Sands: The Rise of Hindu Nationalism

Narendra Modi's nationalism represents a challenge to India — and an analogue to Trumpism.

by Zoë Sands | 3/9/17 9:45pm

In May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party won the Indian national election, the largest election in human history. The BJP is tied to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the radical Hindu nationalist group to which Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin belonged. It became the leading party of the largest and most diverse democracy in the world, winning 51.9 percent of all seats in India’s lower house, the biggest victory since the Congress party, the initiators of of Indian independence, won in 1984. A BJP win in the recent regional elections in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab will vastly increase the party’s chances of winning the 2019 national elections and be crucial in defining the political landscape in India for years to come.

The key to the BJP’s landslide victory in 2014 was India’s current Prime Minster, Narendra Modi. From a family of low-caste tea sellers, Modi was recruited by the RSS and went on to become the key strategist for the BJP. Through a canny media campaign Modi managed to bury the past and restore an unlikely political career, “replacing epithets like ‘fascist,’ ‘mass murderer’ and ‘Hindutva fanatic’ with a title of his own choosing: Vikaas Purush, or Development Man.” He was also endorsed as “the CEO who can lead the country.” Modi’s shrewdly constructed image personified the benevolent strongman many Indians longed for, ready to cut through the complexity of a democracy of 814.5 million registered voters.

Modi presented himself as the embodiment of anti-establishment sentiment and rode on the public’s disgust with the long-standing centre-left Congress party, whose corruption and scandals include the 2008 2G-spectrum scam and the 2012 Indian coal allocation scam. He promised the same economic growth he had cultivated during his time as chief minister in Gujarat, while successfully deploying the state’s ancient mercantile and entrepreneurial energy to overhaul his controversial political image.

Modi’s charisma was fastidiously constructed. An excellent orator, he was routinely accompanied by movie stars and always sported ivory-colored suits and trademark rimless Bvlgari glasses. His events, more spectacles than political rallies, sold out stadiums in New York City and London and featured everything from extravagant dance numbers to live on-stage painters creating speed-portraits of him. This flamboyancy — paired with Modi’s nationalistic rhetoric — captivated the conservative Indian diaspora, who, despite being unable to vote, are hugely influential in Indian elections due to their overseas remittances and revered status in India. It has been said, perhaps apocryphally, that every single Indian abroad can influence five Indian votes.

The BJP’s revolutionary new media campaign made Modi the second most popular politician online worldwide since his swearing-in. His beloved tweets about cricket, record-breaking Facebook photos with his mother, cartoon music videos and suspected Internet trolls swayed Indian youth in his favor. Modi’s image successfully diverted attention away from his shortcomings, most notably his complacency during the 2002 Gujarat religious riots, in which over 790 Muslims were killed. Following the riots, Modi was internationally reviled. He was banned from Britain for 10 years and from the United States for nine, thereby becoming the first democratically elected leader to be banned from entering the U.S.

But since the election, the BJP’s exclusionary nationalist agenda has become more apparent than it was during the 2014 campaign. Modi’s government can be seen to be reconstructing Indian national symbols in their favor. The BJP controversially removed Gandhi’s image from the symbol of Khadi and Village Industries Commission, which Gandhi has long represented, and replaced it with an image of Modi. The BJP has pushed for changing the names of Muslim streets to replace them with names less offensive to Hindu nationalists, at one point justifying a name change to another Islamic name by saying “despite [former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam] being a Muslim, [he] was a nationalist and a humanist.” The party has also changed Muslim names in textbooks, replacing them with Hindu religious versions. As recently as Feb. 22, a BJP-linked intervention lead Ramjas College in New Delhi to cancel its invitation to Umar Khalid, a student jailed for sedition and “anti-nationalism” last year. Khalid was to speak on “the culture of protest.”

As Prime Minister, Modi has failed to live up to his grandiose promises. He has taken none of the obvious steps to tackle corruption such as making funding for political parties transparent or confronting illegal Swiss bank accounts. Instead, last December the government suddenly announced a policy that seemed more like an attempt to distract the nation from their lack of action: aggressive demonetization. That policy, meant to digitize and penalize India’s black market, has been ferociously criticized for failing to address obvious loopholes for the wealthy, while leaving the countries poorest to suffer bereft of government support, namely those without the means or literacy to open a bank account.

The alleged hero of anti-corruption, Modi himself has been accused of corruption. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has claimed he has personal information about Modi’s involvement in a scam and accused the BJP of not allowing him to speak in Parliament. Similarly, Modi’s development schemes are disappointing. Modi’s “Make in India” has been criticized for not attracting the foreign investment it promised and his “Clean India” project, which aimed to implement a toilet in every home by 2019, are considerably underperforming. In addition to meeting only around a quarter of its target for 2016, the “Clean India” project has controversially taken credit for some toilets constructed under other development schemes.

Despite the BJP’s landslide victory in 2014, Modi ability to enact sweeping reform has been blocked by the parliament’s upper house where his party does not have a majority.

The Indian bicameral Parliament consists of an upper house, which represents the states of the Indian federation, and a lower house, which represents the people of India as a whole and where the BJP have an overwhelming majority. BJP’s alliance currently holds power in 15 of India’s 29 states, but not in India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh. A strong support in Uttar Pradesh would dramatically augment the BJP’s presence in the upper house, and pave the way for reelection in 2019. Consequently, the regional elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are understood as a “harbinger of what’s to come.” Its results will be revealed on March 11.

A second Modi term paired with a strong BJP presence in the upper house could mean that Hindu nationalism will become more dominant in Indian politics. Namely, there is a palpable fear that conflict between India and Pakistan will intensify, with more military events taking place such as surgical airstrikes in Kashmir — the disputed border region between India and Pakistan — last September. President Donald Trump’s disregard for the sensitive diplomacy between Pakistan and India, claiming that India is a “true friend” and that “there won’t be any relationship more important to us,” while telling Pakistan he is “ready and willing to play any role that [they] want [him] to play” in solving Pakistan’s problems may only fuel such conflict. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-China stance is like gospel to BJP ears. Modi was among the first international leaders to openly congratulate Trump on his electoral victory last November. During a phone-call, that Modi later described as a “warm conversation” with the President, the two invited each other to their respective countries.

Indeed, many parallels can be drawn between Trump and Modi’s flamboyant images, populist campaigns and politics. Shalabh Kumar, Trump’s Indian-American acolyte, described the two as “kindred spirits: committed nationalists and willing to forego the niceties of the political elites in both countries to get things done on behalf of a population eager for more jobs and economic growth.” But Modi and Trump’s similarities may clash in other areas. Trump’s clampdown on H1-B visa holders, the majority of whom are Indian, could negatively impact the Indian IT sector, which derives 62 percent of its revenue from the U.S. Some argue that Trump’s plan to bring business back to the U.S. will undermine Modi’s “Make in India” strategy to increase foreign direct investment in India, while others suggest it may allow India to fill a potential trade void between China and the U.S.

A push towards a nation-state seems ludicrous given India’s diversity and tumultuous political history. Still, Trump’s exclusionary politics and claim that “a nation without borders is not a nation” resonates in India just as it does throughout the world, with striking similarities arising between the right-wing populist campaigns and politics of Modi, Trump, Brexit and France’s Marine Le Pen. If Modi manages his campaign as shrewdly as he did in 2014, we can expect a Hindu nationalist agenda to grip India with an even greater force.

Sands is a member of the Class of 2018. She is currently enrolled in Dartmouth's off-campus program in Hyderabad, India.  

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