World·Analysis

How Modi's populist message won the Indian PM a second term

Over the last five years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been seen both as an incorruptible champion of the masses and the “divider in chief.” He's now poised for another five-year term at the helm of a country at a crossroads.

Incumbent BJP party poised to form government again

The last of the voters cast their ballots Sunday in India's longest and possibly most combative election campaign. On Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party claimed victory in the election. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

UPDATE (May 23, 2019): Narendra Modi's party declared victory on Thursdayafter a massive, multi-week election. Click here to learn more. 


In the final hours of India's longest and possibly most combative election campaign, the gleaming New Delhi headquarters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went into virtual lockdown.

Six gruelling weeks after voting started in this country of more than a billion people, the party's candidate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was in the house to attend his first — and last — "press conference" of the campaign with a select group of journalists.

It was, in fact, his first since he became PM in 2014.

Modi, however, took no questions, deferring instead to the party's president. He did say a few words, predicting he would defy India's past norms and win his second outright majority in a row.

After the last of the voters cast their ballots on Sunday, the initial, unofficial numbers in the exit polls suggest India will soon witness Modi's return.

As one of the originals in the current wave of global populism, Modi could prove a trailblazer in maintaining stewardship of the world's largest democracy for what would ultimately be a decade.

Modi came to power in 2014 on a wave of anti-elitist sentiment. (Ashwini Bhatia/Associated Press)

How India changes during Modi's decade, if it comes to pass, is a matter of both excitement and grave concern in the country.

Like other populists, Modi has long sold himself as an antidote to India's elite, shunning most mainstream media and preferring to communicate directly with people using social media. His nationalist streak — often more explicitly articulated by others in his party — has alienated the country's minorities. Journalists, universities and academics say the room for criticism has also shrunk.

"There is a sense in which democratic institutions have been weakened. Democracy feels imperilled," said Siddharth Varadarajan, a founding editor at The Wire, an independent online news site that regularly runs afoul of the government and its supporters. "We all feel constrained in one way or the other."

During the campaign — and indeed the past five years — Modi was seen by many as "divider in chief" (as a piece in Time magazine described him), and by many others as the incorruptible son of a tea-seller and a champion of the masses.

Swapan Dasgupta, an MP in the Upper House of India's Parliament, said Modi 'evokes a very polarized reaction.' (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"Modi evokes a very polarized reaction. There are some who loathe him and others who adore him," acknowledged Swapan Dasgupta, an MP in the upper house of parliament with the BJP.

"The point about India is how we can utilize that good will for him for constructive purposes."

'He's unsettled the status quo'

BJP's main rival, the Indian National Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, told its supporters not to become discouraged by the exit polls. But at BJP headquarters, workers prepared for celebration.

To get himself re-elected, Modi deployed a series of tactics that worked the first time in 2014: extensive use of social media, tireless campaigning and simple but impactful messaging.

"He's unsettled the status quo," said Dasgupta. "There was a certain elite which was running the country. And he has unnerved them. He has disturbed a lot of cozy relationships and networks."

During the campaign, Modi's image was inescapable, including in this neighbourhood in central Delhi. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Modi released an extensive "pledge" document that addressed a wide range of issues, including doubling farmers' income by 2022, piping water to every household by 2024 and implementing a controversial national register of citizens.

But the campaign focused mostly on him.

"As in 2014, he has converted 2019 into a Modi election," said Kanchan Gupta, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a conservative think-tank. "He's a veteran campaigner. He knows what works, what doesn't work."

In a vote that was widely described as a referendum on Modi, the prime minister focused on his role as the "chowkidar," or security guard, of the nation, a theme he started deploying just before the marathon election.

It was in evidence following a suicide bombing in February that killed 40 Indian security forces in the disputed region of Kashmir, a source of tension between India and neighbouring Pakistan. In response, Modi ordered targeted airstrikes on what the government described as the training camp of a militant group in Pakistan.

Modi, along with many other BJP figures, has since adopted the "chowdikar" title on his Twitter account.

Divisive rhetoric

During the campaign, many analysts were unwilling to predict the election's outcome. Some were certain, however, that support for Modi would be eroded by his inability to create more jobs and fully address rural distress, as well as the effects of his decisions to impose a new goods and services tax and withdraw large currency notes from circulation, both of which hit people and small businesses hard.

The Congress party tried to outflank Modi on dealing with rampant poverty by guaranteeing a minimum income, and attacked him over the divisive tone he and others in his party adopted in the campaign.

The country's electoral commission banned the BJP's chief minister of Uttar Pradesh from campaigning for three days after he said the opposition Congress Party was infected with a "green virus," a reference to Muslims.

Modi appeals to a Hindu majority that feels insecure, said Kanchan Gupta, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a conservative think-tank. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

At one point, BJP president Amit Shah referred to Muslim migrants from Bangladesh as "termites." Pragya Singh Thakur, a BJP candidate nominated by Modi himself, campaigned while out on bail due to terror charges for the killing of six Muslims. Among other things, Thakur has been quoted insisting the election is a "religious war" between Hindus and minorities.

After voting last week, Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi said Modi "used hatred, we used love" in the campaign. "Love is going to win."

But the same nationalist overtones that marked the ruling party's messaging also played a part in consolidating a "yes for Modi" vote in this majority Hindu nation.

Modi appeals to a majority population that feels besieged and insecure, said Gupta, because of "pandering" to minorities in the past, which leaves Hindu sentiments "brushed aside."

Supporter Abhishek Singh applauded Modi for his action in Pakistan, and for programs helping the poor, such as electrifying remote villages. 'We want a strong leader, not a weak one,' he said. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Modi supporters agree.

"The idea of nationalism that was introduced by BJP is very dear to me," said Delhi resident Abhishek Singh, who applauded Modi for his action in Pakistan, and for programs helping the poor, such as electrifying remote villages.

"We want a strong leader, not a weak one," he added. "For us, Modi is actually a tiger."

'I've never seen this before'

For others, including many of the country's 172 million Muslims, the nationalist tone has fostered anxiety. According to critics, Modi has created an atmosphere of division and fear.

"When we say divide, it has two meanings," said Hilal Ahmed, associate professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "One meaning is … a person who actively divides people, and the second is that a person is silent and that division is happening. And Modi is the latter."

That, many critics argue, has created the environment where self-appointed protectors of a sacred Hindu symbol — the cow — have resorted to violence against Muslims, as well as Dalits, who are at the bottom of India's traditional caste system.

In 2017, Jebuna Khan’s husband, Pehlu, who was bringing cows he had purchased home to his village of Jaisinghpur, India, was lynched in a vicious attack, likely over his ownership of the animals. He died two days later. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

In 2017, Jebuna Khan's husband, Pehlu, was lynched in a vicious attack by alleged cow vigilantes that someone filmed on a cellphone. Pehlu Khan and his son had bought cows for their dairy farm and were taking them home to the village of Jaisinghpur, 100 kilometres from New Delhi. Jebuna Khan said they had the license and bills to prove it was all legal.

Pehlu Khan died of his injuries two days later.

"I can't say how this happened. I've never seen this before," she said through tears in an interview.

Khan said she wants justice — and she wants Modi to lose. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

She wants justice — and she wants Modi to lose.

Critics say the nationalist mood under Modi is testing the secular vision India's founders had intended. The lynchings create fear, isolation and a sharper emphasis of the Other, said Ahmed.

But some people defend Modi against allegations of sowing division.

"I don't think Mr. Modi has ever drawn a line separating one community from another, and I don't think the Indian system will allow such segregation," said Gupta.

Some like Gupta defend Modi against allegations of sowing division. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Ahmed said the impact is already being felt, and no matter who wins the election, the "anti-Muslim discourse will survive for some time."

As India marks 75 years since independence as a secular, starkly diverse nation, the country is undoubtedly at a crossroads.