Many people continue to ask, if not Narendra Modi, then who? There are many possible answers to this enquiry. But that is not the central question which I think we should be asking before we cast our vote in the ongoing midsummer 2019 general elections. The pertinent question that we must ask instead is – if Modi comes again, then what?
This is not an ordinary election, one marked by a raucous no holds barred competition for high public office between various political parties. Your vote in this election will decide if India will remain a constitutional, secular, democratic republic, or whether it will transform into a majoritarian Hindu republic.
One in three voters in the 2014 general elections placed their destinies in the hands of the BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. It is difficult to evaluate exactly why people voted for Modi.
He had behind him his record of 12 years as Chief Minister of Gujarat. There were two things that stood out during his stewardship of Gujarat. One was that on his watch, one of the most gruesome communal massacres engulfed his state, targeting with particular cruelty women and children in ways rarely seen since the Partition.
This massacre was marked by the lack of any remorse on part of Modi. Instead, he undertook a Gaurav Yatra, filled with the kind of hate speech against Muslims that echo once again in the 2019 general elections. In these 12 years, the communal divide between Hindus and Muslims deepened dangerously, as around half those displaced by the violence were unable to return because of fear, and justice was treacherously subverted. His tenure in Gujarat was also characterised by big business-friendly economic growth. The state government gave massive public subsidies to big businesses but spent little on health and education, thereby deepening inequality.
A segment of his voters in 2014 were no doubt attracted by his record of fanning communal hatred and divide. But I am sure that many other supporters, especially young people, voted for him because they were convinced by his promises to crank up the economy and generate thereby jobs for millions, ushering through this bright futures for all of them. They also saw in him a leader who would fight crony capitalist corruption.
The picture is entirely different in 2019. Modi is not even talking today about jobs, about ending farmer distress and about hastening economic growth. This is because the economy is evidently in shambles, the Rupee has plumbed low depths, the agrarian crisis has worsened critically, crony capitalism is evident in public decisions even about national security, and worst of all, the last five years have seen no job creation. Instead, unemployment has hit a 45-year high.
In every sense, therefore, all the fig leaves of 2014 have fallen; all the mirages of 'acche din' have vanished. Today, Modi has only one thing to offer his voters, and that is muscular Hindutva nationalism. India has never been as divided since Partition and its minorities never forced to live with so much fear. This is fostered by the spate of hate lynching in the name of the cow and love jihad; but also by the outpourings of hate speech by senior leaders of the BJP, and increasingly by the Prime Minister himself.
It is for this reason that I argue that the critical question in this election is not ‘after Modi, who?’ but ‘if Modi is re-elected, then what?’ With fig-leaves and mirages gone in 2019, a vote for Modi is only, transparently and emphatically, a vote for communal hatred and a vote against India’s secular democratic Constitution. If he is evicted from office, then the work of restoring communal harmony and building a welfare state will be a hard, long, arduous one. We will have to demand this from whoever replaces him. But if Modi is elected back in 2019, it will mean the end of India as a secular democracy and its replacement by majoritarian nationalism, a Hindu Rashtra in which minorities will be forced to live as second-class citizens.There has been no election since 1947 where so much was at stake.
(The writer works with survivors of mass violence and hunger. He is director of Centre for Equity Studies)