Why you should care
When Donald Trump visits India later this month, he'll find a host who — despite taking a hit — remains firmly entrenched as a fellow populist in power.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
Narendra Modi is down. That doesn’t often happen.
On Tuesday, the Indian Prime Minister’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered a setback in its first electoral test since a controversial new citizenship regime introduced late last year sparked nationwide protests. In elections to the legislature of Delhi, which includes the national capital, the BJP won just eight out of 70 seats, trounced by the regional Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which returned to power.
The results came after a campaign doused in hate speech and threats. For both Modi and those opposed to the citizenship law, which discriminates against Muslims, the election assumed far greater significance than would otherwise have been the case. Delhi has 28 million people — just 2 percent of India’s population — but is the epicenter of the protests that continue to roil the world’s largest democracy.
Yet Tuesday’s results represent a more complex verdict than a simple down vote for Modi or the citizenship law. Though its seats tally suggests a thumping loss, the BJP secured a 39 percent vote share — its highest in Delhi in 27 years. Modi’s party lost despite a 6 percent increase in vote share only because of the massive chasm it needed to overcome to defeat the AAP, which won 53 percent of popular support.
Make no mistake, the election outcome demonstrates that the Modi administration’s attempts to use undiluted vitriol and divisiveness to win Delhi didn’t work. The BJP has repeatedly referred to those opposing it — especially if they’re Muslims, liberals or left-leaning students — as “traitors.” During the election campaign, Modi government minister Anurag Thakur, whom OZY profiled two years ago, exhorted supporters to yell slogans threatening to shoot protesters. Days later, a teenager whose Facebook page was filled with violent threats against Muslims did shoot at protesting students from Jamia Millia Islamia university, injuring one. Last week, two other men on a bike shot at the university’s students.
India’s protesters now need to figure out a political alternative they can offer to the country.
The political blitzkrieg plotted by Modi also didn’t work. Over the past two weeks, more than 200 BJP members of parliament, 50 federal cabinet ministers and Modi’s home minister and second-in-command, Amit Shah, all campaigned in Delhi.
As the results streamed onto television screens across the country, Sanjay Singh, one of the AAP’s top leaders, predictably called it a mandate against “hate.” Other opposition leaders joined in. “Leaders playing on faith through hate speech and divisive politics should take a cue, as only those who deliver on their promises are rewarded,” Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, wrote on Twitter, her barb aimed at the BJP.
But the AAP didn’t fight the election as a referendum against the citizenship law. Instead, it focused on its public investment in education and health that have earned it solid support among Delhi’s lower-income families. Its chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, made it a point to not be seen with the protesters opposed to the law. In fact, Kejriwal challenged home minister Shah to clear a female-led protest at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh that has inspired similar movements across the country.
That reticence among most in the mainstream opposition to frontally take on Modi over the citizenship law is rooted in the absence of a single nationwide political alternative to the BJP at the moment. Modi’s rise has coincided with the decimation of India’s Grand Old Party, the Congress of Gandhi and Nehru, which won zero seats in Delhi for the second time in a row. On the streets, in parks and on campuses, the question that’s often posed is “If not Modi, then who?”
Resistance movements can throw up new political leaders on their own. Indeed, the AAP and Kejriwal emerged out of the cauldron of protests over corruption and the brutal December 2012 gang rape of a nursing student in a moving bus, when the Congress was in power. That wave of protests — supported by the BJP — also helped fuel Modi’s rise to national power in 2014.
But the recent protests against the citizenship law have carefully steered clear of mainstream political parties, to draw in as broad a spectrum of Indians as possible under a common call to defend secularism, a central tenet of India’s centuries-old traditions and modern constitutional values. Protesters have also consciously avoided anointing any leader, to prevent both centralization of authority and to make it harder for law enforcement agencies to target them.
In that, they’ve borrowed from a model used during the Occupy protests a decade ago. But to keep their flame burning longer than those earlier activists, India’s protesters now need to figure out a political alternative they can offer to the country.
Meanwhile, Modi is already busy planning his next step. In two weeks, he hosts U.S. President Donald Trump, a like-minded populist whose public support will help the Indian leader galvanize afresh his anti-Muslim, nativist core support base. Modi and Shah have made clear they will not withdraw the citizenship law.
Yes, Delhi marks a rare political defeat for Modi. But as things stand, he’ll be back on his feet again.