Modi's victory in the Indian elections offers vital lessons for opponents of populism

The Bharatiya Janata Party's success at the polls has highlighted the importance of a grand idea that resonates beyond economic realities

TOPSHOT - Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters wearing masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dance as they celebrate on the vote results day for India's general election at BJP office in Guwahati on May 23, 2019.  Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked on course on May 23 for a major victory in the world's biggest election, with early trends suggesting his Hindu nationalist party will win a bigger majority even than 2014. / AFP / Biju BORO
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In the nature of the Bharatiya Janata Party's victory in India's general election – sweeping, historic, momentous – there are lessons for observers of contemporary politics everywhere: methods to study, trends to note, points to ponder.

That the BJP and the prime minister, Narendra Modi, are populist is not to be doubted. The party’s election campaign – this year even more than in 2014 – was premised on stirring the pot of Indian anxieties. Mr Modi stoked fears of the decline of Hindu civilisation, of a national weakness against Pakistan, of the return of elitist politicians who would ignore the nation that exists outside of their own bubbles.

In one constituency, Mr Modi cleared the candidacy of Pragya Thakur, who is facing trial on charges of terrorism; the BJP has even argued that Hindus never become terrorists. Mr Modi pitted communities against one another. He promised that, under him, the nation would no longer be a victim of Pakistan's aggression or China's economic might, and offered visions of an abstract Indian greatness.

In 2014, with his rhetoric mixed in with details of ambitious economic plans, Mr Modi could never have been mistaken for a secular liberal. But for voters tired of the opposition Indian National Congress party’s corruption and hungry for jobs and prosperity, he represented a possible avenue for change.

Five years later, it became harder to make these economic arguments with the same conviction. In 2016, a poorly conceived demonetisation plan, which cancelled high-value currency notes in a bid to stamp out tax evasion and cash hoarding, hobbled hundreds of millions of citizens and shrank growth. A nationwide sales tax regime, needlessly labyrinthine, made life more difficult still for small businesses. India now creates so few jobs that, when Indian Railways recently advertised 63,000 vacancies for porters and cleaners, it received 19 million applications. The agricultural sector has slowed to a crawl.

These are all real and present problems, affecting the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Indians every day. In 2004, when the BJP failed to convince citizens that the benefits of rapid economic growth were reaching the poor, it was voted out. The party’s opponents must have hoped that history would repeat itself this year.

But it didn’t. In the face of all these tribulations, India gave Mr Modi and his party an even bigger mandate, leaving many to wonder what happened. What swung the election the BJP’s way?

The quality of the alternatives is an obvious place to start. The Congress, always the main opponent to the BJP, has failed to reinvent itself in any meaningful way. It is still led by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, while the leaders below Rahul Gandhi are either ageing or dynasts themselves. Populists must be countered with radical ideas, not with heated up versions of stale policy prescriptions, however sincerely they are proposed.

It is a grave mistake, also, to deem the average voter irrational, so swayed by rhetoric that they forget their own economic distress. Voters make discerning choices. In Odisha, where an election to the state assembly ran in parallel with the parliamentary election, voters in nearly half the constituencies chose a candidate from the regional Biju Janata Dal party for the state legislature and a BJP candidate for parliament.

Clearly, then, citizens have seen value in the BJP forming a federal government, and one that is not necessarily tied to its economic performance.

Feeding the beast of division is liable to make it so strong that it will break its chains and turn upon us all

Critics of the BJP have, in a sense, diagnosed what this value is. The party caters to the Hindu community’s suspicions of minorities – Muslims in particular – and its sense of victimhood. it promises a renewed feeling of strength and stands against what it portrays as the emasculation of the Hindu nation. When Mr Modi referred time and again to his government’s recent air attack against an alleged terrorist camp on Pakistani soil, he was doing so to convey this sense of fortitude to his audience.

These are dangerous moves. In a country such as India, in which communal relations have been frayed ever since the horrors of Partition in 1947, feeding this beast is liable to make it so strong that it will break its chains and turn upon us all. The irresponsible and divisive words of politicians have already sparked numerous deadly riots and clashes.

Indeed, the BJP first found a secure footing in parliament after resorting to such hatemongering. In 1992, a crowd of workers from Hindu nationalist groups descended upon the town of Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh, and tore down a centuries-old mosque because the BJP’s leaders had told them that it stood upon the birthplace of a Hindu deity.

The BJP had built this anger with the help of a tour through the nation – a road trip in which a senior party leader named LK Advani sat in a motorised chariot and solicited popular support for his destructive scheme. Mr Modi will remember this only too well; he sat in the same vehicle with Mr Advani.

At worst, for the BJP, sowing such division works as a distraction, saving it from having to talk about the economy. At best, it polarises the electorate, converting undecided voters from the Hindu majority into supporters, in the absence of any credible opposition.

But even here, there is something for the Congress to absorb, and something for us all to note: that a clear vision, however abstract, is powerful, and can even be as important as immediate economic concerns.

In the world’s democracies, we vote for governments that rule for a long time – five years in India’s case, long enough to have a child and send her to her first day at school, long enough for recessions to start out of the blue, long enough for wars to spark, flare and burn out. We need to know more than policy details. We need a grander idea upon which to hang our plans.

Mr Modi’s grand idea is a corrosive one. But that does not have to be the case. The Congress, and other opponents of populists elsewhere, must fashion new grand ideas of their own – new ways for their countries to regard themselves, new ways to talk about identity, new ways for people to pull together rather than pull apart.