Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

What makes Modi's brand of nationalism work like a charm

Here's how this version is different from the 'us vs them' climate in other parts of the world—and why even a dubious jobs scenario and muted business sentiment couldn't dampen the ruling party's prospects

Brian Carvalho
Published: May 23, 2019 04:49:15 PM IST
Updated: May 23, 2019 05:54:29 PM IST

What makes Modi's brand of nationalism work like a charmImage: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

As the Narendra Modi-led BJP government stormed back to power in India in what is looking like an even more emphatic victory than five years ago, over 500 million voters of 28 member states of the European Union (EU) were readying to cast their ballot in the ninth European Parliament election. One of the first EU countries off the blocks was the United Kingdom, the apparently eager Brexiters who just can’t seem to find their way out of the Union three years after the majority of Britain voted to leave it.

A common thread between both elections is that of nationalism -- the emergence of the nationalist right wing in Europe, and the landslide win of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in India on a similar plank. In Europe, campaigning culminated with far-right leaders from 12 EU countries coming together in Milan. While Euroscepticism was till recently a common sentiment among most of these politicians and their parties, cries for Italexit and Frexit are more subdued now; the consensus is that the Union needs to be rebuilt. At the core of that reconstruction are the building blocks of anti-integration, anti-immigration and national sovereignty. The rebuilding is aimed at kick-starting stagnant economies, reining in uncontrolled migration and reducing unemployment. In 2016, a majority of British voters pressed the ‘leave’ button to restrict immigration and freedom of movement; the perception was that EU migration – largely from East European countries – was damaging Britions’ pay and job prospects. The fiasco that Brexit has eventually become may have persuaded politicians in countries like the Netherlands, Italy and France to abandon their agenda for an exit, but the fear and mistrust of the foreigner persists. Meanwhile, in the United States, President Donald Trump is attempting to get re-elected in 2020 with the promise to ‘Keep America Great’, with immigration at the core of his campaigning strategy.

Nationalism of different hues but with an increasingly common outcome – electoral victories -- has a global flavour to it.  Many of the populist parties driving these outcomes have tough-guy leaders. In the Philippines, for instance, the pitch for a relatively liberal opposition has been queered with President Rodrigo Duterte convincingly winning the midterm elections. In the run-up to the elections, the President had talked tough against crime and said he would support a bill to bring back the death penalty for drug traffickers, among others.

The BJP brand of nationalism ties in with the global variety on some fronts. Yet on many others it doesn’t. Let’s first look at the similarities. One of them clearly is the use of fear to sway voters – the fear of Islamic terror, of illegal immigrants, and of across-the-border hostilities. Illegal immigration (of Muslims) was an issue in the states bordering Bangladesh, and contributed to the BJP’s continuing dominance in the northeast and gains in West Bengal. And it was the patriotic fervour generated in the wake of the Pulwama terror attacks on security personnel on the Jammu Srinagar national highway and the retaliation with the Balakot airstrikes deep in Pakistan that swung the Indian elections decisively in the Modi government’s favour.

Another common thread is the obsession to restore an apparently golden, glorious past. In Germany, shades of Nazism, which was built on right-wing purity, reappeared after the German government recently welcomed Syrian Arab refugees into the country. Revivalist sentiments have also contributed to the popularity of the Modi-led government: to re-establish national honour, to reinforce a ‘national culture’ and correct the long-ignored tribulations the majority community of India ostensibly had to suffer at the hands of ‘outsiders’ over centuries.

If there’s one difference between the nationalists in Europe and those back home, it’s that economic health – and, with it, jobs, wages and income gaps – didn’t take centre stage. In Europe, in, fears about immigration tie in with economic realities like stagnation and unemployment (along with security and cultural concerns). In India a dubious jobs scenario and a muted consumer and business sentiment quite clearly didn’t dampen the ruling government’s prospects. Perhaps being the world’s fastest-growing economy has its advantages in perception terms. Yet, full-on nationalism – fuelled with generous doses of patriotism and religiosity – more than vikas (development) was in the end enough to win over voters.

Another significant difference in the ‘us vs them’ brand of nationalism of Europe and India is the ‘them’ in this country isn’t the fresh-off-the-boat immigrant; rather, the ‘them’ are the minorities who so are because of ‘sins’ of the past like Westernisation, pan-Islamism and missionary-driven conversion.

The spotlight on retaliation against the terrorists from across the border also reinforced the martial strain of the country’s leader, and made many of those who voted for him either aspire for it or became aware that he or she did in fact possess it. It was right-wing ‘nationalist’ Veer Savarkar – an iconic figure for many in the current dispensation – who had the “lifelong project to make Hindus more manly” and for whom revenge was the instrument “of bringing about natural justice,” as Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote in the chapter on Savarkar in ‘Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism’.

“…I want all Hindus to get themselves re-animated and reborn into a martial race. Manu and Shri Krishna are our law givers and Shri Rama the Commander of our forces. Let us relearn the manly lessons they taught us and our Hindu Nation shall prove again as unconquerable and conquering a race as we proved once when they led us,” Savarkar, as a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, declared in 1940. The Mahasabha, a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, lost its relevance when Savarkar was linked to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination (he eventually got a clean chit).  

When Savarkar died in 1966, his idea of a robust, rejuvenated Hindu nation appeared unlikely. In one of his works, Savarkar wrote: “If you wish, O Hindus, to prosper as a great and glorious Hindu Nation under the sun…that State must be established under the Hindu flag. This dream would be realised during this or the coming generation. If it is not realised I may be styled as a day-dreamer, but if it comes true I would stand forth as its prophet.”

Fifty-three years after his death, as the Modi-led government embarks on its second term, it may have well done its bit to elevate Savarkar to prophet status.