Around the world, right-wing populism is on the rise. Since the mid-2010s, we’ve seen one election after another ending in the victory of a right-wing party, typically led by strong, charismatic leaders who make tall (and often undelivered) promises. India is no exception, with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance coming to power in 2014 and then again in 2019. There is no question, voters everywhere are aligning with the global far-right.
In examining why this happens, it is common for liberals to conclude that promises of jobs and economic growth are what drove voters to the BJP. Modi’s first term was marked by record-breaking levels of unemployment and an economy in downswing. By liberal logic, the results of the 2019 election should have been clear— a resounding defeat for the BJP. Instead, their vote share jumped by 6%
Voters did not vote for Modi because of his economic policies, and they definitely don’t deify him for them. Modi’s almost cult status stems from one promise alone- his promise of pride. Modi ran on a platform that pledged to restore “Bharat” to its former glory, glory that 1000 years of foreign rule had sapped. He implied that the government would end reservations for historically disadvantaged groups and leaders from the RSS, BJP’s ideological parent, promised that Muslims and Christians would be “wiped out.” The overarching message was clear— Modi would return India to the “real Indians”, and anyone not Hindu wouldn’t fit the bill. An angry, resentful voter base responded. They were tired of what appeared to be almost institutionalised corruption, they felt abandoned by a government they saw as pandering to minorities, the rapid cultural change of globalisation creating an India they no longer recognised. They were primed for change, and it was change that Modi promised.
India’s opposition parties have largely responded by attacking the BJP’s economic failings. And however sound their arguments may be, they simply do not resonate with voters. In an article for Bloomberg, Mihir Sharma argues that to defeat populists like Modi, “you can’t treat them like regular politicians. Voters will continue to support them until you change their minds about what sort of country they want to live in.” And given the results of our most recent Lok Sabha election, the Indian people have made their minds clear.
The opposition has caught on, pivoting to an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach. The Congress, which has always painted itself as both secular and centrist, proposed the creation of a Brahmin Chetna Parishad that would exclusively address the concerns of the Brahmin community of UP. The Aam Aadmi Party, which rose to prominence as a potential third pole of Indian politics, promised to end corruption and serve the interests of the “common man”. After being unable to make a dent anywhere outside the national capital, AAP appears to be far removed from its origins. It has remained uncritical of the BJP, while continuing to attack the Congress. And its response to the Delhi Pogrom has shown its unwillingness to take any action against right-wing political actors, while continuing to drive out left-leaning ideologues such as Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan. National opposition parties now peddle what political pundits call “Soft Hindutva”.
This shift in politics gives the world’s largest democracy nothing more than the illusion of choice. Voters in India who do not belong to the right are unrepresented and the ruling party is allowed to run amuck without an opposition to check it. The role of questioning the government has largely fallen to civil society, but there are steep costs to pay. Dissent has found no place in Indian democracy. The government has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to imprison anyone, from scholars to students, critical of its policies.
It has been ceded that without opposition, there is no democracy. But what does it mean for democracy when the opposition is indistinguishable from the party in power?