Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) flashes the victory sign next to president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Amit Shah as they celebrate their victory in India's general elections, in New Delhi on May 23, 2019. - Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed victory on May 23 in India's general election and vowed an "inclusive" future, with his party headed for a landslide win to crush the Gandhi dynasty's comeback hopes. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP)MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images
BJP leader Narendra Modi (left) and party president Amit Shah celebrate the BJP's election victory. The back-to-back wins are the first time any party other than Congress has secured two consecutive, single-party majorities in India's parliament © AFP

When Narendra Modi led his Bharatiya Janata Party to a sweeping victory in India’s 2014 elections, it was seen by many as an exceptional, one-off event, stemming from anger at the incumbent Congress party over economic instability and corruption. 

But in the wake of Mr Modi’s landslide re-election win on Thursday, it is clear that his 2014 victory was the harbinger of a fundamental change — nothing less than the reordering of India’s political landscape

The BJP — the political arm of a century-old ethno-nationalist movement — has emerged as India’s paramount political force, supplanting Congress, which led the country’s anti-colonial struggle and dominated public life for decades after independence. 

The BJP’s back-to-back wins are the first time any party other than Congress has secured two consecutive, single-party majorities in parliament. “This is essentially the wholesale replacement of Congress dominance by BJP dominance,” said Kanchan Chandra, professor of politics at New York University. 

The verdict is a powerful affirmation of public faith in Mr Modi, a tea-seller’s son who depicts himself as the nation’s watchman and who has captivated Indians with his vow of asceticism, frenetic energy and efforts to improve their material and economic prospects.

“Getting a single-party majority in 2019 is even more significant than getting it in 2014,” said Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “In 2014, you could attribute it to the unpopularity of the [former prime minister] Manmohan Singh regime. In 2019, you can only attribute it to the popularity of Mr Modi.” 

Through the adroit use of social media — including his own Narendra Modi “app” — a monthly national radio address and leaning on mainstream media outlets and other critics, Mr Modi has maintained his image as hardworking, well-intentioned and incorruptible. He is seen as working tirelessly to modernise India and elevate its global standing. 

“Here, we have a single political leader who exudes total dominance — the likes of which we haven’t seen since Indira Gandhi — in terms of being able to saturate the political space and sustain a heightened level of popularity,” says Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

But the BJP sweep also appears to mark the ascendance of an idea of India fundamentally at odds with the vision laid out by anti-colonial leader Mahatma Gandhi and his political heir Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first post-independence prime minister. They believed India’s interests were best secured by a secular state, governing a religiously and linguistically diverse society whose members all had equal claim as citizens. 

But Mr Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and other party leaders are all longtime activists of the rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. This organisation was founded in 1925 and based on the belief India should primarily be a Hindu nation, where the rights of the majority should trump those of Muslims and Christians, seen as alien religions that pose existential threats to Hindu society. 

“Under Nehru, India was never a homeland for India’s Hindus specifically — it was a homeland for everybody,” said Ms Chandra. “Now, you have essentially a new version of nationalism. It’s very clearly a Hindu nationalist idea and this idea now has mass roots.” 

Such ideas were played down in Mr Modi’s first prime ministerial campaign, as he focused on economic aspirations and tapped widespread public anger over corruption. But the idea of India as primarily a Hindu nation has now come to the fore more explicitly — particularly in the BJP’s virulent social media campaign, which was awash with anti-Muslim rhetoric. 

A graphic with no description

The question now is how Mr Modi will utilise his renewed — and strengthened — mandate at a time when people are looking to him to deliver on his original promises of more jobs and economic opportunity. 

“We are in completely uncharted territory,” said Mr Dhume. “We have no idea what a resurgent Hindu nationalist, with a second single party majority, will choose to do with that kind of untrammelled power.” 

India is facing serious economic challenges, including slowing growth, a persistently high fiscal deficit, tepid private investment and weakness and instability in the financial system. Mr Modi has yet to articulate any plans for a further round of major reforms, such as selling unprofitable state-enterprises, relaxing restrictive labour laws, modernising the land market or tackling the state-dominated banking system. 

He is initially expected to tinker, further refining the tax system, and the bankruptcy court, which may not be sufficient to unlock India’s growth potential. 

A graphic with no description

“This is one of the biggest downside risks of the BJP return,” said Mr Vaishnav. “There is really nobody of cabinet rank who serves as an economic reform compass for the government. To date, they have not been willing to bring somebody on who could perform that role for them for fear of creating an alternative power centre.” 

But Mr Modi is also likely to face mounting pressure from his core supporters to act on some of the rightwing’s political priorities, which could prove a polarising distraction. Mr Shah has already promised to start a national register of citizens, a potential tool for disenfranchising millions of Muslims. There may also be a move to try to amend the constitution to end the special status of the Muslim-majority Kashmir region so that people from across India can buy property and settle there.

“The very narrative of the republic — what is considered Kosher — has been rewritten and reclamation will be difficult,” said Kapil Komireddi, author of Malevolent Republic, a book on India’s shifting political culture. 

“There was a time in this country where to be a Hindu nationalist, or RSS member, was stigmatised. Now there is stigma attached to being secular,” he added. “If you are a secularist, you are an apologist for the crimes of the Muslim invaders and the trauma of partition.” 

Get alerts on Indian election when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article