PM Modi faces a range of opposition forces. The principle opposition is provided by the Congress Party and its allies, the United Progressive Alliance. Other opponents include regional parties in different states, such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, as well as leftist parties in the state of Kerala. The BJP and its allies enjoy a crushing majority in the Lok Sabha, controlling 336 of the 543 seats: the BJP alone has 268 seats.
Fears run abound that Modi’s re-election will rent asunder India’s constitutional values and social fabric. Since the BJP’s ascension to power, lynchings of social minorities, especially Dalits and Muslims, have been on the rise. Leaders of India’s historically oppressed Dalit communities remain anxious that the BJP seeks to dismantle the affirmative actions for oppressed populations guaranteed by the Indian constitution. The very idea of India is at stake.
When India became independent in 1947, few people expected the country to survive. Nevertheless, Indians introduced universal adult suffrage soon after obtaining independence and adopted a republican constitution in 1950, a full 15 years before economic superpowers such as the US lifted literacy and tax qualifications for voting.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s international observers remained skeptical of India surviving as a democracy, given its huge levels of poverty and illiteracy. Yet, India not only survived but also emerged – warts and all – as one of the world’s most thriving democracies. The country presents a very moving story of the ways in which some of the poorest people on the planet have sought to construct and sustain democracy against enormous odds. Their achievements are under threat today.
India poignantly illustrates the global challenges posed to democracy by the rise of nationalism and populism. Identity politics, or a politics that focuses on people’s particular social identities, permeates political narratives in India as elsewhere in the world in 2019. Indians are faced with an idea of nationalism that seeks to exclude significant sections of their own population from its ambit. And they have borne the brunt of right-wing populism, as shown by the growth of cow-protection squads administering vigilante justice over the last few years.
Social identity provides the basis of political mobilization. India today faces these challenges alongside countries such as Brazil, Turkey, the US and various European countries. Modi joins a galaxy of strongmen politicians such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the US’s Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, accused of rolling back democratic achievements of the last few decades.
How Indians respond to the challenges of exclusionary nationalism, right-wing populism and supremacist identity politics in the 2019 elections holds key lessons for the world as it confronts the global backsliding of democracy. After all, elections provide a window onto the hopes harboured by citizens, the anxieties they confront and the possibilities they imagine. The narratives that emerge prior to, during, and immediately after any elections offer unique insights into ongoing processes of social change.