Modi's Hindu nationalism is stumbling

Hindu nationalism as an electoral strategy can only go that far in India.

by
    Women show rakhis or sacred threads with a picture of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a temple in Vrindavan in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on August 17, 2016 [Jitendra Prakash/Reuters]
    Women show rakhis or sacred threads with a picture of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a temple in Vrindavan in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on August 17, 2016 [Jitendra Prakash/Reuters]

    When Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in the 2014 elections, it was the first time that a party had achieved an outright majority in India's parliament since 1984. It seemed that the era of caste and region-based coalitions had ended, and a new era of religious nationalism had begun.

    BJP's shrewd electioneering focused on winning roughly half of India's constituencies, and emphasised Modi's personal qualities and humble background rather than his party's agenda.

    Moreover, the party's majority obscured the carefully worked out caste and regional alliances inside it. These strategic alliances with segments within lower and formerly "untouchable" castes or Dalits, as well as "tribal" populations, extended the social bases of the party beyond its core of urban upper castes in northern and western India, roughly a fifth of the Indian electorate.

    Undoubtedly, at least some of these new BJP voters saw credibility in the party's promises of delivering essential services to poor and marginalised groups, especially in the Hindi-speaking states of northern India. The Congress as well as regional parties lost ground among these communities as they shifted their allegiance to the Modi-led BJP, which, in turn, shed its image as an upper caste party. 

    What happened in 2014 was less a landslide than a tenuous win whose future rested on promises of rapid and inclusive economic growth.

    In 2014, Hindu nationalism essentially tied together disparate allies and agendas in a "Make India Great Again" moment. Muslims and Christians were vilified as non-Hindu "others," and attacked verbally and physically after the elections. But Hindu nationalists have always faced a fundamental obstacle: caste.

    Brahmins and other upper castes who desire a Hindu nation are often reluctant to share power or even meals with lower castes. Indeed, talk of caste is itself taboo in upper-caste households.

    Modi, as the self-proclaimed son of a tea seller and a member of an oil-producing caste, defies this conventional view of caste in Hindu nationalist circles. He challenged upper-caste Hindu nationalists to democratise to stay relevant, but balancing diverse castes in an all-India coalition was never going to be easy.

    Since 2014, Modi's overtures to historically subordinated castes has ended up angering the party's upper-caste votebank even as Dalits are shifting loyaltiesaway from the BJP after recent incidents of caste-based violence against them.

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    Geography, too, has threatened to upset Modi's political balancing act. Support for the BJP has traditionally been concentrated in the Hindi heartland and its offshoots in northern and western India. The BJP sought to extend its dominance after 2014 in the east and south as well as in Jammu and Kashmir. It struck alliances with regional parties wherever outright victory proved impossible.

    But, after some initial successes, the reality of India as a federal union of states rather than a monolithic nation has become apparent. Indian states are divided linguistically and along borders of historical regions that long predate Hindu nationalism or the modern idea of India.

    Whether at home or overseas, Indians identify as Bengalis, Punjabis or Tamils or as members of the many ethnic and religious minorities. Accessing the internet in one's mother tongue has accentuated this tendency. India remains an abstract passport-granting entity that flickers to life occasionally during cricket matches. To insist on Hindu nationalism above all other allegiances was always likely to meet strident assertions of regional pride.

    Thus it is not surprising that earlier this year the state of Karnataka went as far as unveiling its own flag in response to Modi's Hindu nationalism, while West Bengal state introduced a new state logo in line with its "Biswa Bangla" (Global Bengal) brand. The passions of the tongue and deepening notions of regional belonging are thus becoming harder for Hindu nationalists to accommodate in a rainbow coalition.

    While the politics of caste and region slowly but steadily are tearing apart Modi's carefully-crafted alliances, the government has also failed to deliver on its promises of economic prosperity. India's real GDP growth has not surpassed previous growth levels, while job creation has more or less remained stagnant since 2014.

    Worse still, the government has suffered two self-inflicted blows on the macroeconomic front. First, in November 2016, the Modi government decided to ban all currency notes of 500 and 1,000 rupees before replacing them with new 500 and 2,000 rupee notes.

    We may never know the real reasons behind this decision, opposed as it was by many economists, including the former head of the central bank, but the economic impact of the notes ban or "demonetisation" was unambiguously negative. In a largely cash-based "informal" economy, economic activity slowed dramatically, and GDP growth fell by over two percentage points within six months.

    A second shock to the economy came in July 2017 in the form of a new centralised indirect tax regime. This unified goods and services tax (GST) for the entire country had been proposed by the previous government, but under Modi, it swiftly became a test for Hindu nationalism.

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    With 93 percent earning less than the minimum taxable income and 98.5 percent not paying any income tax, the Modi government sought to raise revenues through indirect taxes. For the sake of the Hindu nation-in-the-making, buyers had to pay more for their consumption and sellers had to part with more of their earnings. The hasty introduction of the GST and the onerous new reporting standards hurt small business owners in the form of lower sales and earnings.

    Lastly, farmers have their own reasons for opposing a government that ignores their interests so systematically for the sake of urban capital. As in 2004, when the party's urban voter-centric India Shining election campaign flopped, a strong urban bias may come to haunt the BJP in 2019. 

    There are already signs that the electoral success of Hindu nationalism is unravelling. The BJP nearly lost an election in Modi's home state of Gujarat last December. A comprehensive survey released earlier this year revealed what most suspected: Modi remains the country's most popular leader, but his party and government are now viewed more negatively than in 2014.

    A recent Gallup poll also found that only 3 percent of respondents said they were economically "thriving" in 2017, down from 14 percent in 2014.

    Meanwhile, the pragmatic alliances on which Modi's parliamentary majority rests are under threat as some allies have quit the government or threatened to do so. And in a parliamentary democracy such as India, people vote as much for political parties as for individual leaders, and even a disunited rabble of opposition parties without a towering leader to match Modi can effectively rally together in pursuit of power.

    Sensing that possibility, Modi has suggested that his party's chief rival, the Congress party, is an unreliable coalition partner. This is more a less an admission that the BJP fears that it will not win a majority on its own in the upcoming 2019 national elections.

    Modi may offer his party a slight advantage, but voters in India are known to punish incumbents in power. As party strategists and pundits work out permutations for 2019, it is worth reflecting how and why Hindu nationalism, despite its clear electoral mandate, has short-circuited steadily over the past four years. The politics of religious polarisation may have real limits in a poor, diverse country. 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 

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