Helena Lyng Blak
5 weeks ago

The Controversial Main Character of the Indian Election: Narendra Modi

Exploring the impact and controversy surrounding Narendra Modi in India's latest parliamentary elections.
Indian PM: Narendra Modi in September 2023: Exposure Visuals / Shutterstock.com
Indian PM: Narendra Modi in September 2023: Exposure Visuals / Shutterstock.com

Today, April 19, 2024, marks the start of the parliamentary elections in India, casting a spotlight on one of the country's most polarizing figures, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi's decade-long tenure has been marked by significant economic growth and strong nationalistic policies. However, his administration has also faced criticism for exacerbating religious and cultural divisions, as well as allegations of undermining democratic institutions and press freedom.

These elections will determine the composition of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, which in turn selects the prime minister. This prime minister is pivotal in forming the government and choosing ministers.

For many Indians, there is much at stake in this election, with the current, popular—and controversial—Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) poised to win another term.

Opposing the BJP is the politically diverse Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), a coalition led by the social democratic center party, the Indian National Congress (the Congress).

This group aims to unseat Modi and the BJP in order to "save democracy," which of course begs the question: Do Modi and the BJP endanger Indian democracy?

Who is Narendra Modi?

Narendra Modi, born into a lower-caste family, has forged a successful political career despite his origins. He has gained widespread popularity due to his charismatic and spiritual public image as a ‘world leader’, according to the BBC, and his welfare policies aimed at assisting the nation's poorest.

Modi has consistently had approval ratings of over 70% and as of April 3, had an approval rating of 75%. Comparatively, Joe Biden has an approval rating of 39%, Justin Trudeau an approval of 34% and Emmanuel Macron 22%.

Brazen Attacks and a Hate-Filled Atmosphere

However, Modi’s tenure has also been marked by what AP News describes as "brazen attacks against minorities," particularly religious minorities.

According to the BJP’s opposition, the last 10 years of the BJP-led government have “been marked by exaggeration and publicity rather than substance and performance”, arguing that, “While the poor and the middle classes have been hit below the belt, the atmosphere in the country has become hate-filled and divisive. Constitutional values have been pushed to the background and majoritarianism has taken over.”

And the Congress is not alone in that view.

Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bucknell University, Soundarya Chidambaram, writes in Routledge Handbook of Autocratization in South Asia that, “The BJP’s hegemonic control of Indian politics has been coterminous with aggressive cultural nationalist rhetoric manifesting itself as routinized intimidation and killing of journalists and political critics, vigilante lynching of intimidation and general clampdown on dissent."

She further describes how Modi “epitomizes the populist strongman with his charismatic appeal, centralization of power, and ability to connect with the masses through clever use of media.”

Cult of Personality

But despite these criticisms, Modi remains an immensely popular figure. The Guardian describes how Modi has cultivated a cult of personality through framing himself as someone who is not just of the people, but also for the people.

While his modest origins certainly aid his persona, he also frequently refers to the Indian people as 'Modi’s family', puts his name on most of his government welfare schemes, and hosts a radio show, where he talks to common people about their problems.

Ultimately, with Modi at the helm, the BJP is projected–yet again–to win the majority of parliament seats.

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