After a long and arduous election, with months of campaigning and voting spread over seven phases, India’s 879 million voters have spoken. And, if not with one voice, then close to it. The Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been handed another historic mandate.
Modi’s 2014 victory was already record-setting — the first time a single party had attained a parliamentary majority in three decades. While every vote hasn’t yet been counted, it seems that he might equal or even surpass that figure this year. To win once at that scale was astounding, a black swan event. To win twice means that Indian politics, and India itself, has changed beyond recognition.
For the first decades after independence, India was a democracy but nevertheless a one-‘
party state. The Indian National Congress, the party that spearheaded the independence movement, dominated most states and had a stranglehold on power in New Delhi. It was voted out once in 1977, after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi turned towards authoritarianism and was punished by a united opposition. Still, not until the 1990s did the party enter a permanent decline.
At that point, India ushered in an era of coalitions. A patchwork of regional, caste-based and ideologically distinct parties held the balance of power. It’s no surprise that this period also coincided with the growth of the private sector following the liberalization of the economy in 1991. Parties with no monopoly on the state are less likely to seek purely statist solutions.
Modi’s successive victories mark another era of Indian politics. No other political chieftains are holding the balance of power; only Modi matters. Back in the days of one-party rule, a sycophantic Congress politician said of his leader: Indira is India. That was hyperbole. But no politician since Indira Gandhi has had as powerful a claim to be identified with India’s conception of itself as Modi now does.
How has he earned that claim? Multiple explanations for the BJP’s victory have already been trotted out: the organizational strength of the party, its vast advantages in money and resources, the covert and overt backing of supposedly independent institutions — all hallmarks of democratic strongmen globally. Others will point to the weakness of the opposition and its crisis of leadership, or to Modi’s reputation for incorruptibility, his muscular foreign policy and the popularity of some of his welfare schemes.
All these, of course, are factors. But they didn’t determine this election. Neither did the economy. Regardless of the official figures for gross domestic product growth, the economy is under-performing. It’s rare anywhere in the world for incumbents to increase their political strength under such circumstances.
No, India has proved Bill Clinton wrong: It’s identity, stupid. This election was fought and won over identity — the identity of India and the identity of Indians.
Modi is the perfect representative for the young, aspirational, majoritarian, impatient Indians who have put him into office twice now. An overwhelming number of these 400 million voters see in him a self-made man, one who has every intention of asserting India’s centrality to world affairs. More, he appears strong and decisive, and wishes to impose a unity and uniformity on Indian politics. This clarity is comforting for most of his core voters.
The India of the past saw itself as a patchwork of competing identities, represented by the multiple powerful satraps of the coalition era and by the many factions within the umbrella tradition of the Congress prior to that. The BJP, under Modi, permits no such balancing. India is strong if it is united, Modi’s voters feel, and unity requires the welding of these multiple identities into a single one.
Hyper-nationalists on Twitter, as well as cabinet ministers, attack Modi’s opponents as the “tukde-tukde” gang — literally, those who want to break India into pieces. The BJP’s electoral logic has long been incredibly simple: Over four-fifths of India is Hindu and the BJP is the party that best represents Hindu interests. If most Hindus vote for them out of religious solidarity rather than on economic, class or caste interests, then the BJP will win.
The truth is that this is increasingly what Modi and the party have achieved. Their triumph isn’t merely a product of political management. It is a rhetorical and ideological battle, a culture war, which they have won.
All bets are off about India’s future. The West has long seen this country as a natural ally: one that has similar liberal institutions, is outward-looking and acts modestly on the global stage. But that is not the India wanted by the voters who have twice now demonstrated their loyalty to Modi so dramatically. Just as Indians are looking at themselves and their country anew, so the world will have to recalibrate its assumptions about India.
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Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”