Photo: NarendraModi/
27 Mar 2019

The Hindi heartland: The possible re-election of an Indian strongman

For the majority of Indians, concerns about employment, national security and the fragile relations with Pakistan will determine their vote in the coming elections. Anwesha Dutta, post doc researcher at CMI, feels that their concerns should lie elsewhere: With Prime Minister Narendra Modi running India as a one-man show.

Detested by some, admired by others, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has made unilateral decisions on a scale seldom seen in the Indian context. Frequently referred to and compared with other strongmen such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi has become the symbol of the rise of authoritarian politics in India. Pretty soon, the worlds’ largest democracy will get to air how they really feel about Modi’s one man-show.

The rise of Hindu nationalism
From April 11 to May 13, 2019 , around 900 million voters will go to the polling stations all over the country. Anwesha Dutta, post doc researcher at CMI, has no doubt that Modi will be punished by some voters for not delivering on his promises, mainly pertaining to employment and agricultural reforms. He promised to create more jobs, yet a new report (allegedly withheld by the government) shows that unemployment is on the rise. He promised to implement agricultural reforms to make life easier for farmers, yet nothing happened. Still, Anwesha Dutta, post doctoral researcher at CMI, is certain that he will be re-elected. However, not with the Bhariya Janata Party (BJP), which has an ideology pertaining to Hindu Nationalism or commonly referred to as Hindutva, but as part of a coalition including several regional parties, called the National Democratic Alliance or NDA. With the hope that the coalition can put some checks on Modi as the one man army.

Nationalism and the Hindu ideology has been a fierce force in Indian politics for the past few years. Narendra Modi has been an unwavering advocate. Hate crimes against minorities, especially Muslims and Dalits, have sky-rocketed. But amidst vigilante killings and hate speech based on an ideology preaching a Hindu state, Modi has remained largely silent.

His strongest support base is among the urban middle class, and the business sector. Modi’s politics, like the decision to demonetize despite the advice from the Reserve bank of India, affected many poor people badly. But their voice is not strong enough, and their faith not important enough to throw any spanners in Modi’s works.

And in a time where many are troubled by the frail relations with Pakistan and the conflict in and about Kashmir, to many, Narendra Modi is both protector and savior. When a bomb killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in a convoy in contested Kashmir in February this year, Modi gave a clear signal for the Indian air forces to strike the training camps of the  Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorist group, who were responsible for this attack, in Balakot . Even though Modi did not directly play a big part in the following events, people attributed the revenge and standing up to Pakistan directly to Modi.

-He capitalizes enormously on security and nationalism. He is seen as a one man-army, says Dutta.

A changed social fabric
Talking about the election and India’s future, Dutta feels that the concern should be somewhere else. In line with the authoritarian rise and tendencies in other parts of the world, the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press has come under attack under Narendra Modi’s government.

-Several journalists have been put in prison, and there has been vigilante killings of people who have raised critical voices through social media. The social fabric has suffered under Modi’s rule. People are now afraid to speak up, and this is something new in India, says Dutta.

Painting a broader picture of a problematic relationship to the media, Modi has not held a single press conference in India since he was elected in 2014. His meetings with journalists abroad are a totally different story.

-As prime minister, Modi has travelled pretty much all over the world, putting India thoroughly on the map. Many people admired him for that. To many, he is living up to his slogan: Make India great again, says Dutta.

(What could easily be mistaken as a Trump-inspired slogan was actually invented by Modi, who started using his ‘Make India great again’ slogan well before Donald Trump started using his ‘Make America great again’ slogan).

But according to Dutta, a completely different set of priorities are what it will take to make India great again. Security and safety yes, but on a different level.

-Security and safety for women, health and education are all issues that need to be resolved. India has no universal health care. Many families end up in deep financial troubles if one of the family members become ill. Education is also an underprioritized area in Indian politics and polices. Very little of the Indian GDP is spent on health and education, says Dutta.

If you would like to hear more about the coming election in India from one our newest employees, join us in Bergen Global on April 5 where Dutta and Hugo Stokke, senior researcher at CMI, explore the likely outcome of the people’s vote in the world’s biggest democracy.

Anwesha Dutta

Post-doctoral Researcher