Devesh Kapur is the director of Asia programs and Starr Foundation professor of South Asian studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
The resounding victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in India’s general elections this month is in many ways more impressive than the one in 2014. At that time, Modi was running against an unpopular government and rode a strong anti-incumbency wave. This time, he was running on his record — and the voters found him and his message even more compelling.
The result owes much to the strengths of the BJP’s electoral campaign — especially Modi’s incredible energy and oratorical skills, the leveraging of social media, and the delivery of personal public goods such as housing, toilets and cooking gas. The fact that India’s weak economy, rising joblessness and pervasive agrarian crisis did not dampen support for the BJP says something about Modi’s high leadership quotient and the fecklessness of the opposition.
But it also reveals something about how Indian society has changed — in ways that have perhaps been misrepresented by the English-speaking interlocutors who interpret India for the West.
The reality is that Indian society has become more aspirational, more assertive and less deferential, with more pathways to social mobility than ever before. Rising social groups are resentful of the social and cultural capital that privileges the elite and are increasingly willing to express this resentment electorally.
This is perhaps most true of the country’s young population. Given the high rates of joblessness, one would expect the youths to vote against the BJP. In fact, support for the BJP has been greater among youths. Though India’s youths are more educated than ever before, the poor quality of educational institutions has meant that their credentials inflate their actual employability. But compared to the social stasis of earlier generations, this social group is deeply aspirational. Buoyed by the cheapest mobile data costs in the world (just 3 percent of the global average), Indians consume more mobile data than counterparts in China and spend more time on social media platforms than do those in the United States. The massive exposure of India’s youths to social media such as TikTok or WhatsApp has upended their cloistered upbringings and the age hierarchy, making them more likely to embrace the BJP’s anti-elite rhetoric.
Young people are not the only ones pushing back against hierarchies. Gender inequalities in India are severe, and the BJP had historically struggled with winning support among women due to its perceived socially conservative agenda. Yet this election saw not only a record voter turnout overall, but also a record turnout among women. For the first time, the turnout of male and female voters was similar — around 67 percent — and the BJP appears to have slightly narrowed its gender gap. The defeat of Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, to a female BJP candidate, Smriti Irani, in a constituency held by the elite-dominated Congress party for nearly four decades epitomizes this change.
In truth, Indian society has long been one of the most hierarchical in the world. Its Westernized elite is aware of these inequalities but, like elites around the world facing political resentments, has rarely considered its own social privileges — including the privilege of language.
A significant divide in India is between those with strong English skills — reflective of their educational background and thus their class background — and those without. Older elites are more comfortable in English, have a more cosmopolitan sensibility and maintain a more secular outlook, but are less in tune with the socially conservative views prevalent in the villages and small towns where the majority of Indians live.
Now, that old Nehruvian India is giving way and is being replaced by Modi’s India, one that is less embarrassed by its limited English and heavy accents. Its nationalism is unapologetic about India’s Hindu roots, and it is prepared to be more assertive in defense of what it regards as its national interests — even if it means redefining the idea of the “nation.”
Within India, this means less regard for what Modi’s supporters regard as the “false secularism” that has supposedly given undue advantages to India’s nearly 200 million Muslims. While it is true that secular Western democracies do not grant special protections to religious minorities to practice their personal laws like India does, the reality is that India’s Muslims face widespread discrimination, socioeconomic disadvantages and even occasional violence.
Internationally, this means support for a more assertive and forceful India, evident in the way the Modi government reacted to Chinese buildup in Doklam in 2017 and the terrorist attack in Kashmir earlier this year. But this does not necessarily imply a more security-conscious government. Indeed, in the past few years, India’s defense spending fell to its lowest level (as a share of gross domestic product) in more than half a century.
These shifts are not ephemeral but rather fundamental, long-term changes that will not be overturned by another election. Contrary to popular belief, Modi did not catalyze a changing India; a changing India is what elected Modi. For better or worse, this new India is emerging, and, as it becomes the world’s largest country by population and the third largest by the size of its economy in about a decade, it will increasingly play by its own rules.