alpha-male leadership unencumbered by pressure from smaller political forces. And what may have begun as culture clashes between Indian conservatives and liberals has been decisively settled on the political battlefield with a clear win for the right wing.
In an election that was indisputably a referendum on him, Modi turned out to be the Teflon prime minister. It did not matter how many controversies swirled around him. The more liberals agitated against Modi, the stronger it made him. And the more the Western media slammed him, the more the country rallied around him.
Modi’s message of unbridled nationalism and Hindu identity drowned out the sort of issues that would have put any other candidate on the defensive. In the end, the state of the economy or simmering social tensions didn’t matter much.
Unemployment figures were reported to be the highest in four decades, but exit polls show that didn’t seem to make Modi any less of a favorite among India’s aspirational 84 million first-time voters, 15 million of them between the ages of 18 and 19. A furor over how India’s growth figures are measured or charges by the country’s top statisticians that data was being suppressed — and even the self -destructive decision to take out 86 percent of India’s cash from the economy — were unable to smear Brand Modi.
The anti-Muslim rabble-rousing of some top BJP leaders and the lynchings of Muslim cattle traders by violent Hindu mobs did not earn Modi the opprobrium of voters. Even fielding a candidate accused of terrorism — who recently praised Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin — did not set either Modi or his party back an inch. The candidate, Pragya Thakur, won her seat with a handsome margin. Even voters who disapprove of Thakur would not penalize Modi for her candidacy. This was the success of his political communication; he was always seen to be above the fray
The opposition believes that Modi’s decision to launch an airstrike inside Pakistan after a terrorist attack in Kashmir changed the course of the elections. That reasoning is too simplistic. There is no doubt that the strike reinforced Modi’s reputation as a “mazboot” politician, or man of strength. But it was hardly the tipping point. In fact, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Modi have already exchanged public notes on social media about working together for peace in the region.
The Modi mantra is driven by the the marriage of strongman authoritarianism with the benign largesse of welfare economics. Multiple voters I met spoke of small government schemes that had swung their decision — loans to build a concrete house, construction of a village toilet, electrification, an agricultural scheme that directly transferred 2,000 rupees into the bank accounts of poor farmers and so on. The combination of personal charisma, populist identity politics, muscular nationalism and targeted economic delivery have all added up to create a behemoth of a political brand.
That and the absence of a counter-narrative or alternative leader.
Modi’s main opponent, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, could not even win his own seat in the family bastion of Amethi. Nor was Rahul’s sister, Priyanka Gandhi, often hyped up as the biggest weapon in the party arsenal, able to have any impact at all. Though often feted and fussed over by the liberal elite in the political capital, the Gandhis came across as too entitled. Worse, they seem like part-time politicians in contrast to the workaholic Modi.
There are those like psephologist-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav, who told me in an interview that the “Congress must die” for a new political opposition to rise against Modi. He needn’t fret; the party already appears to be in a state of terminal decline. The Congress lost 174 of the 188 seats where it faced the BJP head to head. The party that once stood for the values of India’s independence movement today depends on the leadership of just one political family. No wonder, then, that Modi can repeatedly point to his self-made rise from a tea vendor’s son to prime minister as a powerful contrast to his challengers.
The bottom line: None of the old formulas work. Anti-Modism. Caste arithmetic. The slogan of secularism. Modi has transcended all these binaries.
Modi is now both the message and the messenger.