On May 23, 2019, Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won India’s general election again. The win by Modi and the BJP has surprised most political analysts, with the consensus being that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP would secure a landslide victory, but it would be uncertain for the BJP to win the majority as a single party. None of the dozens of Indian experts and scholars I had consulted explicitly predicted that the BJP would win a majority in the Indian parliament. Some Indian media outlets even said that if the BJP failed to obtain 120 seats, Prime Minister Modi, who aroused controversy in the coalition government, would be definitely replaced by Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari or Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh.
However, Modi and the BJP changed the playbook again, and the result was even beyond the expectation of Modi himself. On May 18, just before the polling was over, Modi visited a Hindu temple in Kedarnath, Uttarakhand, where he practiced meditation for 15 hours. Many conjectured that he was praying for victory in the 2019 general election. On May 17, Modi held the first press conference since he took office as the prime minister, but refused to answer any questions, which sharply contrasted with the eloquence he showed on many occasions.
To some extent, Modi’s win disrupted people’s mindset on Indian voters habitually opposing the current prime minister in elections. There are various reasons behind Modi’s win, some of which are about specific tactics. For example, the BJP mobilized 1.2 million netizens to voluntarily disseminate the party’s electioneering videos and textual information via a multitude of social networking platforms, while the Indian National Congress (INC) only mobilized some 300,000 netizens. Moreover, BJP President Amit Shah, who helped Modi a lot in the electoral campaign, has a strong ability in publicity and mobilization.
Effective publicity is one key to the BJP’s win. India’s demographic structure (with youngsters aged below 35 accounting for more than 60 percent of the country’s total population) and the increase of registered voters enabled Shah to give full play to his ability in publicity. In the 2014 election, voters amounted to 814.5 million, and the figure increased to 900 million in 2019. Most of the more than 80 million new voters had never taken part in voting before. Considering that the Modi administration didn’t fix the problem of employment over the past five years, young voters were supposed to vote against him. Surprisingly, most of these young voters become fans of Modi.
The BJP’s win largely depended on Modi’s personal magnetism. That means most votes in favor of the BJP were attracted by Modi himself. On the contrary, most votes in favor of the INC were for the party, instead of its president Rahul Gandhi. In 2013, when Modi was elected BJP candidate for the prime minister of India, some top leaders of the BJP including Lal Krishna Advani remained unconvinced, and even Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj (former president of the BJP) had little “appetite” for Modi. The past five years have proven that Modi and Shah are perhaps the “best partners” for the BJP.
It is obvious that the analytical tools used by researchers to study India’s general election are wrong or inapplicable any more. People always use quantitative economic indexes such as unemployment rate, growth rate, and income growth rate to predict election results. The economic indexes of the Modi administration over the past five years cannot explain the current election results. Although India’s economic growth rate statistics seem satisfying, it is partly because the Modi administration altered the GDP calculation method. Not long ago, Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, accused the Modi government of falsifying economic data many times and fearing to announce the real unemployment rate. The surging protest activities of farmers indicate that Modi’s economic policy failed to achieve inclusive growth and to make rural residents benefit from India’s rapid economic growth.
One plausible explanation for Modi’s win is that ordinary Indians need a strong leader who can give them a sense of security. This seems to conform to the current international landscape. Geopolitical competitions, unbalanced globalization and particularly the increased feeling for individual fragility have caused a rise in authoritarianism worldwide, resulting in the emergence of political strongmen. So is the case in India. INC President Rahul Gandhi is relatively young and lacks political experience and decisiveness, so he cannot give people a sense of security. On the contrary, in the process of shaping himself into a strongman, Modi strengthened his image as a protector of the Indian people. In particular, the Modi government’s “surgical strikes” against Pakistan helped Modi win more favor from voters in the 2019 general election.
The reason behind this view is that religious radicalism is on the rise in Indian society, and resorting to religious ideology is an important means for individuals to seek a sense of security. Modi won the 2014 general election for his promise to boost India’s economic development and his Gujarat model of development. However, his win in the 2019 general election mainly relied on the attraction of Hindutva. As a matter of fact, the BJP won the election by taking advantage of Hindu ideology. In the 2014 general election, the BJP won 44 percent of votes and 190 of the 225 seats of Hindi-speaking states, but only 22 percent of votes and 92 of the 318 seats of non-Hindi-speaking states. In this year’s electoral campaign, the BJP secured a remarkable victory in non-Hindi-speaking states such as West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Evidently, an important factor behind this is the rise of Hindu radicalism.
Generally, Modi’s reelection, on the one hand, is because the BJP responded to the feelings of young people, and on the other hand, the party adapted to India’s economic and social changes. His reelection not only testifies to the enhancement of Hindu radicalism, nationalism and patriotic sentiment in India, but also demonstrates that the BJP will probably maintain a dominant position in India’s political arena amidst the decline of other political parties.
The author is a professor at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University.