Dark times are upon us in South Asia. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been reelected. This time he won by a larger margin than he did in 2014.
Before taking office five years ago, Modi was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, where he was accused of complicity in anti-Muslim pogroms. He was at one point even banned from entering the United States as a result.
That India, the country of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, could vote a fascist and Hindu nationalist into power in the first place was a tragedy. This time, it’s a farce.
In the lead-up to the 2014 elections, the economy was Modi’s battle horse. He had promised development, jobs, and prosperity. During his first term, he failed almost entirely to deliver on that front, to the point that the economy was not even a discussion point this time around. Nationalism is the refuge of the scoundrel; mix it with religion and you get Modi.
The 2019 election campaign was all about security and Hindu communalism, with Pakistani and Indian Muslims being scapegoats.
The Pulwama attacks in Kashmir in February, when around 40 Indian security officers were killed in a suicide blast, were a gift from heaven for Modi. Aided by a media that seemed to have abandoned all journalistic conventions, he did not miss this golden opportunity to stoke jingoistic hysteria. It helped that the attack was claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group, though without any solid proof on their part. This provided Modi the chance to build his image as India’s strongman, who would protect the country from its enemies. He ordered airstrikes against militant installations in the Pakistani Kashmir to show that, unlike the Congress leaders who preferred restraint in the face of provocations from across the border, he was willing to take the fight to Pakistan. It mattered little that India lost two aircrafts in the counterstrike and had one of its pilots captured (and then returned unharmed); the point had already been made: India had a strong leader at the helm who was not too scared to respond.
Indian society has slid so far to the right, and its minorities (especially Muslims) have become so marginalized, that it’s impossible for the main opposition Indian National Congress to mount a challenge to Modi on the communal front. India’s minorities no longer seem to have enough stake in the country’s fate for them to politically matter. It should also be noted that the Congress party has paid only lip service to secularism and pluralism in the past and has resorted to Hindu communalism when convenient. In fact, Modi’s government hasn’t actually passed any pro-Hindu laws through parliament; it has merely relied on laws already on the books that have been used previously by the Congress party.
Having said that, the Congress party was brave on the economic front. Its plan was better than anything that has been presented to Indian voters in at least two decades, if not longer. But this election was not about the economy; it was about bigotry and hate. Using religion for electoral gains is actually illegal in India, and the fact that the country’s election commission was unable to stop Modi from doing so goes to show the extent to which Indian democracy has been weakened.
Another feature of the Indian election campaigns is the absurd amount of money involved, just like in the United States. Since 2016, political parties have been able to receive anonymous donations, strengthening the nexus between electoral politics and capitalism in a country that was avowedly socialist after independence in 1947.
India has become what French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot calls an ethnic democracy. He explains that the term was invented by an Israeli academic to describe Israel, where non-Jews don’t have the same citizenship rights as Jews. In India, second-class citizenship for minorities isn’t inscribed in law, but for all practical purposes Muslims aren’t equal to Hindus.
There are many commonalities between Modi and figures like Trump and Netanyahu, as well as Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, Putin and Erdogan. Even the pretence to basic human decency and respect for others is gone. We are living in a catastrophic age of majoritarianism. I hope those of us who find ourselves on the side of the minorities can somehow find a way to combat these authoritarians — for ourselves and for the sake of future generations.