The wait has begun. Polling in India’s marathon elections concluded at the weekend, with the results due on May 23.
Private polling commissioned by Indian media outlets points to a second term for the incumbent, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), although, given the patchy record of these polls, which have been wrong in past elections, we won’t know for sure until later this week.
But if he does return to power, what might Modi 2.0 mean for India? One way of trying to answer that question is to compare campaign 2019 to the one that unfolded five years ago.
In 2014, when Modi first ran for national office – he was already a major regional figure by then, running western Gujarat state for over a decade – his campaign was dominated by his promises to usher in a sort of economic renaissance: Modi spoke of reforms to, among other things, make India an easier place to do business, make it better at generating jobs for the millions of young Indians who enter the workforce each year and to clean house to stamp out corruption.
Roughly translated from the original Hindi, his slogan was development for all, with all.
These messages, amplified by a well funded and well organized publicity machine, dominated the agenda – helping draw attention away from something darker: Fears about right wing Hindu nationalism, the founding creed of Modi’s BJP, and concerns about his own record on this issue in Gujarat, which was shaken by violent sectarian rioting in 2002 that saw more than 1,000 people killed, most of them minority Muslims.
But look back at the campaign that’s just ended, and Modi the would be reformer is barely visible, replaced by Modi the protector, with the prime minister casting himself as the nation’s muscular “Chowkidar,” or watchman, guarding the nation’s interests against challengers foreign and domestic.
Yet this isn’t merely about different slogans, and ways they are interpreted by Modi’s critics.
Consider, for example, the way campaign 2019 ended, with a controversy that brought together the concerns many liberals and minority Indians have about Modi and his allies: The rise of hardline Hindus and the fraying of India’s secular fabric.
It centered on one of the BJP’s candidate’s in central India, Pragya Singh Thakur.
Thakur’s nomination itself was news-making (and telling, as we try and decipher what prime minister Modi 2.0 might mean): She is currently facing terrorism charges connected to a bomb attack on Muslims several years ago. Thakur denies the charges, the BJP rubbishes the case, but the fact remains that we’re still waiting for a court verdict.
As campaigning ended, Thakur made headlines when she was quoted in local media calling the hardline Hindu who murdered Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of India’s movement to gain independence from the colonial British, a patriot.
Once again, the BJP’s – and Modi’s – reaction was revealing: The party censured her and initiated disciplinary action, she apologized and Modi, speaking to a local television network, said he would never be able to forgive her.
Yet she remained, and remains, one of the BJP’s flag-bearers.
In fact, the BJP’s party president, Amit Shah, Modi’s closest political lieutenant, defended her candidacy, portraying the case against her as nothing more than a liberal conspiracy, at an end-of-campaign press conference (which was also notable for the surprise presence, by Shah’s side, of Modi, who did not field any questions).
Thakur’s candidacy, and the BJP’s refusal to even countenance a U-turn, is only one of a number of examples from the trail that worried Modi’s liberal critics in recent weeks.
But it is perhaps the clearest signal of a critical change in the way Candidate Modi 2.0 and his lieutenants ran their campaign: The 2014 Hindu nationalist dog-whistle was replaced by a bullhorn, a troubling sign as we wait for the final results later this week to find out if we’ll see Prime Minister Modi 2.0.