The Debate

Narendra Modi’s 2019 Landslide: Why It Happened and What Happens Next

Modi’s chest-thumping over Pakistan paid off.

Abhijnan Rej
Narendra Modi’s 2019 Landslide: Why It Happened and What Happens Next
Credit: OgreBot via Wikimedia Commons

In what would count as a pivotal moment in modern Indian history, Narendra Modi was re-elected to office as the prime minister of India yesterday. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became the first non-Congress party in the history of independent India to win two consecutive majorities in the parliament. While the official seat-count is yet to be completed (at the time of writing), it is expected that the BJP’s performance this year will surpass its already impressive 2014 record.

As such, the 2019 Indian elections will be studied for some time to come, not the least because it was widely seen as India’s first national security election. In its run-up this summer, the BJP intentionally shifted the Indian electorate’s attention away from its traditional concerns – such as the state of the economy or governance, issues Modi had campaigned around in 2014, or even caste politics – and focused instead on terrorism, Pakistan, and Modi’s superlative ability to tame both. The fact that it succeeded so spectacularly is impressive given that the Modi government’s performance on issues that should have mattered to the voting public – such as job growth or farmers’ distress – has been middling (to put it mildly).

Modi’s victory presents two sets of exceedingly interesting propositions and puzzles that will have to be examined and tested by political scientists and analysts over the next five years.

The first – obvious – ones are around why was he re-elected to begin with, given his spotty economic track record. Do recall that many of Modi’s economic woes had been self-inflicted, such as a hare-brained 2016 scheme to tackle graft by pulling 86 percent of India’s currency out of circulation overnight. Or, introducing a cumbersome nationwide goods-and-services tax in 2017 that proved to be too onerous for many small businesses to comply with. Both measures were serious shocks to the Indian economy slowing output growth by some accounts. Meanwhile, a leaked government report earlier this year noted that India’s unemployment rate stood at a 45-year high in fiscal year 2017-18. And yet, the Indian voter chose not only to re-elect Modi but also rewarded him by increasing his margin of victory.

The intellectually lazy would lump Modi with Trump and ascribe his re-election to some abstract global surge in ‘populism’. Besides being analytically vacuous, the circumstances of Trump and Modi’s elections (both in 2014 and 2019) have been quite different. Assuming Randall Schweller’s provocative ‘third-image’ explanation of Trump’s rise holds – that diffusion of global economic power harmed American workers which, in turn, led to Trump’s election – nothing of that sort happened in India. If anything, Modi supporters are young – and are likely to benefit from globalization, unlike Trump’s base.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Hindutva traditionally has had an adversarial relationship with western modernity and as a consequence with globalization, which continues till date. Modi’s aggressive outreach to the west, as an example, sits uneasily with core precepts of that ideology that view foreign influences with great suspicion. Should Modi up the tempo of his engagements with the United States and key European states in his second term, it could potentially set him on a conflict course with the more ideologically-rigid elements in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the BJP’s parent organization).

Simply put, Modi’s globalizing impulses (at least in theory – his trade liberalization record so far has been problematic) and Trump’s deglobalizing stance make them as similar as chalk and cheese.

Similarly, reading Modi’s re-election as a mandate for Hindutva is not as straightforward as it sounds. The median age of the Indian population is about 28 years, which means that most young voters in India have no memory of the last major nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots in the country (in 1992-93), and only few have faint memories of the Gujarat riots of 2002. (Data shows that number of riots have fallen sharply over the last 20 years.)

While a 2016 survey did conclude that “thoughts and views [of Indian youth] reflect a troubling inclination towards intolerance and conservatism,” the same survey also noted that “[e]mployment is the prime concern of young Indians.” So, to put this together: young Indians (1) care about jobs above all else, which Modi has failed to generate in requisite numbers, (2) have faint memories (if any) of religious riots which makes Hindu-Muslim animosity impersonal and abstract, and (3) are socially conservative (which could have translated to voting for any number of social-conservative regional parties who were in the fray).

To my mind, if all of the above three held during the elections, put together they hardly indicate a youth mandate for Hindutva.

So, what gives?

The simplest answer is the most obvious one. This was a resounding affirmation of Modi’s decision to strike Pakistan in February 2019 – and thereby of his apparent decisiveness in face of provocations. On-the-ground reports during the campaign have suggested as much, and as it progressed observers could see the party doubling down on the Balakot airstrikes card. This underscoring of Modi’s national-security prowess was also reflected in the 2019 BJP Manifesto which literally front-and-centered the airstrikes along with the September 2016 Indian special-forces raid in Pakistan-administered Kashmir – and the Indian state’s apparent impotence in the face of it. Why this would be so important to young voters merits a thought. Recollect the median age of the Indian population again: 28 years. This means that most young people in India have come to age incessantly hearing about Pakistani perfidy in Kashmir including the India-Pakistan war in Kargil twenty years ago. Many of them remember the Congress government’s decision not to retaliate militarily against Pakistan when terrorists sponsored by that country attacked Mumbai eleven years ago.

And therein lies the second set of propositions that will be tested in the next five years of the Modi government. By campaigning and winning 2019 on the national security plank, he may have set for himself a commitment trap. The nightmare scenario here, of course, is yet another terror attack right before a key regional election (say, before the crucial Uttar Pradesh election in 2022)where Modi’s party may pressure him to act against Pakistan for the electoral incentives it might generate.

This creates a natural two-level game which considerably complicates the escalation calculus between the two countries. On the other hand, knowing that Modi’s popular legitimacy now derives largely from his image as a national-security strongman, Pakistan (or one of its proxies) may decide to dent it by attempting to push him into a corner – through a provocation – in a way that the onus of escalation (and the consequent international opprobrium) will entirely be upon Modi.