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The rise and rise of Narendra Modi

By Katharine Adeney

As the results began to be released at the end of the Indian election in May 2014 (which took over 5 weeks to complete) it became apparent that Modi had managed what few, if any, observers would have predicted; a majority of seats for one party: his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  As the results rolled in, soon-to-be prime minister Modi preached a message of unity, promising to ‘keep everyone together’, and, despite the overall majority secured by the BJP, to continue to work with his alliance partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Modi was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002 when a massacre of between 1-2000 Muslims took place. Although he has never been convicted of crimes relating to this massacre, which human rights organisations concluded were abetted by the state, several people associated with the BJP were.  Many countries consequently refused him visas (including the UK and the US).  These visa restrictions were lifted when it became likely that he would be India’s next premier.  That Modi was a controversial choice as prime ministerial candidate can be shown by the fact that one of the partners of the BJP in the state of Bihar resigned from the BJP–led NDA alliance in protest at his elevation in 2013.  Many observers were unsure if the BJP would manage to appeal beyond its core base with Modi as their leader.

India has changed massively in the last 25 years, opening up its economy in the 1990s, but also politically.  After Independence, India was dominated by the Indian National Congress, a political party that benefited from the simple plurality electoral system bequeathed by the departing British, winning an overall majority of seats (although not votes) in all elections from independence until 1977. From the late 1960s however, caste and regional political parties asserted themselves at the state level, and gradually became actors on the national stage.  Since 1989 the received wisdom of Indian politics had been that, with the decline of the once dominant Congress, coalition politics was the new norm.  The BJP’s electoral success not only threw this assumption out of the window, surpassing its own predictions, but it did this with a controversial leader.

Although the NDA had been expected to win the 2014 election, the results for the BJP were unexpected.  The BJP secured 282 of 545 seats, an overall majority (the author, listening to the results coming in, was convinced that the commentators were confusing the BJP and their alliance partners, the NDA).  The incumbent, Congress, was reduced to just 44 seats. An indication of the scale of this defeat is that commentators before the election argued that less than a 100 seats would be a major defeat! Congress is still licking its wounds.  It is important to stress that the BJP was a beneficiary of the simple plurality electoral system. It secured 31 percent of the vote and converted this 52 percent of the seats, compared to Congress’s 19.3 percent converting to just 8 percent of the seats. The BJP’s astonishing success was secured in collaboration with its alliance partners through seat sharing deals (the BJP negotiates a percentage of the seats within a state it stands in, its alliance partners stand in the others).  It would be a brave BJP election strategist who would recommend jettisoning these partners.

Several factors explain Modi’s success.   First and foremost, it was a personal triumph for Modi; a third of voters wanted him to be prime minister.  As many of the contributions to the #IndiaVotes2014 blog run out of the School of Politics and IR at the University of Nottingham stressed, Modi ran an extremely presidential campaign.  This is a pattern he has subsequently repeated in state elections.  Part of this presidential campaign was his projection as a politician capable of reviving strong economic growth (growth rates in India have dropped in recent years).  He championed his personal success in revitalising the economy of Gujarat and argued that he was the man to get India working again. Although several states in India have better economic indicators than Gujarat, many Indians, especially the aspirational youth, and the more affluent, were receptive to this message.

In his projection as a strong and decisive leader, Modi was helped by the ineptness of the Congress and their recently poor record in leadership, governance and corruption. Before the elections, the sitting prime minister, Manmohan Singh announced he would stand down. However, Rahul Gandhi the son of previous (assassinated) prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was not named as the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate, although he was the heir presumptive.  Rahul failed to impress the voters.   In contrast, Modi, an experienced Chief Minister, cut a more credible figure. In addition, the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party helped focus voters’ minds on the corruption issue, although it only managed to secure four seats and was not the game changer its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, predicted.

What does this mean for India?

Modi was elected because of his image as a strong man, a politician who ‘gets things done’.  Many were willing to ignore the allegations made about his role in Gujarat but others have expressed concern about the fate of religious minorities.  In its previous coalition administrations the BJP was reined back in its promise to remove protection for Muslim and Christian personal laws (by seeking to introduce a Uniform Civil Code) as well as its desire to remove the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.  Many have expressed concerns that these issues will be revived. This is unlikely, not least because, although the BJP secured a majority of seats, it did so in conjunction with seat sharing alliances.  Many of the partners of the NDA would not support such changes and the BJP does not have a majority in the upper house.

What is changing however is the discourse of politics.  BJP campaigners rail against a ‘ love jihad’ (allegedly being perpetrated by Muslim men, seducing and then converting Hindu girls to Islam), a BJP MP recently called for Hindus to have ‘at least four children in order to protect Hindu religion’ against the Muslim ‘threat’ and a minister recently alluded to religious minorities as being illegitimate children.  Although the discourse itself is not new, that such high profile politicians are generally free to make these remarks (although Modi forced the minister to apologise for her comments), as well as the frequency with which they occur, worries many. President Obama on his recent visit to India made a point of commenting ‘that every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose’.  Muslims have been very concerned about the rhetoric coming from the government, although 8 percent of Muslims voted for the BJP!

However, despite these changes in acceptable discourse, Hindu nationalists have continued to berate Modi for not doing enough to promote the Hindu nationalist agenda.  As Modi ran on a ticket to get the economy working again, he has understandably focused on this. There are signs that the economy is growing faster. Inflation has also dropped and there has been a recent interest rate cut (helped in part by declining oil prices – India imports 80 percent of its oil). Modi ran his campaign as a pro-business one, and in recent months several initiatives have been pushed through including compulsory (and controversial) land purchasing rules, and a goods and service tax reform, reducing the tariffs that currently have to be paid at internal state borders.   Although such measures may increase Indian growth (some have predicted the latter measure could add 2 percentage points to GDP), they may not do much to lessen levels of poverty.  Gujarat, the state where Modi made his name, ranks in the middle of Indian states in terms of human development indicators. Despite his personal commitment to reform, Modi will be constrained by his Hindu nationalist base (many of whom oppose liberalisation of the Indian economy) and by the realities of Indian politics. The majority of voters belong to the Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes (former Untouchables). Rolling back the Indian state, for example by removing food subsidies, would substantially diminish the potential vote bank for the BJP and its allies. This is why Modi vetoed the WTO trade deal in 2014; agreement was only reached after an exemption on food subsidies for India was secured.

Vote banks are important and Modi’s victory in 2014 was in no small part due to its electoral domination of the northern Hindi heartland.  However, accommodating all areas of the country is important for maintaining a sense of nationhood and preventing the emergence of regionalist sentiments.  India is a multilingual democracy.  Proposals to remove English as an official language in the 1960s caused major protests in the south of the country.  However, since Modi took office, attempts have been made to prioritise the use of Hindi over English.  Northern (Hindi speaking) Indians also dominate the cabinet.   These signs may bode ill for centre-state relations.  Although some caste and regional political parties had their parliamentary representation substantially reduced by the success of the BJP, many regional parties, particularly in the southern states, did exceptionally well.

Modi is a decisive leader, and quickly gaining a reputation as one reluctant to delegate.  The BJP’s dependence on the ‘Modi factor’ and Modi’s presidential style of both campaigning and governing has (potential) echoes in another populist prime minister, Indira Gandhi.  Indira Gandhi split the Congress Party in the late 1960s and pursued populist policies. The Congress has never recovered from the centralisation and organisational atrophy witnessed under her rule; one of the reasons for the success of alternative parties. Even today Congress remains in thrall to the Gandhi family.  Modi’s ascension has been meteoritic, but the BJP would be wise to be alert to recent Indian political history.

Modi has successfully projected India on the world stage and his personal drive and ambition are shaking up much of the bureaucracy. He seeks to make India great. He will be less constrained by coalition partners than previous BJP led administrations were. However, the diversity and size of India require adapting to the logic of different levels of economic and social development within India, as well as managing the population(s) of such a diverse country. Modi’s challenge will be to effectively govern for all Indians, not merely his Hindu nationalist base.

Professor Katharine Adeney is the Director of the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham and tweets at @katadeney. This article originally appeared in Political Insight 6 (1) 2015, pp. 28-31.

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inAsia and PacificIndia Votes 2014International Relations

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