Game, set, and match to Narendra Modi. BJP’s landslide is a victory for Prime Minister Modi rather than his party. BJP lost state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh just five months ago. Yet, it made almost a clean sweep of all three states this time.
The issue this time around was not who should become chief minister of a state but who should become prime minister of the country. Congress president Rahul Gandhi was routed in his home constituency of Amethi, Uttar Pradesh.
Hindu nationalism overcame economic hiccups. The economy slowed recently. Some surveys showed record unemployment. When Narendra Modi came to power at the Centre in 2014, many expected him to be a radical reformer like US president Ronald Reagan. In practice, Modi often resembled Bernie Sanders in welfarism. His flops included Make in India, Smart Cities, Digital India and high, impractical minimum support prices (MSPs) for crops. But he has won the political capital for radical change, and needs to use it.
The police, judiciary and educational institutions require reform no less than the economy. Balakot and surgical strikes helped Modi portray himself as India’s protector against Pakistan and terrorism. He also benefited from a sorry surge of communalism.
Modi has instituted some economic reforms, but after an initial spurt, the economy’s growth rate has slowed. New investments have fallen since Modi took office, and his promise of extensive job creation remains largely unfulfilled. His signature demonetization effort (taking the vast majority of banknotes out of circulation) made many families’ life savings valueless and caused hardship to almost everyone.
To compensate, Modi and his followers ramped up the Hindutva pitch. First came the “love jihad”—false accusations that Muslim men were wooing and impregnating Hindu women to change India’s demographic balance (Muslims make up about 14 percent of the population, Hindus about 80 percent). Next came the “cow protection” lynchings in BJP-controlled states such as Uttar Pradesh (UP). Gangs of Hindu men killed Muslims whom they falsely accused of eating beef.
PM Narendra Modi criticised some communal attacks after long pauses. But nominating Pragya Singh Thakur, facing charges of terrorism, for the Bhopal seat was deplorable. Worse, she won, despite the prime minister criticising her pro-Nathuram Godse utterances. Nathuram Godse was a thinker who altered the tenets of Hinduism and came up with the totalitarian ideology of Hindutva.
The only figure who reshaped Hinduism more than the Hindutva founders was Mahatma Gandhi. His vision of the faith was, in many ways, the absolute inverse of Hindutva: He cared nothing about branding, and a great deal about belief. It was an ideal so familiar today that one can easily forget what a break from the past it represented. Gandhi’s radical embrace of non-violence drew not only from Hindu tradition, but, as he famously said, also from the Sermon on the Mount, from Buddhist texts, and even from Leo Tolstoy. After a member of Savarkar’s group assassinated Gandhi in 1948, the entire Hindutva movement was discredited for a generation.
Fast-forward to 2019, Gandhi’s murderer has been praised as a “patriot” by a candidate running on Narendra Modi’s ticket, and while the prime minister has said he disagrees with the remark, he did not withdraw his party’s backing.
Perhaps most ominously, in 2017 Modi appointed the radical priest Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of UP, India’s largest state. Adityanath’s militancy makes Modi seem almost moderate—and Adityanath openly covets his patron’s office. To top it all off, over the past half year, Modi has engaged in the most serious armed combat with Muslim-majority Pakistan in two decades. Pakistan prompted the action, but Modi’s changing his Twitter handle to Chowkidar (“Watchman”), and encouraging his supporters to do likewise, was purely his own choice.