Today reveals the results for India’s general election which took place from 11 April to 19 May. With nearly 900 million eligible voters, more than 8000 candidates and almost 500 parties, it is reported to be the largest election in history. The immensity of the election for the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) is reflected not just in demographic statistics, but financing as well – with estimated campaign costs totally almost $8.6 billion (second only to the US in magnitude). The election has largely taken place on social media; a battleground that the two biggest political parties—the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party) and the Indian National Congress Party— have used to mobilise voters, particularly young and urban constituents.
As predicted, current Prime Minister Narendra Modi has once again secured victory for a second term. But who is Narendra Modi and why should this be of concern to scholars of the radical right?
During his youth, Modi was heavily involved with the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteer Organisation). The RSS was initially founded in 1925 as an anti-colonial resistance movement against the British Raj, and its ideologues came to adopt the ideology of Hindutva, which broadly translates to ‘Hindu-ness’. Hindutva promotes the notion that India is a Hindu rashtra (or nation) and religious minorities, such as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and Buddhists, must be ‘reconverted’ back to Hinduism in order to become part of a Hindu majoritarian nation. Today,volunteers in the RSS are recruited into local cells that administer paramilitary drill exercises and provide education courses on selective ancient Hindu texts. It is presently estimated that the RSS has about 6 million members.
The RSS oversees a vast network of Hindutva organisations called the Sangh Parivar (or Family of Organisations). Since India’s independence in 1947, the Sangh Parivar has grown exponentially and now includes extreme and violent paramilitary groups, ‘cultural’ organisations, charities, trade and farmers’ unions, student organisations, and female-only organisations. These affiliate organisations all share the principles of Hindutva ideology, including the promotion of Akhand Bharat (or Undivided India), in which the modern countries of Muslim-majority Pakistan and Bangladesh are once again reunited under India’s territorial domain.
One of the most prominent organisations in the Sangh Parivar is the BJP, which is the only political party that has adopted Hindutva as its official ideology. The BJP maintains close links with the RSS, although it has historically claimed to exist as a separate entity. Although once more ideologically extreme, the BJP has reformed from a militant stance towards a populist party. It today affirms that Hindu identity and culture are at the core of the Indian nation and Indian society, thus equating Hindu nationalism with Indian nationalism.
In 2014, the BJP won a stunning electoral victory with its candidate Narendra Modi. Previously Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi had garnered an infamous global reputation for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The riots marked a three-day pogrom of Hindu-Muslim violence resulting in thousands of (overwhelming Muslim) deaths. Atrocious human rights violations, including rape and torture, have been documented by international agencies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These reports also described the complacency of state officials, including Modi, working alongside Hindutva actors to orchestrate and plan attacks well in advance. Whilst investigations by the Indian government have pardoned state officials, Modi was subsequently banned from entering the UK, US, and several European countries for his administration’s involvement in the riots.
In 2014, however, Modi’s national image was completely transformed. Coined the ‘social media politician’, Modi positioned himself as an outsider with humble origins (significant in appealing to a growing middle class),magnetic persona and gifted oratory. The candidate attacked the political and media establishment for decades of corruption and instead preferred to campaign via social media as a means of directly addressing ‘the people’.
Modi, along with the BJP, built an extensive social media apparatus that included social networking platforms Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and YouTube, as a highly effective communicative tool in engaging with the public by holding Q&A sessions, crowdsourcing comments and suggestions on key policy issues, and hosting live streamed chats with young, first-time voters. The campaign also released a mobile app called NaMo (short for Narendra Modi) and several WhatsApp groups managed by the BJP. In turn, Modi promoted a new democratic future promising transparency, accessibility, and accountability for a growing tech-savvy population looking ahead to India becoming a technological powerhouse in the 21st century.
In constructing his image as the voice of the people, Modi also reinforced Hindu symbols through his dress and spoke in Hindi and vernacular languages (as opposed to English), thus reaffirming pride through Hindu identity. Under Modi, Hindutva has become a mainstream phenomenon in India, appealing to a broad range of the electorate.
Since Modi’s government entered office in 2014, his administration has promoted a Hindutva agenda. Within the first year, prominent Hindutva hardliners have occupied office, such as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, who has made derogatory statements about religious minorities, women, and LGBTQ people, including statements such as ‘if a single Hindu is killed, we will not go to the authorities, but instead murder 10 people [in return]’. Violence towards religious minorities has escalated, including vigilantism in the form of cow protection campaigns, and an increase in forced conversions to Hinduism.
There have also been documented instances of school textbooks reissued with content that promotes a ‘revisionist’ history glorifying Hindu civilisation and a pro-Modi stance, as well as censorship of academics and journalists critical of the government who are subsequently branded as ‘anti-national’.
The government has also pushed for measures to replace English with Hindi as the official language, despite over twenty-two recognised national languages. Such linguistic changes have also been reflected in the renaming of cities, streets, and airports to Hindu figures. Further, controversy ensued when flight crew on Air India were asked to say ‘Jai Hind’ (or ‘Long Live India’) at the end of every flight announcement in order to promote ‘the mood of the nation’.
Importantly, Modi has refrained from taking a public stance on these issues, preferring instead to allow the BJP and Sangh Parivar apparatus to mobilise along Hindutva principles for him whilst in office. The fact that Modi is entering a second term in office will likely result in more undermining of the world’s largest (and secular) democracy – with the Hindu majority continuing to prosper at the cost of other religious minorities.
The Indian election and Modi’s role should be of concern for radical right scholars. It affirms not only the effects of a radical right party in government, but also how the radical right operates as a global phenomenon.
Ms Eviane Cheng Leidig is Head of the Early Career Researcher Fellows at CARR and doctoral candidate at the Center for Research on Extremism, University of Oslo. Her profile can be found here:
© Eviane Cheng Leidig. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).