Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) flashes the victory sign as he celebrates victory in India's general elections, in New Delhi on May 23. Photo: AFP/Money Sharma

In 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power at the helm of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after articulating a vision of a revived India, a manufacturing giant with high-tech capabilities that could meet the rising aspirations of a growing young population. Modi promised voters that his administration would be an era of “achhe din” (good times), marked by “minimum government, maximum governance,” inclusive development (“sab ka saath sab ka vikas”), high employment, and rising economic growth and prosperity. Voters believed him in droves.

But in India’s just-completed election, Modi repeated none of this. He knew full well that the hollowness of his own promises (and his abject failure to fulfill any of them) would come back to haunt him if he did.

So instead, Modi ran a very different sort of campaign. India, he claimed, was beset by enemies within and without. Only he – a muscular nationalist – and his stout band of watchful Chowkidars could keep the country safe from terrorists, infiltrators, “anti-nationals,” and “termites” seeking to hollow out the sturdy structure of the majoritarian Hindu Rashtra, a Hindu nation, that he was building. It worked. Modi’s “khaki” campaign gave him an even bigger electoral victory than in 2014: 303 of the 543 seats in the lower house, and another 50 in the hands of his allies.

The 2019 Indian election will be a case study in how to upend the conventional assumption of electoral politics that an incumbent is judged on his record of performance against his own promises. Modi failed spectacularly against the very yardsticks he had set himself, cheerfully moved the goalposts, and scored big goals in a totally different game from the one he said five years ago he would play. And yet the voters rewarded him. Why?

The only plausible explanation starts with the construction of the most extraordinary personality cult in modern Indian history. The cult of Modi is now buttressed by larger-than-life imagery, hundreds of thousands of social-media warriors, an intimidated “mainstream” media, ubiquitous cameramen, and a slick publicity machinery that was switched on 24/7, all lubricated by 56 billion rupees (US$750 million) of taxpayer funds relentlessly promoting his every move. This was indeed a “prime minister with a difference,” but not in quite the way the slogan implied, for this was India’s first PM who cast a shadow far larger than his substance.

Of course, this exercise was aided and abetted by a formidable party organization: millions of members recruited through “missed calls” (when recipients call back, they reach a BJP recruiter); effective polling booth committees active well before elections, including hundreds of thousands of “panna pramukhs” (BJP workers, each in charge of cultivating voters on a single page of the electoral register); foot soldiers of the Hindu-supremacist RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or National Volunteer Corps, delegated from every shakha (cell) in a state to interact with sensitive constituencies; campaign squads persistently visiting voters’ homes with leaflets and arguments; and a command structure that relayed instructions down the hierarchy with swift and unchallengeable authority.

Relentlessly bombarded by propaganda and by the effective messaging of a well-honed party machine, 37.4% of India’s voters decided that Modi was indeed the embodiment of their nation, and that it was almost their duty to vote for him

And so, relentlessly bombarded by propaganda and by the effective messaging of a well-honed party machine, 37.4% of India’s voters decided that Modi was indeed the embodiment of their nation, and that it was almost their duty to vote for him – not necessarily for the feckless, opportunistic, and often faceless candidates presented listed on ballots next to the lotus symbol of the BJP, but for Modi himself. The presidentialization of India’s parliamentary system is complete.

Does this mean that issues no longer matter, performance is irrelevant, and Indian voters are beguiled purely by personality? It certainly seems that way in those states that turned toward the BJP. Tellingly, better-educated voters in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab (where Hindus are not in a crushing majority) were not so easily taken in by stirring rhetoric and majoritarian militarism. And it must be noted that 37% of the popular vote gave Modi 56% of the seats in India’s first-past-the-post system. Still, a win is a win by the rules. And this is a big win.

It is nonetheless extraordinary that the BJP was able to persuade people to vote their prejudices rather than their economic interests. After all, why would a young man who voted for Modi in 2014, expecting to get a job that he needs, vote for him again in 2019 when he is still unemployed? He does so, apparently, because he is consumed by fear and sees in Modi his protector. The object of that fear is often defined as a Muslim – and additionally as a malign Pakistani general or a terrorist despatched by him – who must be confronted by a strongman ruler.

The worry for many Indian liberals is that our long-cherished idea of our country as a benign, inclusive state – thriving in its astonishing diversity of religions, ethnicities, languages and castes – is collapsing. In its place is emerging an India that is less pluralistic, less accepting of difference, less inclusive, and less tolerant than the one we had long celebrated. The ideal of unity has given way to one of uniformity; patriotism has been redefined as chauvinism; independent institutions are yielding to a dominant government; democracy is being reshaped into one-man rule.

This is what Modi cheerfully dubs “New India.” It is a vision that has left many fearful Indians yearning for the old one.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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