India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi enormously dominated the 2019 Lok Sabha electoral battlefield. His landslide victory emphatically affirmed his complete control of Indian politics, evident in the extent to which his adversaries were disgraced and ignored by voters. Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee were utterly humiliated in the election. So, they offered their resignation from their posts (which was subsequently refused by their parties).
Mr Modi, however, faced a considerable amount of criticism from the international media regarding his first five years in power and his campaign tone. For example, the Time Magazine called him “The Divider in Chief.” Many others condemned his pre-election rhetoric as the most vitriolic and divisive in the history of Indian politics.
But now, his critics have been gasping at the scale of his victory. In today’s unfathomably complex Indian politics, Mr Modi’s achievement is noteworthy. In the first three decades after independence, the Indian National Congress led first by Pandit Nehru and then by his daughter Indira Gandhi monopolised the political scene, and there were hardly any serious challengers. During those years, regional parties had not come into the national political fray. So, if one makes an objective appraisal of Mr Modi’s electoral success, there can be no two opinions about the fact that he has made history.
An Indian political scholar cerebrally pointed out in a piece, published by The Telegraph, that Modi has successfully stamped his personality on every good act of his government. He made the voters see every act of social welfare as a gift flowing from his generosity and concern for the people. From the perspective of the elections, the strategy worked wonders. In a way, his personality cult has engendered a paradigm shift in Indian politics.
One of his smart moves that significantly transformed the voters’ sentiments at a crucial moment was his “surgical” strike on Pakistan. Whatever may have been the reality of the strike, the decision led voters to see Modi as a strong leader who will not surrender to external threats, yet still manage to bring about a resolution.
Mr Modi has ensured that BJP is now the only political party with genuine footprints all over the country. In comparison, the Congress and smaller regional parties look starkly inconsequential. In this election, BJP dominated in states where it was practically unknown in 2014. The West Bengal is the most striking example. Just before the election, as the Congress and other parties were haggling among themselves to establish alliances, there appeared to be an illusion that the Lok Sabha polls could be something of a real fight. How hollow those assumptions turned out to be!
The foremost question now is: how seriously one can take Mr Modi’s post-election hints, that he is contemplating a shift to a more inclusive and unifying form of governance? With the election now behind him, Modi said that he wants to win the hearts of those who did not support him this time.
Oftentimes, politicians say a lot of things they don’t earnestly mean. When a new situation emerges and new needs have to be addressed, political leaders tweak their rhetoric. The international media has expressed concerns about Mr Modi’s Hindutva leanings and episodes of bigotry from some BJP hawks, which might lead Modi to reconsider his political stance. The editorial board of Britain’s The Guardian newspaper talked about the Muslims being “lynched with apparent impunity.” The article in question says, “the landslide win for Mr Modi will see India’s soul lost to dark politics.” The Guardian mentions that support in India for autocratic rule (55 percent) is higher than anywhere else including Putin’s Russia, as revealed by polling in 2017. In his constituent assembly speech, Mr BR Ambedkar had once said, “Bakhti in religion may be a road to salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bakthior hero worship is a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship.”
After Hindus, Muslims are the second largest religious population in India. According to the Census 2011, there are roughly 172 million Muslims, who constitute more than 14.2 percent of the entire population. If BJP under Mr Modi is to deliver on its promise to lift India from the world’s sixth biggest economy to the third position, a reasonable level of religious tolerance and social tranquillity must be attained.
Clearly, Mr Modi faces a situation wherein he needs to act carefully. His success in tackling today’s complex challenge of unifying the nation is uncertain and remains to be seen. However, the political world is transient, and policies that leaders follow can change depending on the needs of a particular moment. There are many historical examples that demonstrate this fact: Mr Jinnah’s much-acclaimed assertion in the Constitutional Assembly speech of August 11, 1948, reflecting a secular vision for the new nation of Pakistan, and affirming separation of the state and religion—that all religious communities would be “equal citizens of one state”—had amazed political commentators. It was, however, deemed self-contradictory to his two-nation theory, which was the bedrock of his fight for a separate state for the Muslims of India, prior to Partition in 1947.
Now that Mr Modi is in a supremely invincible position, it is plausible that he may configure a new strategy in order to leave a constructive legacy in politics. And for all that to go smoothly, it is important that he prioritises addressing the current state of polarisation and intolerance among the general public in the country.
Previously, the international media had shredded BJP’s communal rancour towards the Muslims. Mr Modi must be aware that his previous divisive political rhetoric has negatively affected India’s image in the global map. When celebrating the outcome of the recent election, he indicated that he would work to win over those voting segments that might have been alienated before. One could infer from such statements that his government would try to reach out to India’s main minority group—the Muslims.
The hope that Mr Modi has raised will be put to test before long.
Ziaus Shams Chowdhury is a former ambassador.