Opinion & Analysis

Modi’s domination of Indian politics continues

After 44 days of voting involving an electorate of 970 million, India’s general election has finally reached its conclusion. Gaining 240 seats out of a possible 543, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has again beaten his political opponents. For Modi, this is a third consecutive victory for his Hindu nationalist supporters, who will continue to govern India through their wider National Democratic Alliance coalition. Such a record has only been achieved by one other Indian Prime Minister - the country’s founding father Jawaharlal Nehru.

Generation Modi

Central to the BJP’s electoral success has been Modi’s highly charismatic persona. Talismanic, if divisive in some quarters concerning the BJP’s attitude towards India’s Muslim minority, as India’s Prime Minister Modi has maintained exceptionally high approval ratings across his two previous periods in office. For 10 years, these did not drop below 64% and peaked at 93.5%.

Modi’s personal popularity highlights how the BJP has again defied the incumbency effect, whereby most leaders in democratic elections lose voters after gaining power. Instead, even though the BJP did not gain a majority as in previous elections in 2019 (303 seats and 37% of votes) and 2014 (282 seats and 31% of votes), they maintained their vote-base at 37%. Such consistent success was thought to be virtually impossible for a Hindu-dominated party to achieve, especially in a highly ethnically diverse and political complex country such as India.

A pro-capitalist, pro-market, and populist embrace, backed up by the agile use of social media technology and donations from big business are also vital pillars of Modi’s political succour. Each have been vital to the image of a new, richer, returning great power, helping the BJP and Modi to further extend their grip on power. The party’s well-established Hindutva (Hindu-orientated) values have also become the main influence upon India’s domestic and foreign policies. As such, the BJP are now indisputably the centrifugal force of Indian politics and for a generation of Indians, they will only have known their country under Modi’s leadership.

Towards a Hindutva India

Internal political developments reflect the assertion of these Hindutva values. These include the removal in 2019 of Article 370 from the Constitution that revoked the special status of Kashmir or Modi’s personal dedication of the Bhavya Ram Mandir at Ayodhya in 2024, which replaced a mosque of the site. Both actions were long standing manifesto promises, with the BJP claiming that the latter “has rejuvenated our society, … (leading to) a new interest in our history and heritage”. They also inform nationalist discourses of a rapidly resurgent India.

Since 2014, India’s 200 million Muslims have also been targeted. Both the “National Register of Citizens” and the “Citizenship Amendment Act” of 2019 excluded Muslims from the same rights enjoyed by the Hindu majority. Other policies include assembling immense camps for undocumented Muslim migrants in Assam, which are considered by some observers as ‘”the stage just before genocide”’. Legislation has also been introduced to prevent marriages among Muslim men and Hindu women (to inhibit what Hindu nationalists call “love jihad”).

In the new government, we can expect such discrimination to continue to be prominent domestically. This will include efforts to introduce a Uniform Civil Code that would pointedly curtail long-standing religious freedoms across India. The BJP’s reduced number of seats may also embolden party hardliners to accelerate such efforts before they lose power in the future, especially if Modi’s promises of economic success continue to fail to fully materialise by 2029.

A Global Dilemma

Internationally, India is now a well-defined variable within the strategic reckonings of all other major powers. Having the world’s third largest economy and third largest military budget boosts this importance, which attracts highly influential powers including the United States, Russia, China, Japan and Iran. So powerful are these dynamics, which also legitimise the BJP and Hindutva, that they appear to be “anointing” India as a present or future great power.

When combined with (mainly) Western (and Japanese) efforts to actively balance against China in the Indo-Pacific region, India has thus become a necessary and fundamental part of the strategic calculus supporting contemporary great power politics. In these dynamics, the West often willingly discounts the new political – and authoritarian – realities gripping India.

Such inertia can be argued to be emboldening Indian foreign policy, whose intelligence services have been accused of targeting Sikh separatists in Canada, the UK, and the US. The West’s China-myopia therefore makes criticising New Delhi more difficult, whilst allowing other transgressions – be they domestically (the BJP’s attitude towards India’s minorities), or regionally (surgical strikes against her neighbours) – to now potentially escalate and worsen.

This global dilemma applies as much to New Zealand as it does to other larger powers in the region. In much the same way that Wellington walks a tightrope with Beijing that balances positive trade and diplomatic benefits with more negative political and human rights considerations, such a paradox will be more apparent with New Delhi in the next five years.

As India’s influence expands, and with Modi and the BJP’s confidence ever-increasing, how to negotiate walking such a sharp diplomatic razor’s edge will become of greater significance.

- Asia Media Centre