What’s next for Indians living under Modi?

Narendra Modi’s second mandate is a ‘sword hanging above the heads’ of India’s minorities. Nilanjana Bhowmick explains why.

On Thursday, Narendra Modi took the oath for his second term as India’s prime minister. On 23 May, the Indian electorate gave Modi and his rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a second mandate, following one of the longest elections in the world, spread over seven phases. This is despite the various controversies that had besieged the party in the last few months, including accusations of creating an atmosphere of fear for minorities, particularly Muslims.

Modi’s individual popularity had seen a surge despite declining support for his lawmakers and policies. His ‘earthliness’, a carefully crafted image that contrasts with the elite, English-speaking opposition in the centre-left Congress Party, continued to make him a favourite of the aspiring middle classes, who identify with his rags-to-riches story to the extent that it managed to overshadow glaring unemployment figures (the highest in 45 years) and a spiralling farming crisis, which brought thousands of farmers onto the streets in protest last year.

A survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that nearly one-third of the people who voted for the BJP had voted not for their particular member of parliament, but as an endorsement of Modi the figurehead. This is in line with the party’s expectations. Last year, a BJP insider told me that they were hoping to win a second mandate riding on their leader’s charisma rather than the party’s policies. In the run-up to the elections, in various villages across India, villagers were more or less unanimous that Modi was let down by his lawmakers, with some having ‘barely set foot in their constituencies’ since the last general elections. In 2019, it was not Modi vs the opposition. It was Modi vs the BJP. And Modi won.

The polarization of the country along religious lines, as mainstreamed by the BJP, plays out tragically on the ground.

‘What can he do if his MPs did not work? They are the ones who’re giving him a bad name. But Modi has done good,’ Vikram Singh, a resident of Uchagaon village, Uttar Pradesh, told me in the run-up to the elections. ‘He deserves another chance.’

A ‘national security’ narrative helped too. Earlier in February, a deadly attack against the Indian security forces in Kashmir, which killed 40 paramilitary soldiers and wounded over 200, claimed by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, had led to a stand-off between India and Pakistan. This all went to strengthen Modi’s saviour pitch.

Five more years

Modi’s second mandate, however, could prove to be more challenging than his first. After all, he has a flagging economy to prop up - India’s economic growth fell to its slowest pace in five quarters at 6.6 per cent in December. All eyes are now on the government’s full budget, which is likely to be presented in July.

But his biggest ever challenge will remain his own campaign promise of cracking down on corruption and ensuring ‘development for all’. Every development scheme launched or re-launched by the Modi government, including access to safe and clean toilets, free housing and other basic necessities, has been riddled with corruption. For example, throughout rural Uttar Pradesh – India’s largest and most underdeveloped state with a population of over 200 million, which sends the highest number of lawmakers to parliament – people have to pay bribes to their village heads to qualify for these social schemes.

Moreover, India has continued to be one of the most corrupt nations in the world even under ‘Chowkidar’ (watchman) Modi (a prefix he used in the run-up to the elections to reassert his stand against corruption). In January this year, in its annual corruption report, Berlin-based Transparency International had ranked India 41st in a group of 100 countries.  

Modi’s second mandate also dangles like a sword above the heads of India’s minorities. On 8 April, the BJP reiterated its commitment to implementing a National Register of Citizens (NRC), aimed at identifying illegal immigrants across the country. The NRC – criticized as part of an anti-Muslim witch-hunt –  is currently only implemented in Assam, eastern India. Its final draft had excluded almost 4 million people.

‘It is our commitment to bring in NRC across the country to chuck out each and every infiltrator,’ Amit Shah, who has been appointed Modi’s new home minister, said at an election rally in April.

‘We would ensure that each and every Hindu and Buddhist refugee gets citizenship of this country,’ he added, leaving a deliberate question mark on the future of Muslim refugees.

The polarization of the country along religious lines, as mainstreamed by the BJP, plays out tragically on the ground. The cow vigilante groups are still active, their zeal stronger than ever. Since 23 May, at least five incidences of hate crimes against minorities have been recorded, including in Madhya Pradesh where three Muslims, among them a woman, were badly beaten by a mob on the suspicion of carrying beef (a video of the incident went viral online). On 23 May, a Dalit couple in Gujarat alleged that they had been beaten by a mob of 200 to 300 upper caste people after the husband had posted content about discrimination by upper-caste people on social media.

Over the last five years, Modi has stayed steadfastly silent in the face of such atrocities. The coming five years present a chance to reject this ‘othering’ of minority populations that many Indians have helped, knowingly-unknowingly, to become mainstream – or be damned forever.