Modi Rewrites the Populist Playbook
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India’s prime minister has combined Donald Trump’s majoritarianism with Nicolás Maduro’s socialism to pave a new route to success.
It might be hard to believe, but archenemies Donald Trump and Nicolás Maduro seem to have merged into a single man — one far from the Americas. Meet Narendra Modi 2.0.
India’s prime minister on Thursday stormed back to power for another five years with an even larger mandate than his 2014 win that ended 30 years of fractured coalition governments. To supporters of Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the victory represents an acknowledgment of the success of massive social welfare programs launched by the government in recent years. To his critics, Modi has fashioned the win on the back of jingoistic nationalism and dog whistle politics targeting religious minorities, especially Muslims.
In reality, Modi has combined the majoritarian politics of other strongmen such as Trump and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with unprecedented welfare projects akin to Venezuela under Maduro and former President Hugo Chávez, laying out a new playbook for populists worldwide.
It’s a cocktail Modi has used to achieve what had seemed impossible: moving beyond the BJP’s Hindu-dominated strongholds to a region that boasts the most religious diversity in India. Nationally, three-fourths of the population identifies as Hindu. In eastern India, though, religious minorities constitute more than half the population of four of the region’s 13 states and union territories — out of 36 nationally. Another three have a greater Muslim population than the national average.
Modi … has also been able to sell the idea that he is working for the poor.
Asha Sarangi, political scientist
Yet it is the east that has given Modi and the BJP their biggest gains in the 2019 elections. The party has won 46 percent more seats in this region than in 2014, whereas nationally it has won only 5 percent more seats than last time. Take away the gains in the east, and the BJP would have won fewer seats than it did in 2014.
“Modi has used majoritarian politics and nationalism very well,” says Asha Sarangi, a political scientist at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “But he has also been able to sell the idea that he is working for the poor.”
Neither religion nor populism were central themes during Modi’s first campaign for power. Back in 2014, he ran on two slogans. One, Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (With Everyone, Development for Everyone), promised inclusive politics. The second — Minimum Government, Maximum Governance — hinted at reforms that would reduce the footprint of the state from the daily lives of Indians.
But once Modi was in power, the promise of inclusiveness quickly made way for growing religious intolerance. Churches were attacked, beef was banned — the cow is considered holy in Hinduism — and lower-caste Hindus and Muslims were lynched on streets by mobs who accused them of transporting cattle for slaughter. Of the 125 attacks by Hindu extremist vigilantes on cattle traders, mostly Muslim, since 2012, 76 — or 60 percent — have occurred since 2017.
The parallels with the U.S. — which under Trump has witnessed a rise in hate crimes against religious and ethnic minorities — are hard to ignore. Like in the U.S., the perpetrators of these crimes have had little or no direct link to the country’s leader. But the crimes have occurred in a political environment in which White supremacists and Hindu nationalists have felt increasingly emboldened. And, like Trump, Modi has often failed to publicly condemn such attackers until several days later. After a mob entered the home of a 52-year-old Muslim man on the outskirts of New Delhi in 2015 and killed him for suspected storage of beef in his refrigerator, the police first tested the meat to check what it was — it was lamb — before arresting the murderers. When one of the accused murderers died months later, a BJP minister attended his cremation.
Still, majoritarian politics of the kind several other populists — from Trump and Erdoğan to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán — have followed wouldn’t alone explain the BJP’s stunning success in these elections in the east, where the Hindu vote has least numeric dominance. For context, that’s like Trump securing major wins in America’s liberal Northeast.
It’s there that the Maduro in Modi helped him.
Just like the shift from a slogan of inclusiveness — which Modi still uses periodically — to the reality of increasing religious violence, the Indian leader swiveled away from his “minimum government” maxim. As the BJP lost several state elections and faced opposition attacks over Modi’s proximity to a handful of big businessmen, the prime minister turned to Venezuela-like social welfare policies. “This is a victory of India’s poor, its farmers, its workers,” Modi said Thursday evening, addressing 20,000 party supporters at the BJP headquarters after his victory.
Some of the social welfare projects he has claimed as successes — such as increased electrification of villages — were actually started by his predecessors. But Modi has launched several new schemes aimed at wooing marginalized communities. In 2016, he launched a program to provide cheap cooking gas connections to 50 million poor families. Later that year, in November, he banned high-value currency notes overnight, promising to target wealthy tax defaulters sitting on illegitimate cash. Maduro notably followed Modi’s lead — albeit for different reasons — in banning old currency notes a month after India did.
In September 2018, Modi inaugurated the world’s largest public-funded insurance scheme, aimed at providing health care coverage to more than 150 million economically vulnerable families. And ahead of the elections, he announced a scheme costing $11 billion a year aimed at helping 120 million smallholder farmers plagued by debt.
Some intended beneficiaries have complained that the schemes aren’t working efficiently. And Modi is no socialist — he has shown that his commitment to social justice is limited by political math.
Still, his adaptability appears to have worked. Modi was described by BJP President Amit Shah yesterday as “the world’s most popular leader.” His playbook has worked in one of the world’s most complex and diverse countries — with more than 500 languages and every major religion. It might just be the template for future populists elsewhere.