Modi, cast by his party as a Redeemer of sorts, is heavily influenced by the Hindu nationalist RSS. Illustration by Gregori Saavedra

The making of Modi

To understand what’s in store for India, we have to look at the ideology and politics that shaped its prime minister: Hindutva authoritarianism
April 17, 2024

Looking ahead to a year-and-a-bit from now, I can see in my mind’s eye a spectacle worthy of this age of strongmen: Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, each newly re-elected, are locked in a bear hug. They are taking part in a festival of mutual admiration at the world’s largest cricket ground, which was named after the Indian premier in his home state of Gujarat. The crowd of 125,000 people, bussed-in for the occasion, send up an almighty roar to the accompaniment of fireworks imported from China.

In reports about the event, the media from both countries will recall “Namaste Trump”, Modi’s extravagant welcome for Trump at that same stadium in February 2020, a month after the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern” and barely a month before the pandemic, which would directly and indirectly claim an estimated five million lives in India, was officially declared.

Theoretically, of course, the scene I imagine may not come to pass. Something might happen between now and the end of India’s marathon parliamentary election—which starts on 19th April and during which hundreds of millions of people in different parts of the country will vote—to upset these gloomy prognostications. Or indeed, something may come to pass before the US presidential election on 5th November. But going by current indicators, the odds on either upset happening are long—extremely long for Modi, perhaps somewhat shorter for Trump. That’s not good news for the world’s “largest” and “oldest” democracies. For while Modi and Trump have strikingly different backgrounds and styles, they have in common an uncanny ability to work crowds up into a frenzy; a taste for the grandiose and the talent and wherewithal to enact folies de grandeur on a scale rarely seen before. Most importantly, they share an authoritarian disdain for their constitutions and the values, spirit and even the letter of these foundational charters. 

According to India scholars Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, India’s first dictatorship—the Emergency imposed in June 1975 by then prime minister Indira Gandhi and brought to an end 21 months later through a decisive electoral defeat for her party—was a complex phenomenon that was “neither a parenthesis, nor so much as a turning point, but a concentrate of a style of rule, an élan alive today,” which involves, among other things, “a dialectical relationship between populism and authoritarianism.”

There are echoes of that phenomenon in Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime has taken the path of incremental authoritarianism, softening up and, wherever possible, suborning constitutional and democratic institutions and undermining India’s already stressed secular foundations. Though these actions have been extensively reported, they are worth repeating:

  • The government has brought executive power to bear on the independence of two constitutionally empowered institutions, the election commission and the Supreme Court, which in the assessment of some critical lawyers has been turned largely into an “executive court”;
  • It has conducted targeted assaults on freedom of expression, media freedom, media independence and other fundamental rights. It has used anti-terror, sedition and other draconian laws to incarcerate journalists, students, human rights defenders, civil society activists and troublesome critics of the government—often without bail or trial for prolonged periods. Since 2014, India has sunk to the rank of 161 among 180 countries and territories in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index;
  • It has almost certainly conducted illegal surveillance against a large number of journalists, politicians, civil society activists and other selected targets by deploying NSO Group’s military-grade spyware, Pegasus. The Supreme Court had the matter investigated by an expert committee but has not yet made the findings public or come to a clear conclusion.
  • It has made a concerted effort to police and censor the internet, social media, streaming platforms such as Netflix and digital news providers through legislation including the Digital Personal Data Protection Act 2023. This act, in the words of Subhashis Banerjee, a professor of computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, “facilitates data collection and processing by the government and private entities rather than… data protection”;
  • It has amended the citizenship law to make Muslim (as distinct from non-Muslim) migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan ineligible for citizenship, thus introducing religion as a criterion for citizenship for the first time in the history of independent India. Viewed along with the National Population Register and National Register of Citizens—two bureaucratic exercises of unprecedented scale and potential menace, which significant sections of India’s more than 200m Muslims see as being directed against them, and which are likely to cause hardship and harassment to the poor and dispossessed—the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 poses a direct challenge to India’s democratic and secular polity and to political stability as well;
  • The government has deployed brutal force to suppress democratic protests, notably demonstrations in December 2019 against those changes in the citizenship law that discriminate against Muslims, and through 2020 and 2021 demanded the repeal of three laws seen as favouring corporate India at the expense of farmers;
  • It has systematically misused agencies of the state responsible for countering crime, corruption, income tax violations and money laundering in order to go after and arrest political opponents, including ministers, chief ministers and legislators;
  • By abrogating, without discussion in parliament, Article 370 of the constitution, which granted a special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir, and by downgrading the state to the status of a union territory, the Modi government has dealt a serious blow to the concept of Indian federalism.
  • Finally, it has made use of governors who are openly partisan, in an attempt to undermine elected state governments run by opposition parties, thus embittering relations between the states and the national government in several cases.

The list is not exhaustive, but is sufficient to make my point. 

Comparisons between strongmen (or to be more precise, authoritarian leaders) who rise to dominance in different countries with different histories, socio-economic conditions and political cultures are usually superficial. “Men make their own history,” Karl Marx wrote famously in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” And thus it is in the case of India’s prime minister.

The personality cult of Modi—the prominent posters and cutouts, the naming of several national projects and centrally funded welfare schemes after him, the relentless projection of him by the BJP and a substantial part of mainstream media as the Redeemer—might suggest otherwise, but India’s prime minister is not his own man. Simply put, Modi is a votary, a lifelong adherent, of the Hindu-supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). If we are to have the measure of the man, the political leader—and the India he seeks to shape—it is imperative that we understand that bond.

Born in a humble family that lived in straitened circumstances in an obscure small town in Gujarat, indifferently educated, and married, apparently against his wishes, at the age of 18, Modi forsook his wife and family and, after wandering about for three years in search of his inner self and his destiny, decided to make the RSS his permanent home.

In 1972, the 22-year-old became a pracharak, a fulltime missionary who spreads the RSS gospel. The semi-secret organisation’s daily activities are centred on the shakha (a Sanskrit word denoting a branch or, in this case, a cell), where swayamsevaks, lay volunteers sometimes dressed in khaki shorts, meet with clock-like precision through the year for rigorous training and indoctrination in the mores of “Hindu dharma”, “community service”, “character building” and the Hindu-supremacist project of national reconstruction, as interpreted and ordained by the RSS. 

After working doggedly within the RSS for 15 years, Modi got his break in politics when he was appointed general secretary of the BJP in Gujarat. He was unexpectedly promoted to the post of chief minister in October 2001, and four months later the horrors of the Gujarat pogrom unfolded on his watch: following an attack by a Muslim mob on the Sabarmathi Express train that resulted in the death of 59 Hindu pilgrims, frenzied Hindu mobs were left unchecked to murder, rape, torture, loot, pillage and “teach Muslims a lesson”. The official death toll reported in parliament was 1,044 (790 Muslims, 254 Hindus), with 223 reported missing and another 2,500 injured. Unofficial estimates put the death toll closer to 2,000. More than 100,000 people were driven out of their homes and joined the ranks of the internally displaced. A large number of mosques and dargahs, some temples and a few churches were destroyed. The violence resulted in huge property losses, overwhelmingly among Muslims. 

The horrors of the Gujarat pogrom did not escape attention across India and internationally. In the aftermath, Modi reportedly twice came close to being dismissed by the BJP’s leadership but was retained and went on to win three elections over the next decade, becoming the longest-serving chief minister of his state. In March 2005, the United States denied him a diplomatic visa and his existing tourist/business visa was revoked under a little-known section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that rendered any foreign government official who “was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for a visa to the US.

For more than a decade, until western governments sensed that Modi was headed for India’s top political job, he was informally boycotted by ambassadors of the countries of the European Union. The US waited until exit polls projected a BJP triumph in the 2014 general election to explain that the relationship with India was “vitally important for economic, strategic reasons”, and the Obama administration looked forward to “working with the leaders chosen by the Indian people” in an election that was “an inspiring example of the power of the democratic process in action”. India’s new prime minister would now be welcomed warmly everywhere within the community of nations.

On the legal front, Modi’s role and alleged complicity in the violence were investigated under the direction of the Supreme Court, but a special investigation team appointed by the court cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing in 2012. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Modi rose to become first chief minister of Gujarat and then prime minister of India in 2014 by testing and perfecting a playbook that combined populism, economic credentials, the Hindu right’s anti-democratic and anti-secular agenda and the strongman’s style of centralised and personalised rule.

Since winning office, his BJP government has made no secret of its intent to consolidate political power along the lines worked out by the ideologues of “Hindutva” and “Hindu Rashtra”. Hindutva can be translated as “Hindu-ness”, not so much in a religious as in a “civilisational sense”, according to these ideologues, while Hindu Rashtra connotes a theocratic or semi-theocratic Hindu polity or state, much like its Islamic counterparts.

Hindutva as we encounter it today is simultaneously a fascistic ideology, whose original and systematised formulation goes back a century, a militant call to action (“Hindu jihad”) in the name of the “Hindu Samaj” (“samaj”, whose literal translation is “society”, is a loaded word here, much like the Muslim “umma”) and a toxic political project conceived and spearheaded by the RSS, which has given the concept organisational clout, salience in India’s political theatre and longevity.

In this constellation of forces, it is the RSS that calls the shots

The formation known as the “Sangh Parivar” is an extensive and multi-layered “family” of scores of organisations and forces that are brought together on the ideological-political platform of Hindutva and are committed, in multiple ways and over the long term, to the anti-constitutional project of Hindu Rashtra. 

In this constellation of forces, it is the RSS that calls the shots. As the political front of the RSS, the BJP has sought over time to shape its politics and programmes, keeping in mind the necessity of becoming a mainstream party with broad electoral support. It may therefore have some functional autonomy. Communalism, targeted against minorities (especially Muslims but also Christians) and the punctual use of violence against them are its stock-in-trade. Engineering polarisation on religious and, more recently, on caste lines is a key part of its electoral strategy and tactics. 

One act, symbolic and political in equal measure, deserves mention.

Ten years after he was first elected as the prime minister of a country with a secular and democratic constitution, which came into force on 26th November 1950, Modi demonstrated his disdain for its principles. 

At Ayodhya, the mythical birthplace of Lord Rama, whom Hindus believe to be an avatar of the supreme god Vishnu, a massive temple is now being built on the ruins of the Babri Masjid—a 16th century, Mughal-era mosque that was vandalised and razed to the ground on 6th December 1992 by Hindu activists brought together by organisations and leaders associated with the RSS. 

The lines separating religion, the state and politics… were erased in an unbounded show of majoritarian power

On 22nd January 2024, at that site, Modi played the nation’s grand priest by leading the “Pran Pratishtha” rituals, infusing life into the idol for the child Lord Ram. In preparation, he had undertaken an 11-day purification ritual that involved fasting and other austerities, visiting temples across the country, inaugurating a big development project or two, and, most importantly, mobilising majoritarian sentiment with an eye to the upcoming general election.

With the prime minister’s revelation on social media that “God has asked me to represent the people of India during the ceremony”, both the ruling party and its governments pulled out all the stops to politicise the Ayodhya consecration ceremony. The lines separating religion, the state and politics, laid down within India’s constitutional framework and reinforced by the Supreme Court in a 1994 judgement, were erased in an unbounded show of majoritarian power.

To understand what is happening in India today, we need to be clear that Modi’s party has been radically transformed under the tutelage of the RSS over a period of three decades. Founded in 1980 on an amorphous right-of-centre platform, it reinvented itself by strategically adopting a platform of militant Hindutva in the early 1990s. Its aggressive pursuit of both old issues of the Hindu right and volatile new ones picked by the party helped it advance in the mass political arena. 

That Hindutva agenda included pushing for the construction of the Ram temple in place of the Babri Masjid; “Islamic subversion” of Hindu society from within; abrogation of Article 370 of the constitution; the promise of an Indian brand of capitalism marked by liberalisation and privatisation under the aegis of Hindu majoritarian interests; the refrain of “pseudo-secularism” and “appeasement” of minorities; and the theme of Muslim “infiltration”, as distinct from Hindu “migration” from Bangladesh.

The arrival of Modi on centre stage, with a beguiling and seemingly inclusive election manifesto promising “development with and for all”, took the political stock of the BJP to another level. The party’s success in the 2014 general election put an end to a quarter century of centrist coalition governments. Reinvigorated, it won an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, and the personality and style of work of the new prime minister gave the Hindutva movement a boost. The old leaders of the BJP were sidelined or dropped.

The era of the strongman who would brook no opposition, no dissent, no competitor and no institutional obstacle did not take long to announce itself. There was a major new factor at work: the massive acclaim and support, moral and material, his regime received from big business. This nexus between the BJP and big business has been on show everywhere: across television, newspapers, magazines, social media and election funding. It was there too at Ayodhya on 22nd January, when corporate India turned up in force for the consecration of the grand temple. 

The BJP is undoubtedly India’s dominant political party, winning 31 per cent of the vote in the 2014 general election and 37 per cent in 2019. But majoritarian politics is rarely translated to a majority of the popular vote in multi-party parliamentary elections, especially in a vast country where diversities of every kind abound and realities on the ground can change quickly. Even the Congress party, in its heyday and facing no credible opposition at the national level, did not win a majority vote share.

It is worth noting that the BJP’s share of the all-India popular vote has never touched 40 per cent in a general election, and its average vote share over the 10 general elections it has contested between 1984 and 2019 is a modest 22 per cent. The Congress, by contrast, took more than 40 per cent of the popular vote in the seven general elections it won between 1951 and 1984, almost reaching the 50 per cent mark that year, with a historical average vote share of 36 per cent over 17 general elections. 

On the economy, the Modi regime could still come unstuck

Elections are about arithmetic as much as anything else, and these numbers suggest that the BJP is far from invincible if the opposition parties work together. The BJP has suffered several setbacks when pitted against strong regional parties and coalitions in state-level legislative assemblies as well as Lok Sabha elections at the state level. It was the appealing arithmetic factor that brought 27 political parties together into the big-tent bloc known as INDIA—an acronym for the Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance—with the primary goal of defeating the BJP in the 2024 general election. With some of the constituent parties at odds with each other at the state level and the sudden defection of Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (United) party to the BJP camp, the coherence of the INDIA bloc and its effectiveness in minimising the fragmentation of the anti-BJP vote is an open question. 

On the economy, the Modi regime could still come unstuck. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi built a reputation among the middle classes and big business for ruthless efficiency in executing both development and Hindu-supremacist projects. That reputation has, of course, been taken to another level as prime minister. However, significant infrastructural development and a quantum jump in incentivised corporate investment—the “Gujarat model” showcased by Modi and his admirers—may have come at the cost of generous government subsidies and improved economic growth for the state. Data shows that when it comes to social indicators such as poverty, infant mortality, nutrition, education, employment, health and the environment, Gujarat did not make any significant progress and continues to lag a long way behind the progressive southern Indian states, especially Kerala and Tamil Nadu. 

The government’s narrative emphasises, as evidence of the prime minister’s current masterly management of the economy and his inclusive approach, a decent rate of GDP growth, currently the highest among the G20 economies; the construction of highways, tunnels and rural roads; welfare programmes such as the free distribution of food grains; housing and sanitation projects; the massive rollout of Covid-19 vaccines; direct benefit transfers enabled by the digital stack and the mass opening of bank accounts; the surge in digital payments, the switch to a Goods and Services Tax across the country, and so on. 

Critics, reminding us of the deep damage done to the economy by the November 2016 demonetisation misadventure (in which 86 per cent of cash in circulation was stripped of its status as legal tender) and the disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, say the economy is yet to recover fully from those shocks. Well-known economists, including former government chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian and former governor of the reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan, have raised doubts about the growth numbers put out by the government, pointing out that the lack of good data and the 2013 change in the method of estimating the GDP suggest that the Indian economy may not have been growing at the official rate. Critics also call attention to the alarming level of youth unemployment (40 per cent), the abysmal fraction of working-age women in employment (one in five, the lowest in the G20 countries, according to economists Raghuram G Rajan and Rohit Lamba), high levels of poverty and mass deprivation, the millions of malnourished children, rising inequality and environmental degradation. “India wastes too much of its human capital,” observe Rajan and Lamba, “and is in danger of frittering away its demographic dividend—the supposed dividend from having a growing share of working-age population—because it is not creating enough jobs.”

The perceived nexus of the government and big corporates has also involved a political and economic cost for Modi. Following a report by Hindenberg Research, a US investment research firm specialising in forensic financial investigation and focused on activist short-selling, Modi’s closeness to the billionaire Gautam Adani and the Adani Group of companies has drawn allegations of cronyism and cover-up. Hindenberg’s two-year investigation made the explosive allegation that the Adani Group, then valued at $218bn, had “engaged in a brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme over the course of decades” and that the government and the regulators had failed to do their job. There has been a furious fightback by the group and the BJP government—the two are seen by the political opposition to be joined at the hip—and the group reject the allegations. But, as a business daily points out, a year after the report “set off a firestorm and a political slugfest for the Adani Group, most of the port-to-cement conglomerate’s stocks are yet to fully recover from this setback.” 

The electoral bonds scandal has dealt an unexpected blow to the image of the BJP regime

Surfacing close to the 2024 general election, the electoral bonds scandal has dealt an unexpected blow to the image of the BJP regime. Electoral bonds are in the nature of bearer bonds, which are designed for opacity. The electoral bonds scheme was introduced by the BJP government in early 2017 and operationalised in 2018 after the government amended several laws regulating, or relevant to, electoral finance. 

In an Orwellian twist, a scheme tailor-made for donor anonymity, tax evasion and money laundering was sought to be passed off as a way of promoting transparency and electoral reform. A company or an individual could buy electoral bonds of different values from the sole bank designated for this purpose, the State Bank of India, and donate them to a political party. 

While India’s top public sector bank held in its possession all the data on electoral bonds, including information on the identities of the donors, the values of bonds they purchased, and which party had encashed these bonds, the public was denied this information. The central government and its coercive agencies had access to this information, as their subsequent actions suggested. The election commission and the central bank, the Reserve Bank of India, had cautioned the government against the scheme before it was introduced, and newspaper articles and transparency activists had criticised and opposed it. 

But it was only after a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the scheme as unconstitutional—because it violated the voters’ right to information about political funding under the constitution—and ordered the State Bank of India and the election commission to disclose to the public all the data they held under the scheme that the true character and contours of the scandal came to light. 

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s verdict and its firmness in following up and enforcing the judgment to the letter, India’s newspapers, digital news providers, and independent researchers have been able to publish a wealth of stories based on data analysis and about the electoral bonds scandal. A Pandora’s box has been opened, and revelations on political corruption, extortion (through the use of coercive agencies of the state) to pressure unwilling and reluctant donors into coughing up funds for the ruling party, on a quid pro quo arrangement that punished non-donors and rewarded donors, and on several illegalities committed under the scheme have come tumbling out. To no one’s surprise, the data shows that, between 12th April 2019 and 24th January 2024, the BJP cornered 47.46 per cent of the funds received by 26 political parties under the electoral bonds scheme, and the encashed electoral bonds fetched the equivalent of around $727m for the ruling party. Its main national rival, the Congress party, received only 11.14 per cent of the funds received under the scheme.  

Finally, some fault lines have emerged in the BJP voter base which are being papered over by the Modi effect: his robust and seemingly undiminished popularity. A survey just ahead of the 2019 general election by one of India’s most trusted polling organisations suggested that Modi’s popularity accounted for nearly a third of the BJP’s vote. This excessive dependence on a leader, with no competitor or successor in sight, combined with the age factor—Modi will be nearly 79 at the end of a third term—and ongoing tensions and conflicts within the Sangh family suggest a potential vulnerability for the BJP. 

But the last word must go to India’s finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman. Presenting her sixth budget, she thrashed the management of the economy pre-Modi; promised a white paper that would outline how the economy might resurge and flourish following the “mess” left behind by the prime minister’s predecessors; argued, against the evidence, that Modi had surmounted the “enormous challenges” he inherited through “structural reforms, pro-people programmes, and the creation of opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship”; and proclaimed that the BJP government would return to parliament this July with a full budget that would unveil a road map for the attainment of “Viksit Bharat” (Developed or advanced India) by 2047, the centenary of India’s independence. It was a hubristic performance from start to finish—but this time she and the party look set to get away with it.

Correction: This article originally stated that the BJP had contested 19 general elections between 1984 and 2019. It contested 10 in that time. The error was Prospect’s, not the writer's.