For at least a few months now, most Indians in their workplaces, homes and within their communities have been unwittingly discussing the inescapable context of the 2019 General Elections. At the time I write this article, the 17th General Elections are underway in India and six out of the seven phases of voting for next Prime Minister of India have already been completed. Nothing short of being spectacular, of the nine hundred million registered voters for 2019 elections, 15 million are voting for the first time across thousands of constituencies in the country. A staggering number of 2,293 registered political parties are participating and approximately 8000 candidates are contesting in the elections across the country seeking their berth amongst the 543 Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian Parliament) seats.

Despite this wide diversity of voters, political parties and candidates participating in the elections, the public debate in the country is irrevocably centered around the question — “Will Modi Return?” It is not as if, in the annals of the country, the public discourse of the country has never debated if the reigning PM would return for the second term but intensity and value of the question “Will Modi Return?” almost bears an unprecedented degree of rigor, anxiety, excitement, hopefulness, apprehension and fear. 

Why has Narendra Modi’s return as the PM been more central to discussions than the election of any other leader of the country? The answer to this question is perhaps decipherable from the nature of civic life in India for the past five years. Any resident or visitor to India in the past five years would effortlessly remember not passing by a single road (primarily in urban areas), a single petrol or gas station, single public office, railway stations, banks or a national highways that did not bear Modi’s picture in the hoardings, banners or posters. If panopticons are quintessential feature of modern societies, Modi’s panopticism through his visuality and visualizations were emblematic feature of our lives. This essentially meant that in a highly stratified, multicultural and inherently unequal political landscape, the leader — his pictures, his voice, his ideology and his imagination sought to hegemonize the multitudes of voices, articulations and ideologies that have long existed India. In the five years since 2014, the leader ensured that all forms and content of technological (to name a few-NaMo App, NaMo TV channel, compulsory televised speeches for school children and stipulated radio hours for choreographed interaction with “publics”) symbolic and structural apparatuses were utilized and controlled for his communication with the masses. Standing on the platforms created on foundations of “liberal democracy”, Modi and his party members from Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) have portrayed and labelled, leaders in opposition as weak, dyslexic, ineffective and corrupt. Any dissenting individual, university, public institution or school of thought have consequently been systemically labelled as “anti-national”. Among many things, Modi thereby, normativized the public values showing that only political leaders can speak, they can never be questioned and most importantly, leaders never need to answer questions.

Not unexpectedly, ever since Modi has come into power, erratic, impulsive and poorly executed moralistic programs linking nationalism and patriotism to economics have been discharged through events like Demonetisation that pushed a functional growing economy to face irrevocable loss of at least 50 lakhs jobs and fiscal loss amounting to millions of rupees. The unemployment rate in the country that has reached a 45-year-old high and data for all economic indicators have been routinely either misrepresented or manipulated. Agrarian and water crisis has only deepened further leading to rise of farmers suicide and growing poverty in rural agrarian areas.

In a country that constitutionally acclaims itself to be a “secular” nation, news reports affirm the steady rise of ‘cow-related violence’ since 2014, because of which cow vigilantes have killed, attempted to murder, stripped, flogged or mob-lynched members of Muslim and Dalit communities in the name of ‘cow-protection’. These incidents have become part of ordinary and mundane life in India, none of which has been actively condemned and prohibited by the present elected representatives of the people by Modi or his party. In fact what has been encouraged is the blatant impunity for Hindutva terror organizations’, violent bigotry and endorsements for aggressive toxic-masculine individuals and social media groups who have been traumatizing Muslims and threatening to rape women. This toxic culture has become so prevalent that individuals like Sadhvi Pragya, who are accused of terrorist activities and publicly flaunting threats of demolishing mosques have been fielded as candidates in the ongoing general elections. It is with this similar popular mandate that Modi endorsed the chief ministership of Yogi Adityanath in 2017, who publicly prescribed raping dead bodies of Muslim women. In the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir which has been reeling in the cycles of violence for decades now; death, violence, torture, mass-scale blinding of children and youth have only compounded; grievances of which have been addressed by further banning social services programs and educational services run by age-old Muslim socio-cultural public organizations like Jamaat-i-Islami (J&K) and by deliberate gagging of the media. In the north-eastern state of Assam, violence, fear and protests have exponentially increased after the ruling BJP government sought to “resolve” the long-standing migration influx crisis by offering citizenship to Hindus and other non-muslim migrants from neighboring countries like Bangladesh by vehemently endorsing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill. Despite the rise in number attacks and death of armed forces personnel and sustained war hysteria against enemy-forever-neighbor Pakistan in the past five years, whipping up public affect into a state of normalized crisis has become an elementary form of statecraft for Modi.

The popular electoral mandate of an absolute majority in Lok Sabha offered to Modi’s leadership in 2014, in spite of his tainted history of being complicit in the disastrous 2002 Gujarat Pogrom, was believed to be offered on the grounds of two promises. One, for reviving the claims of a Hindutva state that protected the interests of an “empowered” Hindu majority population of the country against the “apparent threat” from the Muslim communities of India. Two, for bolstering the growing Indian economy that entailed “salvaging” the economic system from political corruption in order to supposedly provide more employment, protection from price inflation and better social services for all irrespective of caste, religion, gender and ethnicity.

In 2014, this was read as a vote for change, a vote for strengthening the image and economy of the country. Yet, notwithstanding, Modi’s authoritarian political theology seeking to develop India into a “strong and powerful nation again”, his supporters have unapologetically confirmed the rise and growth of a Hindutva populist state in India. Five years later in 2019, if poll predictions by popular media houses and general public sensorium are to be trusted, Modi stands a strong chance to return for the second term in office. As anthropologist William Mazzarella would say, this phenomenon of the rise of Hindutva populist politics in a “socialist, secular democratic republic” like India, like most contemporary populist governments across the globe,, exposes the deep-seated “structural scandals” of modern liberal democracies. His recent article drafted for Annual Review of Anthropology, The Anthropology of Populism: Beyond the Liberal Settlement enunciated the lack of definitional clarity of terms like populism and liberalism in the intellectual discourses and questioned the universalism of concepts like liberalism and secularism. Most significantly, Mazzarella draws our attention towards the paradoxical situation that liberal arts disciplines like socio-cultural anthropology and sociology, despite being sensitive to multitudes and alternative forms of life-worlds and articulations, are now facing while engaging with societies that democratically elect and desire aggressive toxic-masculine populist governments.

And, it is for these reasons that the question, “Will Modi Return in 2019?” besieges the liberal discourse in India today. Therefore, the two useful questions to ask would be,

  • First, was India ever a “secular liberal democracy”? While questions like this have always demanded intense scrutiny; there is an active struggle to negotiate with the contemporary question – how do we begin a political response with words when we no longer agree and understand the meanings of words like “secular” and “liberal”?
  • Second, what will votes for Modi in 2019 in the world biggest democracy do to our understandings of liberal democratic values that form the basis of our engagement with politics and its knowledge at large? How have/would we translate illiberal, conservative and violent popular vote mandate for our liberal political transactions?

While Indian constitutional democracy has celebrated the diversity of cultures and equality of all religions and economic and social opportunities; individual and communitarian rights have continued to clash due to the opacity of the meaning of the terms “secular” and “equality”. Commentators from varied positionalities have identified that routinized and assumable liberal/centrist politics’ of ignorance and elitist dismissiveness towards grievances and resentments of the “apparent” marginalization of the upper caste Hindus and the neglected groups within backward castes as well as religious minority communities has now calibrated into a form of reactionary identity politics. In as much as the fact that identity politics did provide the commitment and possibilities of demanding an egalitarian society for historically marginalized communities earlier; the forms of contemporary identity politics witnessed today continuously aspire to be a disenfranchised body of an individual and a community that has been chronically been at risk. In the absence of any substantial content in the meaning of words like “secular”, “equality”, “liberty” or “liberal”, individuals and communities riling in the fear of being abjected as sacrificial excess at the altar of democracy, thereby compete for victimhood in a way that willfully effaces all other forms of structural violence against marginalized individuals and communities.

23rd May 2019 will undeniably provide us with the answer to the inevitable question defining the current hour of Indian politics, but to begin an engagement with such forms of politics, it is perhaps crucial to remind oneself that Modi is not merely a resultant product of the hitherto neglected tendencies of instrumentalist technocratic liberal politics but symptomatic of a broader shift in the aesthetic of modern representational politics itself. Unless, a concerted dialogic effort to reconfigure and retrieve the meanings of “equality”, “secularism” “liberty” and “liberalism” are not initiated in all possible methodologies of knowledge and politics, we shall probably continue to lack a medium of conversation and negotiation with words and worlds that do not mirror ours.

Sarbani Sharma is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. Her doctoral thesis titled “Everyday Understandings of Azadi (freedom) in Kashmir” analyses the entourage of the word Azadi (Freedom) in the Kashmiri movement for the right to self-determination as well as in the everyday lives of the people of Kashmir.