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 Analyzing India's 2024 Elections, Before
with Dr. John Harriss

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Expert Analysis on Modi's Leadership: Discussion of the Dynamics of Cult of Personality and Hindu Nationalism in India
May 2024

Today's Totalitarianism invited Dr. John Harriss to share his insights on the article in Financial Times,  “Narendra Modi Increases Anti-Muslim Rhetoric in India Election Campaign.” The following is an excerpt from our interview:

TT - Would you say the Prime Minister Modi enjoys a "cult of personality" in India? The term, of course, originates with the likes of Mao, Stalin, and Hitler. Is the comparison apt? 


JH - There is no doubt at all about the existence of a “cult of personality” around Narendra Modi, though I don’t believe that it is entirely comparable with the cults surrounding the great dictators of the 20th century to whom you refer. An important manifestation of the cult around him is that the manifesto of his party, the BJP, in these elections, is entitled ‘Modi’s Guarantees’. And there is no doubt at all that many Indians will vote for Modi in these elections rather than for his party. Evidence from post-poll surveys conducted following the 2019 election showed that a fairly large proportion of those who had voted for the BJP would not have done so had Modi not been the prime ministerial candidate. Whereas he came to power drawing on the base that he had in the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the RSS – which is the core organisation of Hindu nationalism with millions of active members, and probably the largest civil society organisation in the world, it seems that it is now he who calls the shots rather than the RSS. Whereas he was initially beholden to the leadership of the RSS, increasingly it has appeared to be the other way round.   


I was recently in the south-west Indian state of Kerala, where the Communist Party of India secured power through election as long ago as 1957, and in its different avatars has often been in office since then, as it is at the moment. I soon became very conscious of the fact that, unlike my experience elsewhere in India, I was not constantly seeing pictures of Modi. Indeed, I noticed only one, faded picture, at a filling station – though I learnt that there are selfie-points at railway stations where people can picture themselves with the great man. This experience points to a difference, still, between India now and China, the Soviet Union and 1930s Germany under the great dictators. It is that allegiance to Modi, in what is still a federal polity with a functioning electoral system (even if this is under threat), doesn’t extend over all the country. This is particularly the case in the south, but also in the east. The BJP governs, or shares in the government of only seventeen out of 28 states. There is still a ways to go before Modi – repressive though his regime increasingly is - exercises the absolute dominance of the great dictators. Cults of personality elsewhere, I think, have been quite ruthlessly enforced. This it isn’t necessary, on the whole, in the Hindi heartland of India for Modi, and it is made to happen only with difficulty elsewhere – as when pressure had to be brought in states like Kerala and West Bengal for welfare goods to be distributed in bags carrying Modi’s image. 


TT - How is Hindu nationalist movement in India similar or different to right-wing populist movements throughout the West? How accurate is it call it a decolonial movement, as Modi sometimes implies? 


JH - While there certainly are points of similarity between the Hindu nationalist movement and, say, Erdogan’s AKP in Turkey, or even Trump’s Republican Party - appeal to past greatness, for instance - there is a significant difference in its support base. Though the BJP, especially under Modi, has succeeded in winning strong support among many of the lower castes and the historically oppressed and marginalised Dalit and tribal people of India, its core base is still among the higher castes, and – in great contrast to the pattern of support for the AKP - it is urban rather than rural. There is irony, then, in Modi’s presentation (or performance) of himself as a man from a humble, lower caste background, who is the champion of ‘the people’ against an oppressive elite. 


There has been a good deal of rhetoric about ‘decolonialisation’ in India latterly, as when the government proposed repealing colonial laws relating to criminal procedure. New laws, pushed very rapidly through Parliament last year, without much scrutiny, were heralded as laws ‘made in India, for India’, even though they included a lot of the old colonial law. But the claims about ‘decolonialisation’ aren’t entirely rhetorical, because Hindu nationalism stands opposed in many ways to the liberal values of the colonial power that are reflected in the Constitution of India. Not for nothing does Modi inveigh against ‘liberals’ as ‘anti-national’. It is significant, too, that at the G20 meeting that he hosted in India last September, he presented himself as the leader of ‘Bharat’, using the Sanskrit name for the country, in a kind of an assertion of civilisational power. This appears, too, in recent writings of Modi’s very smart Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar. 


TT - What are some of the key social, cultural, and economic factors keeping Modi in power? 


JH - Modi touches many different bases. It has been in the period of his rule that a new Hindu temple has been constructed on the site of an old mosque, destroyed by Hindu nationalist volunteers in 1992, that was supposedly on the birthplace of an important deity. Modi officiated at the consecration of the temple in January this year, effectively performing as a priest. For many Hindus this was an extremely important moment, a confirmation of Modi’s religious devotion as well as of his commitment to realising the goals of Hindu nationalism. It was expected that the temple would play a major part in the election, though current reports suggest that this may not be working out.


Modi has appeal for different social classes. Among people of lower caste status and among the poor he has appeal because of his own social background, and because he is so strongly associated with the effective delivery of welfare goods. Higher caste and class people often support him because of his championship of Hindu nationalism, and because he is seen as being a strong leader who has raised India’s standing in the world. Indeed, this last element in his image and performance of power is significant across social classes. The fact that India is now widely held to be the most successful major economy seems to matter even to the very many people who have not derived much benefit at all from economic growth, and even as India has become one the most unequal societies in the world. Modi and his government remain popular in spite of people’s experience of the economy, not because of it. During the 2014 general election that brought Modi to power I took part in discussions with groups of young people in different parts of the country and remember the excitement among them about the idea that this man was going to deliver opportunity for them. Their hopes and expectations have been bitterly disappointed as India has continued to experience what is described as ‘jobless growth’ or even ‘jobloss growth’, but it is not at all clear that this has dented Modi’s popularity nearly as much as might have been expected. In a similar way, the failure of his promises to farmers and rural people about raising their incomes didn’t lose him support in rural constituencies in the way that some commentators expected in the 2019 election. The terrible failure of his government in handling the coronavirus pandemic, when India suffered very large numbers of excess deaths, also did little to affect his popularity. He continued to be seen as doing his best for the people, and he remains trusted by very many of the people. The idea of ‘Modi’s Guarantees’ probably does play well with large numbers of voters. 


TT - How effective will opposition candidates be in the election? What support do they have? What arguments are they making to the electorate? 


JH - We should remember that even in 2019, when the BJP won such a crushing majority, only a little more than 37 per cent of the electorate voted for the party.  But this is what happens when opposition is divided in a first-past-the-post system. In spite of efforts, this time, to build a coherent alliance of opposition parties – mostly regional parties with strong local bases - in the I.N.D.I.A initiative (the Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance), many divisions have remained. Big egos, more than policy and political differences, have made opposition unity extremely difficult. The main face of the opposition across the country as a whole is that of Rahul Gandhi who is seen as the leader of the Congress Party even though he no longer holds a formal position of leadership – and the election has taken on even more of presidential character than before. It is ‘Modi versus Rahul’, and there are signs in Modi’s attacks on him in campaign speeches that some of Rahul Gandhi’s arguments to the electorate are hitting home. While Modi has tended to stay away from talking about the economy, Rahul has played up both the failures of the economy over the last ten years and the huge problem of unemployment, as well as the continuing need for ‘social justice’ where this means tackling the persisting implications of caste status for well-being. The opposition has promised a nation-wide socio-economic caste census, to determine the numbers of disadvantaged people, and more affirmative action for them. Modi’s response – which seems to suggest that he has been rattled - has been to claim that what the opposition will do is to take away benefits from Hindu groups and to give them to Muslims. 


John Harriss is Professor Emeritus of International Studies at Simon Fraser University, and previously taught at the LSE and the University of East Anglia. He has done research in and on India since 1971. Most recent book (with Craig Jeffrey and Trent Brown), India: Continuity and Change in the 21st Century (Polity Press, 2020).

Cite this article as: Harriss, John. May 2024. 'Analyzing India's 2024 Election, Before.' Today's Totalitarianism.'s-2024-election-before

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