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A Mighty Wind

Prashant Ravi/Indian Express
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Saharsa, Bihar, August 2015

Hawa, a Hindi word for wind or air, carries a subtler meaning in Indian politics. A politician’s hawa is the tailwind that propels him to victory; it is the superior momentum that comes with being on a roll.

For the past five years in the world’s biggest democracy, one man, one party, and one ideological current have pretty much cornered all the hawa. A puffing guardian spirit tangibly energizes Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister; despite his modest stature, the bearded sixty-seven-year-old can fill a room with a swirling air of quiet purpose or, some would say, menace. All across the country hawa can be felt ruffling the ubiquitous orange flags of his Bharatiya Janata, or Indian People’s Party (BJP), and stirring the long-suppressed ambitions of the Sangh Parivar, the “family” of Hindu nationalist groups that is the party’s ideological home.

Modi, his party, and the Sangh have made remarkable gains since he assumed the BJP leadership in 2013. Before his rise, the party in various avatars had at times won power in some of India’s thirty-six states and territories. It had even led coalition governments in the capital, Delhi. Ideologically the BJP had long been the strongest challenger to the Indian National Congress, the legacy party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s freedom struggle: since before independence in 1947, the Sangh’s dream of a muscular Hindu rashtra, or nation, has stood in contrast to the Congress’s vision of a secular India that gains strength from diversity.

Yet before Modi was plucked from his post as chief minister of the state of Gujarat (roughly equivalent to an American governor) and made the party’s candidate for prime minister, the BJP had seldom excelled outside the “cow belt,” a socially conservative and largely Hindi-speaking northwestern wedge of the Indian diamond. Other Indians, whether minority Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, or just differently observant Hindus, generally shunned the Sangh “family”: they were earnest and devoted, yes, but also frightening; it was an extreme Hindu nationalist, after all, who shot Gandhi in 1948. The BJP could raise an occasional clamor, but the actual agenda of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism—demands such as banning beef, ending the alleged “appeasement” of minorities by politicians seeking their votes, building a temple to the god Ram on the ruins of a mosque at his supposed birthplace, being extra-tough on Pakistan, or replacing “Western” modes of thinking and behaving with ostensibly “authentic” Indian ones like Ayurvedic medicine or rather vague notions of “Indian” economics—gained only slow and uneven traction in practice.

Modi has changed all that. In 2014 he led the BJP to one of the most dramatic electoral upsets in India’s seventy years as a democracy. The party not only captured 282 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament—the first time in thirty years that any party had won a full majority without the need for a coalition. It scored a record “strike rate,” winning two of every three constituencies its candidates contested. The BJP more than doubled the number of its own MPs. It humiliated Congress, slashing the outgoing party’s seats by nearly four fifths to a paltry forty-four.

More political triumphs have followed. Having started with just seven in January 2014, the party and smaller allies now control nineteen states and territories that together account for nearly two thirds of India’s people—a feat not paralleled since Congress’s heyday in the 1960s. In March 2017 the BJP captured the biggest prize, Uttar Pradesh, a state with 220 million people, winning a stunning three quarters of all seats in the state legislature. In December it won an unprecedented sixth term in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, despite furious efforts by Congress to rally what has traditionally proven to be India’s most reliable political force, anti-incumbency. And in March the BJP captured three small states in the remote, ethnically complex northeast, proving its growing strength beyond the Hindi-speaking heartland.

The state votes carry more than local significance. Under India’s singularly elaborate constitution, state legislators hold a crucial body of votes in indirect elections for members of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the national parliament. This means it is merely a matter of time, as more Rajya Sabha members’ six-year terms expire at intervals over the coming months and more state elections are held, until the party gains an outright majority in India’s equivalent of the US Senate, too. The country’s titular but not altogether toothless president and vice-president are also indirectly elected; when these offices opened up last summer the BJP deftly engineered the installation of two stalwarts for five-year terms.

Both men happen to be, like Modi himself, former pracharaks, or “apostles,” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the organizational mother ship of the Hindu-nationalist family. In other words, India’s three top-ranking public officials have all served as unpaid foot soldiers in an organization that was once banned for alleged links to violent extremism. Modi’s choice for chief minister of Uttar Pradesh is equally telling. He is not just another gray, reliable RSS graduate. Yogi Adityanath is a forty-five-year-old Hindu priest and the founder of his own extreme-right Hindutva youth group with a penchant for bigoted vigilantism. His most vigorous initiative so far: repainting public buildings, walls, and highway medians in bright, pious orange.

The Hindutva agenda is advancing in other ways, not as fast as some might like, but the RSS knows the value of patience. Founded in 1925 and now with some 60,000 branches, the brotherhood is not about to blow its best chance yet of transforming India into the proud Hindu nation that its founding ideologues, who were contemporaries and admirers of European fascism, long dreamed of. The RSS can see that BJP governments, both local and national, still face strong resistance when they try such things as imposing stricter bans on beef or “reforming” school curricula to downplay India’s millennium of rule by Muslim dynasties, so it instead spotlights romantic tales of Hindu resistance and Indian preeminence in philosophy, art, and science. The Sangh “family” appreciates Modi’s blend of tactically nimble political instinct with strategic commitment to their cause.

While Modi’s benign fatherly image has raised respect for the movement at home and abroad, his government has quietly inserted loyalists wherever possible in India’s establishment, from the boards of state-owned companies to top posts in state universities and research institutes. It has also aggressively—and quite effectively—bullied much of India’s mainstream press into toeing the party line. The Fox News–like stridency of Modi’s media claque does not seem to bother most voters, and many have also cheered what amounts to a quiet purge of the Congress-era mandarins who have long occupied the commanding heights in public life. Yet even among those who welcomed the BJP’s 2014 promise to make India “Congress-free,” some have begun to suspect that team Modi’s aim may be not merely to overcome but rather to destroy the once-dominant rival party, and not just to guide the national agenda but to capture the Indian state and hold it for keeps.

Modi and his men are happy to encourage assumptions that the current political trend represents some kind of natural and permanent “return” to Hindu roots. Despairing opponents, for their part, tend to consider Modi’s success part of an equally inexorable global wave of strongman populism: from his appeal to voter anger, to his accusations of enemies, to his televisual talent for sound bites and gestures, he much resembles Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or Rodrigo Duterte. With dreary regularity in Delhi as much as in London or New York, shoulders shrug and palms spread as it is explained that witless Indian voters have succumbed to some kind of wicked zeitgeist.

Yet as Prashant Jha makes very clear in his concise and persuasively researched How the BJP Wins, the combination of hawa, personal charisma, and revived Hindu spirit cannot adequately explain the Modi phenomenon. Jha, a Nepalese reporter who has covered numerous Indian elections for the Hindustan Times, an English-language daily, does not downplay Modi’s wizardry as a politician. Nor does he underestimate the accelerating social churn that has made many Indians, especially the young and upwardly mobile, impatient for the kind of sweeping change that the BJP promises—shedding shop-worn terms like “secular” and “liberal,” replacing effete cosmopolitans with proud Hindus, and tossing out the whole tired Nehru-Gandhi dynasty whose grasp on the rusty old Congress lingers now into a fourth post-independence generation. (Rahul Gandhi, the current party head, inherited the post from his mother, Sonia, his father, Rajiv, his grandmother Indira, and his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru—whose father had also twice been Congress party president.)

Even so, Jha, a sharp and experienced observer of Indian electoral mechanics, is more disposed to ascribe the BJP’s success to prose than to poetry, to hard work, not luck. The party’s repeated victories, in this telling, are a result not of favorable hawa or of Congress fatigue but of discipline, focused leadership, consistent messaging, deep pockets, ruthless tactics, and fancy footwork. By carefully unpacking factors that have propelled the Modi wave, Jha usefully demystifies its power.

Modi’s fabled charisma, for instance, turns out to be less a product of visionary statesmanship than of such political advantages as modest origins and a lack of family encumbrances (he abandoned a first wife early in his career and remains unattached and childless), combined with an actor’s skills: a command of poise and delivery, a professional feel for favorable colors and light and camera angles, and an ability to sense, embody, and channel an audience’s feelings—particularly resentment. Observing a speech of Modi’s in last year’s Uttar Pradesh campaign, Jha writes:

He projects himself as the man fighting the good battle, on the side of the people, victimized by the bad guys. But while willing to fight, he also positions himself as a leader who can throw it all away, for he has no vested interests, nothing to lose. He also acknowledges the pain, but taps into the sense of righteousness, the sense of sacrifice and makes citizens feel they are participants in a great national mission, distinct from the prosaic and the banal.

Last year’s election in Uttar Pradesh, a poor and unruly state, came as Indians were struggling to recover from a sudden, controversial move by the national government to scrap all large-denomination banknotes. Modi had billed the drastic policy as hard medicine to purge the economy of so-called black money in the hands of criminals and corrupt people, although, given that there were not enough small-denomination notes to replace high-value ones and the central bank could not print new bills fast enough, its main effect was to squeeze hundreds of millions of day laborers and small traders and anyone with even modest savings in cash, which is to say, the poor.

Yet Modi’s ability to tap into class envy had the magical effect of displacing any blame for the pain that he had so obviously and directly caused. On stage, Jha observes, the prime minister gloated over the imagined suffering of the rich. At one rally he jauntily demanded to know, “What can they do to me? I am a fakir; I will take my bag and leave.” He then laughed and shared his satisfaction that the rich used to say “money, money, money.” “Now, they only say Modi, Modi, Modi.”

His skill at stoking resentment is at its most subtle when it comes to chronic tensions between India’s 80 percent Hindu majority and 15 percent Muslim minority. Lower-ranking party members may resort to bluntly sectarian language or outright lies to stir up crowds. Jha quotes one party official admitting that the whole point is to unite Hindus by making them feel like victims. Another confesses to him, “We want anti-Muslim polarization. Why pretend otherwise?” Unlike when he was a state official, Modi as prime minister no longer stoops to undiluted Islamophobia. But with his trademark upheld wagging finger, he is a master of insinuation, with much the same effect.

Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images
BJP leader Amit Shah arriving at a press conference at party headquarters, New Delhi, December 2017

On the stump in Uttar Pradesh, Modi pledged that every town with a Muslim cemetery should also have a Hindu crematorium, and every village that got electricity in Ramadan must get it for Hindu festivals, too. He did not need to cite any particular places where such conjectural disparities actually exist. They very likely do not: Muslims in the state are generally worse off than Hindus. But the very suggestion that Muslims might be favored fell on ground fertilized by generations of Hindutva activists blaming Congress for allegedly “appeasing” the minority with sweeteners as part of its unseemly “vote bank” politics. Congress is hardly alone among Indian parties in pitching sops to particular interest groups, but constant hammering by the BJP has succeeded in making its rival look particularly “soft” on Muslims.

Although many in the BJP bear no personal animosity to Muslims, the party has long found that chauvinism wins more votes than it loses. It is not by chance that its fortunes have risen since the 1980s in tandem with the level of menace felt from global jihadism and from India’s perpetually hostile and increasingly Islamized neighbor Pakistan. In election after election, large numbers of Hindus have indeed responded to alarm about such things as “love jihad”—an imagined campaign by Muslim men to seduce Hindu women—by voting for the BJP.

Under Modi the party has also adopted more sophisticated tactics to appeal to its Hindu vote bank. Given the elaborate social hierarchy that conservative Hinduism enshrines, it is not surprising that the BJP has traditionally been associated with higher-ranking castes. Modi has changed that. Not only has he fully exploited his own lower-caste origins to widen the party’s appeal, and even made efforts to woo Dalits—the bottom-rung outcastes who make up some 17 percent of India’s population.* As Jha shows, the BJP has also forged powerful constituencies by skillfully exploiting the mutual resentments of rich and poor toward rising middle-class groups.

During the 1980s, India widely adopted policies of affirmative action that in many northern states had the effect of empowering the mid-ranking castes that proved most socially mobile. In the intervening decades, groups traditionally associated with proud rural small-holdings, such as the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Jats in Haryana, and the Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh, have gained outsize political clout in state capitals, winning jobs and contracts and influence. Precisely because of this, says Jha,

a range of other castes—both the traditionally powerful and the more marginalized—feel alienated. And thus, the trick is to mobilize these castes and construct a coalition against the dominant caste.

In many of the BJP’s most successful campaigns, this politics of intercaste resentment has proved just as crucial as the party’s carefully cultivated grudge against “nonindigenous” religious minorities. (Hindutva ideologues make a pointed distinction between Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, who are considered properly Indian, and Muslims and Christians, who are somewhat suspect—regardless of the fact that these big monotheistic faiths reached the subcontinent 1400 and 1900 years ago, respectively.)

The man often credited as the brains behind the Modi-era BJP’s electoral engineering is Amit Shah, a tough fellow Gujarati who outdoes his master in Stakhanovite devotion to the cause. According to Jha, the prime minister’s consigliere began working on last year’s Uttar Pradesh election in 2014, with a plan to extensively expand the party’s organizational base. Within just four months, Shah’s recruitment drive, largely run using cell phone message services that also created a useful database for quick mobilization at election time, multiplied party membership in the state by more than ten times. Expanded across India, Shah’s registration effort soon brought the BJP’s rolls to over 100 million members, making it the world’s biggest political party.

The surge did not just mean more bodies for rallies and door-to-door canvasing. Jha points out two important side effects. The huge new numbers quietly but radically changed the party’s demographics, tilting its base away from upper castes to reflect a broader appeal. They also allowed for a stealthy purge of the party’s former leaders, who found themselves outflanked by a new generation marked more by loyalty to Modi than by ideological affinity. Among the party’s old guard, many disdain Modi as a dangerous upstart; L.K. Advani, a former party grandee, once damned the ambitious Gujarati with faint praise as “a brilliant events manager.” But such opinions now carry no weight.

Apart from its huge size, Shah’s organizational genius, and Modi’s drawing power, the daunting political machine that Shah has built enjoys another asset. Wary of being tainted by extremist tendencies that have often surfaced on the fringes of the Sangh, the BJP has traditionally preferred to keep the RSS at arm’s length. Not so Modi. Jha informs us that the future prime minister’s own personal mentor in the Hindutva group in the 1980s, during his long years as a low-level pracharak in Gujarat, was none other than the father of the current RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat. Born only six days apart in September 1950, Modi and the Sangh patriarch have brought their organizations into a much tighter alliance.

The support staff of every major BJP leader, from Amit Shah downward, is made up of Sangh alumni, says Jha. At Bhagwat’s call, the RSS’s estimated five million highly disciplined acolytes can deploy wherever needed to bolster the BJP’s own ground forces. Bhagwat recently boasted that he could mobilize his entire following in just three days, whereas the Indian army would take six months. Spokesmen quickly explained that he intended no insult to India’s fighting men, but the remark nevertheless made clear that the RSS sees itself as being more true to the Indian nation than the state itself.

The BJP’s own superior discipline and tight chain of command may explain why, in recent years, the party has made surprising gains simply by catching Congress asleep at the wheel. In the state of Assam the BJP cleverly convinced a talented young Congress leader to defect, shifting a crucial number of votes. In both Manipur and Goa last year the party actually won fewer seats than Congress, but so swiftly wooed coalition partners that it had cobbled together governments and gotten them sworn into office before Congress realized what had happened.

In indirect voting to fill a vacant Rajya Sabha seat from the state of Haryana in 2016, a dozen Congress members of the state assembly inadvertently betrayed their own candidate by using the wrong pen to mark their ballots. India’s powerful election commission had stipulated the use of violet ink, but enough Congress votes to turn the result were nullified for being in the wrong color to allow the BJP’s man to scamper off with the seat. Whether someone had switched the pen in the booth or persuaded the Congress deputies to make a “mistake” has not been established.

Indian democracy is not a dainty game. In all the cases just cited, money is likely to have had a part. Just as India’s first-past-the-post rules mean that an advantage of just a few points in voting share may translate into an outsize gain in seats, political funding has a tendency to slosh disproportionately to the winners, to people who can “get things done” for donors.

In recent years the BJP has mopped up an ever-growing share of this pool; the election commission says that 80 percent of all corporate political funding in Gujarat in the three years before November’s election went to Modi’s party. As Milan Vaishnav points out in When Crime Pays, a thorough, disturbing, and often amusing scholarly analysis of the seamy side of Indian politics, this imbalance may be seen as payback. In the 1960s, Congress received as much as thirty times more in corporate donations than any other party.

Such advantages can be critical in districts where vote-buying is the norm. Vaishnav, who runs the Carnegie Endowment’s South Asia program, follows a campaign in the state of Andhra Pradesh; a candidate who happens to be a friend revealed that three quarters of his budget was earmarked for buying votes. In recent reporting from northeast India, where three small states voted this winter, Jha discovered that virtually all votes in Nagaland are paid for, sometimes several times over as voters accept handouts from all and sundry. Not surprisingly the BJP and its allies handily captured Nagaland, as well as the two other states in play.

This is an expensive business. Vaishnav cites one study that puts the overall cost of India’s 2014 national election at $5 billion, in the same ballpark as the $6.5 billion that the US—a country whose GDP is almost ten times greater than India’s—spent on presidential and congressional elections in 2016. His candidate friend personally shelled out close to $2 million in a race for the Andhra Pradesh state assembly. That is more than thirty times the legal limit, yet Vaishnav was laughingly told that other candidates spent far more. In some states, inducements are paid in kind rather than cash. Kitchen appliances are the favored payoff in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Election officials in Gujarat, an officially dry state, seized 500,000 bottles of liquor during its 2012 state elections—most of this presumably intended as sweeteners for voters.

Small wonder that a very large proportion of candidates, for the BJP as well as other parties, tend to be either scions of political dynasties, very wealthy, or criminals. Of the BJP’s 285 incoming members of parliament in 2014, Vaishnav observes, a third had been charged in ongoing criminal cases and a fifth were facing prosecution for jailable offenses, up to and including rape and murder. More shockingly, a ten-year database of state and national elections compiled by Vaishnav showed that candidates with criminal cases were three times more likely to win than others. This suggests that they are more skilled either at buying or intimidating voters or at persuading them that they are better placed to “get things done” than law-abiding rivals.

Why go into politics? It appears to be a sound investment. Despite India’s relative economic liberalization since the suffocating, regulation-heavy “License Raj” of the post-independence period, the crankiness of its bureaucracy and the trickiness of its laws still offer immense opportunity for agents, such as politicians, who can steer clients toward safety or profit. A 2013 study cited by Vaishnav shows that the declared wealth of sitting legislators after a single term in office rose by an average of 222 percent.

Modi himself has maintained an unusually clean record and, at least for its first few years, his administration has been relatively free of the odors that clung to the last Congress coalition. At a lower level, however, there is little difference between the two parties on this score. Tellingly, they recently collaborated to insert an unobtrusive clause in the latest annual budget that has the effect of absolving both from any prior violations of rules restricting foreign political donations. Having promised to clean up the system, Modi’s government has also pushed through campaign finance “reforms” that actually make it easier for Indian donors to remain anonymous.

Until very recently, Delhi pundits were virtually unanimous in tipping Modi as a shoo-in to win the next national elections, scheduled for the spring of 2019. Given all his party’s strengths and the weakness of Congress, many predicted that the BJP would again secure a full majority on its own. This would keep Modi in power, and likely controlling both houses of parliament, through 2024.

But Indian politics are unusually volatile and fickle. As more stories of corruption have inevitably begun to stick and loudly touted policies have mired in Indian realities, the hawa seems to be slowly dying down. Congress remains a weak and wobbly opponent, but it is gathering strength and purpose as Modi’s many critics begin to see India’s grand old party as the only force capable of stopping the BJP juggernaut. The smart money is still on Modi, but recent trends suggest that he would be wise to call an early election, or he may see himself returned to power with a reduced majority, dependent on coalition allies. That might at least crimp his style.

  1. *

    See Pankaj Mishra, “God’s Oppressed Children,” The New York Review, December 21, 2017.