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Narendra Modi, The Man Who Manages to Be Exactly What Everyone Wants To See In Him

Friday 26 April 2024, by Corinne Deloy

As India prepares to re-elect its parliament, Christophe Jaffrelot, Director of Research at the CNRS and a leading expert on India, answers our questions about the elections that are taking place from 19 April until 1 June of this year, and the future of India under Modi.

General elections are being held in India from 19 April to 1 June. Can you tell us how these unusual elections will be conducted?

The elections are taking place over six weeks this year, a record! The reason is undoubtedly to allow Narendra Modi to criss-cross the country, given that he remains the trump card of the BJP, as the ruling party is far less popular than its leader: he is the one who can get enough MPs elected to win the elections.

In addition, electronic machines will once again be used to record citizens’ votes, but they are coming in for increasing criticism because computer engineers have proved that they can be easily falsified. For years, the opposition has been demanding the implementation of a vote verification system, at least in constituencies where the difference in votes is small.

The Electoral Commission, which is responsible for organising the ballot and ensuring that it runs smoothly, refuses outright to implement this simple measure, which increases suspicions of fraud, especially since, this year, the government refused to include the head of the Supreme Court in the college responsible for appointing the members of this commission (with the result that the government has a free hand in making appointments), and two of its three members have just been newly appointed following a surprise resignation and a scheduled vacancy...

The fact that these elections will not be as free and fair as previous ones has already been demonstrated by the arrest of the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, a fairly popular opposition figure, and by the freezing of bank accounts belonging to the Congress Party, which therefore limits their means of campaigning.

The 2024 elections are also less fair than previous ones because of the imbalance in terms of media coverage: since the takeover of New Delhi Tele Vision (NDTV) by Gautam Adani, the rising star of the oligarchs who have come to dominate the Indian business world, there is not a single television channel that is even remotely critical of the government.

The BJP also enjoys abundant financial resources thanks to the system of electoral bonds, which, since 2017, has allowed political parties to receive anonymous donations, while the donors may benefit from favours in return. The Supreme Court declared this scheme unconstitutional last month, but the ruling party’s coffers are already full! In 2019, the BJP spent US$3.5 billion...

What are the main campaign themes?

In India, elections are not only based on issues, but also on emotions. And Narendra Modi is taking advantage of ethno-nationalist sentiment in at least two ways. Firstly, he appeals to the religious fibre of the Hindu community (which represents around 80% of Indians). On 22 January, he played the role of Hindu high priest when he presided over the inauguration ceremony of the Ayodhya temple, built on the rubble of a sixteenth-century mosque that was destroyed by Hindu nationalist militants in 1992. This ceremony, which was broadcast on a loop on all channels, marked the launch of the BJP’s election campaign. At the same time, he polarises voters along religious lines by stigmatising Muslims, thereby consolidating his Hindu majoritarian voter base. He recently described Muslims as “infiltrators” (a term alluding to Bangladeshi migrants) and as those who have “more children” (appealing to the demographic fears of Hindus – who still make up 80 % of the population).

Secondly, Modi plays on the pride that Indians derive from the international recognition evoked by their leader’s meetings with the world’s great and good, which are also broadcast repeatedly on television. The G20 summit held in Delhi a few months ago provided an opportunity to harness this sentiment, with many images of Narendra Modi alongside G20 logos. It was not India’s turn to host this meeting, but New Delhi managed to swap positions with Brazil to show just how much Modi had “made India great again” before the elections.

The opposition is at pains to point out the rise in unemployment, the environmental crisis (reflected in water shortages, record air pollution, and new forms of deforestation), and the crony capitalism behind the meteoric rise in fortunes of the likes of Gautam Adani. But Modi seems untouchable. Public opinion most readily blames civil servants and even ministers, and especially former rulers, up to and including Nehru, whom Modi blames for all evils.

What role is the media playing in the current campaign? Are some parts of the media independent of government control?

For a long time, India’s media scene was one of the richest in the world! Today, it is a shadow of its former self. In broadcasting, independent television channels have been bought up by friends of the government (such as the acquisition of NDTV by Gautam Adani) and new channels have been created to carry the government line, such as Republic TV, a sort of Indian-style Fox News.

In print media, the situation is a little more varied, but as a general rule, newspaper owners, who generally own several other businesses, prefer their newspapers not to appear too critical of the government in order to avoid tax inspections or other investigations that would jeopardise their business.

To find out what is going on, you need to follow the few online newspapers such as The Wire or, or monthly publications such as The Caravan, which are run by journalists of remarkable courage who do an exceptional job.

What is the economic record of Narendra Modi, who has now been at the helm of India for ten years?

The economic and social picture is very mixed: unemployment is at an all-time high – the highest it has been since records began in the 1970s – especially among young urban dwellers, where it stands at around 25%. Many young women are now not even looking for work, and the female labour force participation rate stands at 16%. At the same time, inflation remains high, especially for foodstuffs, which penalises the poorest. The decision to double the number of people eligible for food aid during the Covid-19 pandemic has also been extended: 800 million people are now eligible to receive food aid, which stands in stark contrast with the government’s claim that only 5% of India’s population is poor. As Indians have had to draw heavily on their reserves, the savings rate has been declining for years, which partly explains why the private investment rate is also very low. Another reason for this is the weakness of demand. Against this backdrop, many economists are expressing doubts about the reliability of the official growth rate of around 8%.

In fact, the Indian economy has never really recovered from the “demonetisation” of 2016, the year in which Modi had 85% of the money supply withdrawn from circulation, on the pretext of fighting against dirty money, but more likely with the aim of draining the coffers of the opposition parties.

That said, the upper-middle class and, even more so, the super-rich, are benefiting from the economic system put in place by Modi: not only is his government developing a supply-side policy based in particular on tax cuts for many businesses, but the tax burden is being shifted from the direct taxation of individuals (including income tax and wealth tax) towards indirect taxes, which hit the poor hardest.

Is there still an opposition in India after Rahul Gandhi was sidelined? What are the main opposition forces? Are they united in an anti-Modi front? Is there an emerging leader?

This is the great unknown of the election. For the first time, more than twenty opposition parties have formed an alliance called INDIA. However, this alliance has suffered major defections: some parties have left it and the BJP has poached a number of outgoing MPs from the Congress Party or other opposition parties (about a quarter of the BJP’s candidates come from another party, an unprecedented situation). However, if, under the first-past-the-post electoral system, the unity of the opposition makes it possible to limit the number of “wasted votes”, the BJP may not win as many seats as it did in 2019.

What would a third term for Narendra Modi look like?

Everything depends on the size of its majority. If the BJP wins 400 seats, it will be in a position to revise the Constitution. It would then probably remove references to secularism (a word designating here the equal recognition of all religions) and articles supporting this principle, such as those that allow minorities to apply for state subsidies for their schools. Constitutional revisions would also weaken federalism in India. Not only would central government accumulate greater power, but the use of Hindi would probably expand at the expense of regional languages. If the BJP does not secure the two-thirds majority needed to reform the Constitution, Modi will probably make do with reforms such as introducing a uniform Civil Code, which, of the major objectives that the BJP set itself in the 1990s, is the last that remains uncompleted. This would make it possible to reduce the role of the personal laws in force for certain minorities, such as Sharia law, which govern aspects of people’s religious, political, social, and individual lives.

Narendra Modi is often compared to Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. Would you say that, in his case, there is nevertheless something uniquely Indian? And if so, how would you describe it?

Modi does not belong to this category, but rather to that of Erdogan, Orban, Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, Dutertre... national-populists who are at risk of losing an election – something that does not concern Putin or Xi. Unlike dictators, national-populists need a popular mandate that gives them sufficient legitimacy to impose their will on the institutions of their state, starting with the judiciary, which is always their first target. These commonalities do not mean that we cannot identify a uniquely Indian element, but this can only be relative.

For example, Modi certainly plays on the religious element more than most national-populists, to the point of having become the high priest of the Hindu nation. But his religiosity belongs to an ethno-nationalist vein comparable to that of all those I mentioned above... Modi may also have succeeded in “making India great again”, in the eyes of many Indians, by turning the G20 meeting in Delhi and all his visits to Washington, Paris etc. into grandiose events, broadcast over and over again on television. Yet nationalism is commonplace among populists, and in any case I have alluded to Trump’s slogan to describe this behaviour.

Modi’s most unusual achievement is his capacity to be exactly what everyone wants to see in him: he is at once the high priest of Hinduism (and even the sage meditating in his cave or praying immersed up to his neck in the Ganges), the strong man protecting India against Pakistan and the Islamists, the man of development who promises to double the income of peasants (when it is actually stagnating …), the adviser to the poor who has spoken on the radio every month since 2014, on the Mann ki Baat (Talking from the Heart) programme, claiming to be the voice of the masses... Modi is a true chameleon, as demonstrated by his ability to adapt his body language (and even his clothes) to suit the audience. But if there is something typically Indian about him, it may lie in the tradition of the relationship between master and disciples (the guru-shishya parampara ), which leads the latter to follow the former blindly.

Interview by Corinne Deloy, translated by Sam Ferguson.


Find out more about Christophe Jaffrelot’s recent book, Gujarat Under Modi. Laboratory of Today’s India (Hurst, 2024).