Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has returned to power with a renewed mandate, with more seats and even more percentage of votes. Apparently, Modi’s policies have gone down well with the public as the margin of win on both the counts of number of seats and percentage of votes received, which rose by nearly 33 percent compared to 2014, shows. So, what does another five years of BJP mean for the internal politics of India and its external relationship with its neighbours and the rest of the world?
For one thing, the days of electoral alliance in India are over with the emergence of BJP under Modi as the single largest party for the second time, with a secure all-India base, much like the late eighties and the nineties under the Congress. And Modi has emerged as the dominant political personality. As for the Congress, although it might take comfort in the fact that it has won eight more seats than 2014, the sheen of Gandhi family as a political icon has vanished and the party’s status as a viable dominant opposition and an alternative to BJP has diminished greatly. And it seems that the idea of India envisaged by its founding fathers has lost out to the India of Modi and RSS Inc. The BJP has made inroads into many opposition bastions, Maharashtra and West Bengal being the two most prominent states.
The 2019 Indian Lok Sabha election has been considered by some Indian scholars as one of the three crucial elections since India’s independence; the others being: the first election after India’s independence, and the election held in 1977, which purged the ominous possibility of dictatorship, under a unified opposition. Because of what preceded in the socio-political scene of India, the 2019 election had become one of a choice between a Hindu Rashtra—a move intensified since 2014—and a secular government.
This election, it was expected, would be greatly informed by what had happened in the preceding five years during BJP’s first term in office. Observers had identified several areas that would have a significant bearing on the psyche of the 900 million voters. The first being the economy. Experts agree that the Indian economy has underperformed, particularly the rural economy which was brought in the headline by the farmers’ debt and suicide, demonetisation and shrinking employment opportunities. Although the social welfare schemes had a positive impact, what was promised in the economic sector was not delivered. But interestingly, that has not been reflected in the election results.
Why so? Why have the ranks of BJP supporters increased manifold in the past two decades? Are we to believe that all BJP voters subscribe to Modi’s idea of future India? Modi’s future India, as described by an Indian journalist several years ago, is that it should be “strong, rich and Hindu, and that all three things would have to happen together or none of them would happen at all. And this, in a nutshell, is the dominant conception in national politics today.”
The second was the social and religious alienation due to the emphasis on Hindutva ideology, which was a manifestation of “rich, strong and Hindu” identity, meaning that all religions would be subsumed under the main creed. That was reflected in the Goraksha and the lynching that it caused, the Love Jihad and Ghar Wapsi. The Ghar Wapsi effort had its downside too. While it may have forced the so-called converted back to the main fold of Hinduism, who was to ensure their social acceptability or accord them the social mobility—since most were from the lowest castes, a curse that had motivated them to “convert” in the first place?
One also saw in the last five years in India a constriction of space for free speech and attempts to dismantle educational institutions and rewriting of textbooks, particularly history. Many saw in the apparently robust foreign policy an effort to publicise the Modi personality, although he has brought India closer to the US strategic orbit and used the Balakot bombing to garner votes. And the “clean government” that was promised was not that clean actually.
But none of these things mattered really, and at the end of the day it was Modi and his charisma that prevailed.
And it prevailed because he promised doubling farmers’ income, making India the third largest economy by 2030, and spending more than a trillion rupees on infrastructure. His base—and a very large one at that—is banking on the BJP building a temple in Ajodhya, an unfinished task that the RSS and BJP would like to see finished. And there is a good chance that Modi might revisit Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that accords special status to Kashmir.
Modi won with a greater margin of victory than ever before also because he played on the fear psychosis of the people. Fear of the entire North East India being saturated by so-called illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, compared to “termites” by the BJP president. The Balakot episode played in favour of Modi despite many reservations about the official Indian narrative. But like Pakistan that thrives on anti-Indian psychosis, Modi played the Pakistan card too. In fact, as Prof Amartya Sen writes, “India’s general election was dominated by scaremongering rhetoric, used very effectively by Mr Modi.”
The long and short of it is that the next five years will see even more alienated minorities, particularly the Muslims, firm anchoring of the extreme far-right philosophy of Hindutva, and saffronisation of Indian politics that was initiated by the election of a Yogi as the chief minister of a state. The initial signs of that are reports of Muslims being set upon by Hindu fanatics in several parts of India after BJP’s victory.
For Bangladesh, acknowledged by India itself as its only trusted friend and neighbour in South Asia, there are several disconcerting issues that the country is faced with, and which India must address immediately.
Bangladesh will have to contend with saffronised politics on both sides of its borders, in Myanmar and India. While the use of religion in politics in Bangladesh is nothing new, the only difference between the situation in Bangladesh and these two sets of circumstances is that, in both our neighbouring countries, religion-based politics has been encouraged by the major political party, and in India, it has indeed received popular mandate to power at least in one state. In Bangladesh, the religious parties have been politically rejected.
Also vexing is the issue of NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, and in these cases, concrete steps must be initiated by India to assuage the misgivings and uncertainty in Bangladesh that these two matters have stoked. And it is hoped that with the increased BJP seats in West Bengal, it would be more assertive in resolving the Teesta water-sharing issue than it has been in the last five years.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.