Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Amreli, near Ahmedabad. More than 157 million of the country's 900 million voters are eligible to cast ballots on the second of seven days of voting in the world's biggest election. Photo: AFP

The resounding success of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent elections in India was by no means something very many experts and observers expected or predicted. While there were certainly signs that the BJP might well prevail and that the Congress party’s challenge – personified by Rahul Gandhi’s assumption of the role of the redeemer of his party’s political fortunes – might fall short of dislodging the BJP government, the eventual outcome of the elections left many political pundits, analysts, and political insiders dumbfounded.

Of all the various nuggets of facts that rendered the BJP’s win, nothing short of impressive was its ability to strengthen, along with a handful of seats with its coalition partners, its representation in the Lok Sabha, lower house of Parliament (from 303 to 352 seats), as well as make notable inroads by winning seats in states such as Odisha and especially West Bengal, where it had historically not had a strong presence. Equally noteworthy about this latter point is that given that West Bengal is renowned for being a bastion of resolutely leftist political ideologies as well as having a strong concentration of non-Hindu voters, two constituencies not historically drawn to the BJP, it has made sorting through some of the fallout of this election all the more intriguing and fascinating.

It is precisely in this aforementioned regard that both the “cult of personality” as well as the rather tired “religious card” interpretations routinely and, I will posit, sloppily and simplistically peddled to characterize the success of the BJP at least since 2014 leaves much to be desired.

To be sure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an orator and personality has captivated his fellow Indians and has been an unparalleled champion of India abroad. Even his most ardent detractors in the mainstream Indian media and compatriots on the other side of the political aisle from the BJP have been known to acknowledge that he has been a lightning rod and influential at having galvanizing the resurgence of the BJP. Some commentators have even gone down the path of drawing parallels between the ‘Donald Trump phenomenon” in the US and Modi’s ascendance.

While I will not here illuminate on the numerous flaws apparent in such a “cult of personality” interpretation for the increased prominence of the BJP, suffice it to say such explanations do a tremendous disservice to understanding the transformations that are slowly, but surely shaping the Indian body politic.

This ‘cult of personality’ explanation of the BJP’s prominence comes up shallow and wanting, especially as it simply cannot adequately account for much that transpired leading up to both the 2014 and again the 2019 election

This “cult of personality” explanation of the BJP’s prominence comes up shallow and wanting, especially as it simply cannot adequately account for much that transpired leading up to both the 2014 and again the 2019 election. It cannot, for example, explain why the constituencies in the Delhi or West Bengal region were not consumed by Modi’s personality, but yet other areas seemingly were. It also comes up woefully short in helping understand the transformation of voters’ sentiments this time in formerly non-BJP dominated states and constituencies.

It raises the question, for example, about how it is that Modi’s charm or charisma was not apparently compelling to large segments of Bengalis in 2014, but in 2019 was supposedly so overwhelming that leftists and secularists became so enamored by Modi that they abandoned their socialist/Marxist ideology.

But of course, such personality-based narratives are ultimately convenient, especially because they’re almost invariably easily digestible.

Also highly fraught, but nevertheless convenient, is the “religious card” interpretation routinely hurled against Modi and the BJP. This flawed construction often casts the BJP and “right-wing Hindu nationalism” as one and the same – interchangeable and synonymous. Parenthetically, a similar oversimplification of the Trump phenomenon amounted to rendering Trump voters as racist, and the two became conveniently labeled as interchangeable. In this narrative, not only was India going to go down the path of threatening the existence of non-Hindu minorities if the BJP were to prevail in 2014, it would indeed spell the demise of India as a secular state.

The anti-BJP print and broadcast media both in India and abroad back in 2014, and again leading up to the 2019 elections, are littered with such pontifications and alarmist rhetoric – all seemingly in the name of preserving secular India from being eroded, if not dismantled. To compound this highly suspect yet pervasive tendency was, conspicuous by its absence, a genuinely honest assessment in the anti-BJP (and typically pro-Congress) media of the failures associated with decades of Congress-led policies, which had arguably most to do with many of the social, economic and political ailments and ills facing Indian society.

Instead, the BJP became a convenient whipping boy among self-professed political pundits and the supposedly “progressive intellectual class” that anointed themselves as guardians and preservers of secularism in India. Yet as they did in 2014, an overwhelming number  of ordinary voting Indians put their trust and hopes in the hands of an emergent political force that most of the aforementioned “experts” dismissed as, among other things, apparent “peddlers of hate.” When the BJP prevailed, there was even the sentiment that the “common” person and especially the illiterate masses had been duped after all and were too ignorant to know better by having sold their soul to the devil.

Much less acknowledged and appreciated is the fact that a deeper, and arguably more fundamental, realignment of India has been unfolding for several years now, and the BJP has been both more nuanced in its understanding of, as well as a conduit to, a re-imagination of India. However, it is not as the pedestrian interpretation would have us think of it as a transformation from a secular to a so-called fundamentalist Hindu-defined nation.

The typical conceptualization is that India’s national project remains one of a struggle between two competing visions: the secular vs non-secular (religious). Mihir Sharma, for example, has framed it as competing visions of the “idea of India.” In one vision, India in essence constitutes “a bundle of contradictions” embodied by a multiplicity of groups seeking to assert their interests and the state should essentially serve as arbiter of this scenario. The alternative is, according to this conceptualization, a vision of India as being “essentially Hindu.” In this latter instance, India must according to these analysts’ view, be one where Modi’s supposed end game is for the country to be firmly grounded in its Hindu civilization in order to assert its rightful place in the contemporary world.

Not surprisingly, this dualistic conceptualization has prevailed and been given credence. Yet it fails to acknowledge or recognize that, as these last two elections have demonstrated, voters across the country who propelled the BJP to victory were not motivated exclusively by a disposition to the latter vision of India. This remains a glaring fact that many continue to ignore. This fallacy is rooted in a failure to see that the dualism noted above is flawed in that it renders both visions as not just ideal types, but in fact as inherently – and absolutely – mutually exclusive.

But there is no inherent logic for why these mutually exclusive notions of the two visions need be the way we interpret and understand what may be unfolding in India. Here, I will draw on a related, albeit different example, to illustrate the point.

In a number of Western countries, democratic/secular institutions germinated, matured and flourished within a wider Judeo-Christian set of core civilizational values and culture. Despite embodying varied principles and values, there was arguably no inherent or insurmountable contradiction in acknowledging, cherishing, and celebrating this Judeo-Christian heritage while affirming the essentials and fundamentals of a secular society, including in some instances upholding the separation of religion (church) and state. Indeed, there are still numerous political parties in various European countries whose names remain rooted in their Christian heritage, even as they partake in a political system that is steeped in secular principles in societies heavily defined and shaped by a Judeo-Christian heritage.

This raises questions as to why it is that the Indian scenario cannot be analyzed in a manner that allows for the possibility – not unlike the aforementioned – where a society (and political party) may be deeply committed to democratic/secular institutions while affirming a broadly conceived Hindu heritage unique to and deeply rooted in Indian civilization. When it comes to the Indian situation, however, we see an inherent prejudice and a kind of intellectual blindness embedded in much conventional analysis, which presents us with a false dualism; one that a priori asserts (and requires us to accept) that for political entities such as the BJP to affirm a Hindu heritage as part of its philosophy surely must mean such a political movement is therefore inherently exclusivist, and antithetical and hostile to secular political institutions.

It is in this sense that much conventional “wisdom” about the rise of the BJP fails in providing a credible assessment and understanding of the changing landscape, and how India is being, slowly but surely, transformed and reinvented.

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Sunil Kukreja

Dr Sunil Kukreja is professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound. His areas of academic expertise include multicultural studies, social and cultural change, and the political economy of South and Southeast Asia. Professor Kukreja has published widely in academic journals and edited several books.

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