(How India’s Democracy Constrains Modi)
Like most national elections in India, the one coming this spring will be decided in the mofussil. Originally a colonial term for any town outside the commercial capitals of the British Raj, mofussil now refers to the provincial areas beyond the burgeoning megacities of Mumbai and New Delhi, that is, to the rural and impoverished stretches where two out of three Indians live.
Come April or May, the inhabitants of these rural towns will vote in what is shaping up to be an unexpectedly tight race pitting the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi against the Indian National Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi. Until a year ago, Modi looked like the sure winner. He had sidelined all rivals in the BJP and overshadowed Gandhi and the rest of the opposition. He was running the most centralized administration India had seen in decades, with decisions large and small funneled through the prime minister’s office. The BJP and its allies went from governing six of India’s 29 states in 2014 to holding 21 by early 2018. So firm seemed Modi’s grip on power that many Indian liberals began drawing parallels to the slide toward one-man rule in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.
A series of surprising setbacks late last year have dissipated this aura of invincibility. In three key state elections in December, many voters in the mofussil turned against the BJP. Modi’s odds of beating the Congress party and its allies at the national level now seem no better than even. This is exactly how Indian voters like their leaders: on the edge and fearing for their jobs. No other major democracy tosses out its ruling party as often as India does. Ever since the country became a true multiparty democracy, in the 1970s, two out of three governments at the central and state levels have lost their bids for reelection.
In many ways, India is less a country than a mosaic of states divided by hundreds of languages and thousands of castes and subcastes, many of them fiercely loyal to their own regional parties and leaders. The BJP managed to overcome these divisions in 2014, when voters were eager for change following years of corruption scandals and double-digit inflation under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of Congress. Even then, the BJP won just 31 percent of the popular vote and was able to win a majority of seats in Parliament thanks only to a badly fragmented opposition. Now, opposition parties appear to be uniting against Modi in many of the largest and most politically critical states, just as they have banded together against ascendant national leaders in the past. Modi’s reelection bid will hinge on whether he can cobble together coalitions of his own to face this front, state by state, each with unique local dynamics.
THE ROOTS OF MODI’S RISE
I got to see how national politics plays out in the mofussil by spending childhood summers with my grandparents in Bijnor, a provincial town in western Uttar Pradesh. Commonly known as UP, Uttar Pradesh is the most populous and one of the least developed states. It has been said that all roads to national power in New Delhi run through UP, and many Indian politicians try to get a head start by launching their bids for power there. Two of the last three Indian prime ministers— including Modi—have chosen to represent parliamentary constituencies in UP, whether they lived there or not. All of India is passionate about politics, but nowhere are people more obsessed than in UP—perhaps owing to the depth of its caste loyalties and its poverty, which make voters particularly dependent on their political leaders for protection and survival.
During my visits in the late 1970s and 1980s, I would watch my grandfather and his friends, all upper-caste members of the Bijnor community, gather around the television and hurl Hindi epithets at the nightly news, much of which was state propaganda for the Congress party. Congress had led India to independence in 1947 and had held power ever since. But by the late 1970s, voters were growing frustrated with the increasingly imperious rule of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and they voted her out of office in 1977.
Upper-caste Hindus, in particular, vilified Congress for “coddling” Muslims, who made up 20 percent of the population in UP, nearly twice the national average. They also attacked Congress for reserving fixed quotas of government jobs and college admissions for those marginalized by an ancient social order that ranks every Hindu into one of several thousand castes.
The Congress party had designed much of its welfare system to lift up the lowest caste, the Dalits, but change occurred at a glacial pace. Well into the 1980s, it was routine among the upper castes to address Dalits with a string of abuse or to refuse them access to schools, temples, and other public spaces. Anger at this mistreatment fueled the rise of challengers to the Congress party’s rule, including dozens of regional parties based on caste, religion, or tribe. One of the most prominent regional leaders, Kumari Mayawati, a fiery champion of the Dalits in UP, began her ascent in Bijnor, much to the dismay of local Brahmins. She eventually became the state’s chief minister, the Indian equivalent of a U.S. governor.
An even bigger challenge to Congress came from Hindu nationalists, who united under the umbrella of the BJP after Indira Gandhi led Congress to a comeback win in 1980. In contrast to the secular and diverse nation extolled by Congress, BJP leaders envisioned India as a society governed by Hindu values and the Hindi language. Although the party was a melting pot for many shades of Hindu nationalism, including moderate strands that eschewed anti-Muslim rhetoric, I can remember listening to hard-core BJP supporters in Bijnor chanting a Hindi limerick that translates as, “Muslims are crooks; they have heads like dogs and ears like cats.”
In Bijnor and elsewhere, the BJP’s message resonated, and in 1998, the party formed its first stable national government under the moderate statesman Atal Bihari Vajpayee. That same year, I began following major national and state elections on the campaign trail, with a group of fellow writers. To have any chance of accurately forecasting elections, I knew we had to get out and talk to voters in the mofussil. Two decades and 27 trips later, our caravan has grown to include about 20 journalists, who have published commentary and analysis in The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Times of India, and many other outlets. In all, we have visited 15 states, including the ten largest and most politically significant, gaining an intimate feel for how Indian democracy works on the ground. We have met with Modi twice and witnessed his reelection as chief minister of Gujarat in 2007 and 2012 and his national victory in 2014.
Over the same period, we watched the Congress party slide from dominance to irrelevance in one major state after another, sidelined by the BJP and regional parties. In UP, for example, Congress has fallen to a distant fourth among the leading parties and has seen its share of the popular vote drop from more than 40 percent in 1984 to less than ten percent in 2017.
Many commentators feared that the BJP’s meteoric rise under Modi portended a descent into an intolerant, increasingly ethnonationalist tyranny of the Hindu majority. After the BJP won state elections in UP in 2017, Modi appointed the Hindu monk and right-wing firebrand Yogi Adityanath as the state’s chief minister. When we met Adityanath during the campaign, he was dressed all in saffron, the sacred color of Hinduism. Sitting in his temple, also decorated in saffron, Adityanath spoke a pure form of Hindi, shorn of Anglicisms and so close to the ancient language of Sanskrit that many of us could barely understand him. On the campaign trail, he embraced an unapologetic politics of Hindu supremacy, warning that UP must not become “another Kashmir”—a place where, in his telling, Muslims ruled and Hindus lived in fear. For liberal observers, his appointment to the state’s highest office was a stunning example of the creeping normalization of Hindu extremism under Modi.
But a more complex picture of the prime minister’s tenure emerges from our travels, particularly in states outside the northern “cow belt” around UP, where Hindi speakers and Hindu conservatism dominate. In the south, which has long embraced a more moderate Hinduism, Modi’s nationalist message resonates far less. During a 2016 election trip to the southern state of Tamil Nadu, one voter responded to our questions about the prime minister with one of his own, “Modi who?” And many dismissed him as an irrelevant figure in this region. At a rally last year in the neighboring state of Karnataka, we watched as Modi received an enthusiastic response when he greeted the crowd with a few words in the local language, Kannada. Then, he switched back to Hindi, with a Kannada translator. Suddenly, his charisma seemed to disappear, and the crowd went silent. Alarmists who fear that India is succumbing to strongman rule miss the fact that there are still too many Indias for the irente nation to be held in thrall to any single vision or figure.
If anything genuinely unites Indian voters, it is hostility toward whoever happens to be in office. It wasn’t always this way: in post-independence India, voters returned the incumbent—usually a Congress party politician—to power in 90 percent of state or national elections. But ever since Indira Gandhi imposed a controversial state of emergency in 1975, inspiring the opposition to unite and topple her two years later, voters have unseated their leaders with astonishing regularity.
This anti-incumbent bias is partly the result of India’s fragmented party system. In most states, dozens of parties compete, and the winners often find themselves scrambling for allies to help them form a government. Tiny shifts in the vote, or in the allegiance of one small coalition partner, can make or break a government. The whole system is almost designed to encourage change and make it easy for voters and rival parties to throw out the ruling party.
The discontent of Indian voters is also a reaction to chronic economic mismanagement. The country became a democracy when it was still staggeringly poor, with newborn government institutions that could not meet the needs and demands of the impoverished masses. In the early decades, Congress was able to hold on to power mainly because voters were thankful that the party had led India to independence from the United Kingdom, not because it was delivering economic progress. Congress’ socialist vision relegated India to the so-called Hindu rate of growth, a measly 3.5 percent annually, too slow to lift a booming population out of poverty. Once Congress’ monopoly was broken, voters never hesitated to express their economic dissatisfaction at the ballot box.
And yet the links between the country’s politics and its economics are not entirely clear-cut. After limping along under strong and stable Congress governments until the 1980s, the economy picked up speed under the fragile coalition governments that followed. Still, with the exception of a brief period late in the last decade, voters showed little willingness to reward their leaders based on strong economic performance alone.
My analysis of the economic data, available back to 1980, shows that even when chief ministers presided over a state GDP growth rate above eight percent—which usually puts an economy into the “miracle” class— their chances of being reelected were still only 50–50. This is not because voters do not care about jobs or a stable income. It’s that progress often fails to reach them. Many voters in the mofussil don’t feel a dramatic lift even when fast economic growth is boosting the Mumbai stock market, and those enjoying the rise assume that everyone is feeling the good times.
In response, many politicians have tried to buy voter loyalty by offering welfare giveaways rather than relying on rapid economic growth. In more advanced economies, the main ideological divide usually concerns the roles of the state and the market in distributing wealth. But in India, everyone is a statist. The economic debate is largely about how the state can best help the poor: by developing roads and other infrastructure, by distributing welfare benefits, or by doing a bit of everything. Candidates vie to promise voters the longest and most generous list of government giveaways, from free medical care to rice and diesel subsidies to tax cuts for everyone from marriage- hall owners to cumin-seed buyers.
Modi is now playing the same game. On the campaign trail in 2014, he sounded like a free marketeer, promising “maximum governance, minimum government” and bitterly criticizing Congress-sponsored welfare programs as an insult to the poor, who, he said, wanted “jobs, not handouts.” But lately, he has been ramping up spending on the same Congress programs he criticized, including a 2005 guarantee that every rural Indian would get 100 days of paid labor a year. But it’s not clear that welfare promises are any more a guarantee of victory than economic growth is. Voters who do not qualify for benefits are always resentful, and those who do are often furious because the dysfunctional Indian state fails to deliver on the promises.
Corruption acts as another incumbent killer, although its exact effects are difficult to gauge. India provides no public funding for elections, and political campaigns have become private enterprises. To compete, candidates have little choice but to violate the official spending cap, which sits at just $70,000 to $100,000 per parliamentary candidate. We have covered state elections in which candidates exceeded those limits by a factor of 50 or more.
To keep the cash flowing, many Indian politicians wind up surrounding themselves with relatives and well-connected private businesspeople. Voters, for their part, know that there are hardly any “pure” candidates: the cleaner ones spend the dark money on their campaigns; the dirtier ones put a share in their own pockets. Rarely does an incumbent serve out a term without facing corruption charges—and really serious ones can bring leaders down.
Still, the rise of “money politics” in Indian elections is easily exaggerated. Private funding is on the rise but flows heavily toward those in office, who often outspend the opposition by five times or more. If money were the decisive factor, the ruling party would win most of the time, and yet it doesn’t. Candidates need to raise enough money to compete, but they have to pass a host of other tests—above all, those that revolve around community identities, including caste, religion, tribe, and language.
FAMILY, CASTE, THEN COUNTRY
The worst abuses of the caste system—such as the exclusion of Dalits from public places—have continued to slowly fade with time. But community identities remain strong. In the mofussil, marriage across caste lines is still frowned on, and voters look mainly to leaders from their own group for protection and help. This means that parties cannot win if they do not get the community equation right. In each constituency and state, they need to select candidates who appeal to a complex mix of subcastes, religions, and languages.
In some states, the “dominant” caste or religious community amounts to just ten to 20 percent of the electorate, as is the case in UP and the neighboring state of Bihar. The elections in these states often amount to contests for the affection of the three biggest voting blocs: Muslims, Dalits, and Yadavs (a midlevel caste). Yet the Dalits and the Yadavs of UP are from different subcastes than the Dalits and the Yadavs of Bihar, and they do not see themselves as members of kindred political communities. Mayawati is the unquestioned champion of the Dalits in UP, but not in Bihar, whereas popular Yadav leaders in UP cannot draw a crowd in Bihar.
As a result, the alliances required to win any state involve entirely different sets of caste and religious communities, mixed in varying proportions and led by different regional bigwigs. Multiply this confusion by 29 states, and one can begin to see why it is almost impossible to speak of an Indian election as a “national” event.
The power of community also shines through in the dynasties that are omnipresent in Indian politics. The nationwide cult of adoration that once surrounded the Gandhi family lives on inside the Congress party, which has embraced the dynasty’s latest scion, Rahul Gandhi, as its undisputed leader. For years, Congress supporters have also hailed Rahul’s younger sister, Priyanka, as the second coming of her grandmother Indira.
The BJP, meanwhile, is bitterly critical of Congress’ nepotism, and Modi constantly mocks the Gandhis as “entitled” political royalty, even though his own party has well-entrenched political dynasties, too. Still, some change may be afoot. More and more politicians are rising to power on the argument that their lack of family ties protects them from the temptation to profit from office. Modi, the bachelor prime minister, has made uncorrupted singlehood a centerpiece of his political persona.
THE MYTH OF THE INDIAN NATION
India’s complex polity makes it impossible for any one leader to push a reform agenda as aggressively as leaders in China have in the past, commandeering land for development, opening borders to trade, shuttering state factories, and killing off millions of redundant jobs. Since the 1980s, several Indian prime ministers have pursued elements of free-market reform, but only when faced with some sort of crisis. None of them made a serious attempt to reform the bloated and incompetent central bureaucracy, even though frustration with bureaucrats fuels the permanent revolt against politicians.
Yet the picture isn’t all gloomy. At the level of individual states, the obstacles to economic reform are less daunting. Dynamic chief ministers have helped spark strong runs of economic growth by tailoring reforms to the needs of their state. As chief minister of the coastal state of Gujarat, Modi encouraged an export manufacturing boom in part by building roads and ports; Nitish Kumar transformed land-locked Bihar in part by reining in its rampant crime. In recent decades, the combined effect of such breakout states has been strong enough to keep the economy as a whole growing at a pace of six to seven percent—a respectable showing for a developing country.
India’s diversity is also a source of political resilience, as strong sub-national identities provide a check on ethnic and religious nationalism. Many Indians still see themselves as Bengalis, Gujaratis, or Tamils first and Indians second. Best of luck to anyone who challenges these loyalties. When Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv called the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh a “buffoon,” the popular film star N. T. Rama Rao capitalized on this insult by forming a party to defend “Telugu pride” (Telugu is the principal language of Andhra Pradesh. Rama Rao’s party quickly rose to power in the state—demonstrating, in Rama Rao’s words, that in India, “the center is a myth and the state is a reality.”
Ever since Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975, no prime minister has been able to gain political momentum without triggering fears of creeping authoritarianism and inspiring the fragmented opposition to unite. This pattern brought down Indira in 1977, her son Rajiv in 1989, and the first BJP prime minister, Vajpayee, in 2004. The same dynamic may repeat itself in this year’s election: if the opposition, scattered and squabbling in 2014, manages to unite against Modi in a majority of the states in 2019, the BJP could lose a sizable chunk of its seats in Parliament even if it once again wins a plurality of the vote.
The BJP knows this well and will try to derail budding opposition alliances by casting them as cynical and unprincipled coalitions whose only common interest is power. Ironically, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, once the BJP’s archenemies, used a similar line of attack to divide and undermine opponents of entrenched Congress party rule. Now back in the opposition under Rajiv’s son, Rahul, Congress will take inspiration from the 1960s socialist leader and Congress critic Ram Manohar Lohia, who supposedly quipped that “the Indian government is like a piece of flatbread that needs to be flipped on the griddle or it will burn.”
The stakes are high. The BJP and Congress offer two starkly divergent political visions: the former aspiring to build one India, the latter celebrating the reality of many Indias. But even if voters buck the historical trend and return Modi to the prime minister’s office this spring, he will likely be left with a reduced majority. The BJP’s vision will remain aspirational, as India’s complex ecosystem of identities will continue to act as a powerful break on a descent into outright ethnonationalism. At a time when democracy is said to be in retreat around the world, it is still thriving in India.
RUCHIR SHARMA is the author of “Democracy on the Road: A 25-Year Journey Through India” (Allen Lane, 2019), from which this essay is adapted.