Looking back at history, there is a rather musical semblance to the way autocrats have risen in different countries. Be it Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward or Hitler’s 25 Point Plan, it is a semantic flaw to analyze them from a consequential point of view, because that leaves out a very crucial half of the puzzle. There is a very raw appeal that strongmen have enjoyed, and that appeal should not be attributed to mere charisma, but scrutiny will reveal the existence of a story, a story that runs deeper than rationalistic allegiances and policy-oriented appeals. This story creates the bedrock that supports their meteoric rise as an “outsider to the system”, an ombudsman who will cleanse and purify the country. Now, the question lies: is this narrative only meant for homogenous nations of the 20th century or can it be applied to a country like India? The juggernaut like the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party from a meagre share of seats in the 1980s to delivering the largest electoral mandate of independent India certainly allows us to apply this non-consequential analysis to deconstruct the reasons behind the BJP’s rise.
A lot of people trace the BJP’s history back to its formation in 1980, and its subsequent rise to prominence after Lal Krishna Advani’s historic Rath Yatra that led to his arrest, but later on sparked the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement and culminated in the Babri Masjid demolition. This fundamentally ignores that the BJP inherited the legacy of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an ethnoreligious body that has been active since pre-Independence India. Whilst the Congress Party and to some extent the Left shaped the Constitution of India and the initial nature of the welfare state, the RSS was busy playing a far more sinister game.
Despite the Jana Sangh being active till 1977, the RSS fanned out to different parts of the country from their bastion of Nagpur and wove a story. This was no ordinary story, but it chronicled the journey of an entire people. The story started from the Vedic Ages and traced the lives and struggles of the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent-lovingly christened the Hindus. This tale spoke at length of the Mughal invasion of India, the attempt to create a theocratic state that ran along Islamic lines, and the graphic illustration of how the true sons of the soil had been systematically disenfranchised by an occupying force, who had left behind their legacy in the member of a certain community.
This story then progressed into the age of the British Empire which had apparently created a class of anglicised colonial-era elites, who were the cross-products of nepotism and western culture. This story ran a simple narrative without the inclusion of any nuance-that the true owners of the country were the members of the extended Hindu community, and they had been cheated of their fair share by centuries of foreign rule, bigotry, and forced conversions. The story created a world where the “otherisation” of religious minorities in the political doctrine of Hindutva was masked as the undoing of historical wrongs. While the Constitution of India was the source of the newly born nation, the RSS had already created a story where they would advocate for an India that derived her identity from an age that far preceded the struggle for independence. This India that they desired, and documented in books such as M.S.Golwalkar’s ‘A Bunch of Thoughts’ espoused an India under the umbrella of Hindutva.
This was fundamentally different from a Gandhian version of India without the amalgamation of Church and State. The RSS’s version of India would be one which would be united under one flag, one socio-religious way of life, and under one strong leader. It is no wonder, then, that the top brass of the RSS had openly praised the Fascist principles of racial purity, authoritarianism and a disdain for Western democracy. This story was not easy to sell, especially due to the popularity of the likes of Gandhi, Bose and Nehru, all of whom left a lasting impression on the nature of India. This story, however, lacked any nuances and appealed to a fundamental human emotion-fear.
The fear of being disenfranchised in a country that you believe to be your own, despite being a numerical majority made the common people question the intentions of their governors. This feeling of angst was accentuated by the incidents of appeasement and partisanship that peppered the hegemonic rule of the Congress Party. The story was missing one final puzzle, and that was the presence of a weak Government at the centre who had been riddled with administrative inertia and rampant corruption. Enter Narendra Damodardas Modi, a gladiatoresque figure, who rose from humble origins and dared to look in the eye of post-colonial elitists. Someone who revived age-old traditions, and wore his faith on his sleeve (sometimes literally so), while toiling 20 hours a day to serve his motherland dutifully. What chance did a motley crew of Opposition leaders stand against him?
The Election Engineering
If one analyses the issues that have been highlighted by the various parties during the 2019 General Elections, one can draw a conclusion that hints at a much smarter strategy employed by the BJP. They decided to revolve their entire campaign around their greatest strength- the cult following enjoyed by Narendra Modi. They ensured that the entire campaign would revolve around him, and his actions. This was a clever ploy because he had already been working assiduously towards personalising every aspect of governance.
The message that all Government schemes initiated and continued by the NDA were Modi’s personal gifts to Indians- was carried effectively by BJP workers to the voters. If a woman in the hinterland received a subsidized gas cylinder, it was because Modi had given it to her. If a farmer got a loan, or a school got a new building, references would be drawn to the PM’s early life and the scheme would be depicted as Modi’s Government-sponsored philanthropism. Even if the Indian Army achieved a major feat or scientists who had been working on a project for years made a breakthrough, it was depicted as the result of the Prime Minister’s toil. Previous Government’s too had engaged in myriad reforms and schemes, which were seen as the vision of a Party or the State as a whole. To claim that every act of public welfare was the work of a single leader was both novel and malevolently successful.
When it comes to the Opposition, it can be said that they simply played into BJP’s hands when it came to campaigning. The Opposition too made the election all about Modi. In raising issues from how Modi wore expensive suits, to his role in the Rafale deal, to his involvement in Gujarat- they hammered the nails into their own coffin. Modi deftly turned the tables when he coined the term- “Chowkidaar” to refer to himself as a tireless watchman of the country. While Rahul Gandhi did come up which a catchy counter- “Chowkidaar Chor Hai” to pin the PM down on Rafale, they did not look at the larger picture. On the other hand, Modi accepted the coinage, and instead replied that he was a proud Chowkidaar, and it was the thieves who were afraid of the honest watchman and had gathered together to conspire against him.
The Prime Minister is a master at playing the victim card. From using his roots to depict the Opposition as a bunch of over-entitled snobs, to accusing Opposition leaders of minority appeasement- he has shown that he is no novice to realpolitik. In 1971, when the Opposition had rallied around the cry “Indira hatao”, Mrs Gandhi had deftly stated: “Woh kehte hain Indira hatao, mein kehti hoon Garibi hatao”. Similarly, Modi too changed the frames of discussion and ensured that he remained the most discussed name in the country. Such forms of aggressive marketing are new to Indian politics, and the BJP has utilised it more effectively than the Opposition.
The BJP capitalized on present momentum by issuing an unwritten copyright over a few labels. From nationalism, to Hindutva, to national security- the BJP tried to convince the voters that Modi was the only man who embodied these traits and all those who stood against him or criticised him were anti-national. The PM was often found in temples, chanting phrases from Hindu scriptures, clad in saffron, with his closest aides not missing any opportunity to showcase the Prime Minister advertising his religious side. In fact, the BJP tried to convey the message they would be the people who would revive age-old traditions that were subdued by the previous Governments. The BJP would ensure that the lost pride of an ancient civilization would be resurrected.
They ensured that their supporters would convey the message that while previous Governments had made citizens conscious of their religious identities by using the doctrine of Nehruvian secularism, Modi would ensure that Hindus could brazenly display their authority as the religious majority in India. From carefully stoking the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute to laying the foundations of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, Modi left no stone unturned in trying to become a Hindu crusader. These attempts of revisionism were accompanied by more surreptitious activities such as the choice of candidates- Pragya Thakur being a case in point. In the sphere of national security, the BJP managed to market Modi as a decisive, strong leader who would inspire fear in the heart of Pakistan and admiration from all world leaders. After the Pulwama attacks, when the Balakot airstrikes were carried out, the BJP effectively fused Modi and the Indian Army’s image into one grand figure which was the shield that would protect India’s borders and teach her enemies a lesson. It was claimed that Modi would be the muscular nationalist who would ensure safer borders, fewer immigrants and would, by and large, follow a policy of “India First”.
The Rise of the Strongman
The world over has seen the rise of authoritarianism, populism, Europessimism and an emerging police state. This has been accentuated by the narrative of the democratic liberals as being corrupt sell-outs who do not respect tradition and form a clout of elitists in capitals and political chambers. The distaste for international institutions such as the United Nations, distrust in the media and a rising jingoism has all contributed to a rise of the strongman. These elections have established an important fact about modern-day politics all over the world: the strongman leader is here to stay.
While Europe has been swept by an unprecedented wave of populism, the USA has welcomed the politics of the Right, and so have countries such as the Philippines and Turkey. What unites these countries and other nations such as Russia and China is the presence of a homogenous demography. Thus the renaissance of populism in India is surprising, because India has an extremely diverse population with a large number of socio-political issues in various parts of the country.
Amit Shah, India's Home Minister and Modi's closest confidante.
The success of populism in these countries can be attributed to the looming presence of a strong leader who looks down upon dissent and swears by the Fascist principle of uniting the country under a common banner by the creation of a false enemy. In the present day, democracy is a practice that looks shiny in the sphere of academia and is theoretically sound, but has horribly failed to make a ground impact. This makes the non-academic oriented majority place their trust in strongmen who use rhetoric to give them a new feeling of purpose. From Trump to Putin to May to Duterte to Xi Jinping and now Narendra Modi, the world is being rapidly filled by authoritarians. This trend has spread to India, with the rise of Narendra Modi, heralding a new understanding of realpolitik. The CAA Bill, the Delhi riots, the clarion calls for a nation-wide NRC are all symptoms of modern-day authoritarianism.
If anyone aims to chronicle the rise of the BJP under Narendra Modi, they will find various reasons but none more powerful than the story, which created a highly technology-centric election campaign and these efforts peaked at a time of a rising tide of autocracy. It is difficult to predict the climate of the future, but two clear alternatives exist. Either we could be heading into the Autumn of 1939 or the Spring of 2011.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Digvijay Chakrabarti is a Freshman at BITS Pilani, pursuing Manufacturing Engineering. A former TedX speaker, he tries to juggle between Engineering Mathematics, reading and debating. But like every person from Calcutta, he spends most of his time rewatching old Sourav Ganguly clips or writing. He plans to pursue a career in Policy Making.