In India, Right-Wing Nationalism Continues Its Winning Streak

The polls were wrong. The exit polls were wrong. The analysts were wrong. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was expected to win reelection, but not in a landslide. His Bharatiya Janta Party was expected to need coalition partners to form a government, not increase its majority.

But, as has so often been the case over the last half-decade, traditional signals underestimated right-wing support. British voters really did want to leave the European Union. Americans really did want a President Donald Trump—or enough of them in the right places, anyway. Benjamin Netanyahu overperformed his polling average in both 2015 and 2019.

And Indians wanted an emboldened Modi.

If there’s a theme, it’s that majoritarian nationalism is incredibly difficult to defeat. Trump and Brexiteers ran campaigns suggesting that immigrants posed an existential threat to their respective national identities. In the lead-up to one of his electoral victories, Netanyahu warned Israelis that Arab voters were “heading to the polling stations in droves.”

But nowhere is this trend more apparent than in India, where the Hindu-nationalist BJP returned to power despite high unemployment and a slowing economy. The party’s campaign routinely demonized immigrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh, referring to them as “infiltrators” and “termites” who “enter here, throw bombs, and kill innocent citizens.” It promised to take one state’s controversial citizens register—designed to track down these immigrants and evict them from the country—to the neighboring state of West Bengal.

West Bengal is traditionally a left-leaning state. But the BJP’s message appears to have resonated. In the 2014 elections, when the BJP became the first party in thirty years to win an outright parliamentary majority nationwide, it only won two of West Bengal’s forty-two seats. This year, as votes continue to be counted, it is on track to win eighteen.

The party’s confrontational rhetoric isn’t limited to just one part of the country, or even just to India. Two months before Indians began voting, Modi ordered airstrikes against Pakistan, its Muslim-majority neighbor and geopolitical rival. The strikes came in the wake of a suicide attack that killed forty Indian paramilitary soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir. The prime minister routinely referenced Pakistan and the attacks in his messaging. “Can your first vote be dedicated to the valiant soldiers who carried out the airstrike in Pakistan?” Modi asked young Indians. “Can your first vote be dedicated to the brave martyrs of Pulwama?” (Pulwama is the site of the suicide attack).

War between the two states is unlikely. But increasing conflict within India is not. Religious hate crimes increased more than fivefold after Modi and the BJP first came to power five years ago. Analysts worry that Modi’s latest win could make matters worse.

“The marginalization from representative politics of minorities will lead to other forms of expression,” said Sunil Khilnani, the director of the India Institute at King’s College London. “It might be violence.”

That would be devastating for Indian democracy—and might only further strengthen the BJP. Modi won his first major election, to lead the state of Gujarat, after a series of deadly riots killed as many as 2,000 people, most of whom were Muslims. The party employed imagery from the pogrom during the campaign. Modi was subsequently banned from entering the United States.

For many Modi supporters, the emphasis on violence and division is entirely misplaced. His reelection is instead a vindication of the BJP’s economic program, which aimed to cut red tape and digitize India’s economy. “Over the span of his first term Modi tried to reach every section of society through a range of schemes and programs,” said Swadesh Singh, a political scientist at Delhi University.” The result, he added, was a pro-BJP coalition that cut through India’s myriad ethnic lines.

But critics say that for the BJP, intolerance is both a means and an ends. They worry that its win will further weaken the country’s democratic institutions, including its press and increasingly politicized Supreme Court.

“The BJP ran on a platform of hate and intolerance, and they won not in spite of, but because of that platform,” said Audrey Truschke, a professor of Indian history at Rutgers University. “Going forward, we should expect an acceleration of the BJP’s favorite tactics of intimidation, violence, and lies weaponized against their chief targets, including Indian religious minorities, patriotic dissenters, and journalists.”

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Daniel Block

Daniel Block is an editor at the Washington Monthly.