India’s election holds clues for what’s next for nationalists around the world

Exercising franchisee
Exercising franchisee
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Narendra Modi’s 2014 election in India was a sign of things to come—the first of a series of populist victories in democracies around the world. The approval of Brexit in the UK; the elections of Donald Trump in the US, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil; the rise of Marine Le Pen in France; and the weakening of Angela Merkel in Germany all followed.

Now, as Modi seeks re-election as prime minister, India stands as the first major democracy to deal with an incumbent populist government that has not delivered on its economic promises, even as has maintained its nationalistic tone.

Last week, the first wave of 900 million Indian voters cast their ballots in this year’s election. Of the 142 million citizens eligible to vote in the first of seven phases of the general election, an estimated 69.4% did so—about 3% more than in the same phase in the previous election.

Five years ago, Modi, the ex-chaiwallah (tea seller) and former chief minister of Gujarat, won in a landslide with a campaign that crossed Hindu nationalism with the cult of a right-wing strongman, dangling the promise of an economic renaissance.

Modi succeeded in maintaining his status as a veritable celebrity (in and outside India). He wrote children’s books and did weekly radio shows amid a flood of news coverage on channels established and new.

His promises to deliver an economic miracle for India didn’t turn into fact. Despite the tight control over government data, leaked numbers show that unemployment in the past five years reached the highest level in the last 45 years. The country’s economy’s growth numbers have not picked up momentum.

In response, the government and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have doubled down on communalism, even resorting to open anti-minority threats during the campaign.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, of course. Modi’s Hindu nationalist credentials were on display ahead of the 2014 election. Back then, to those who cared to observe it, his touted Gujarat economic success, too, didn’t necessarily stand close scrutiny. The first time around, there was a chance that voters had missed the candidate’s true colors. It’s a lot harder to make this argument now.

Will people reject the nationalism, now that it’s no longer hidden behind some economic progress, and look elsewhere for solutions? Or was the sectarianism what they were ultimately looking for even in the first place?

After five more weeks of voting in India’s general election, the world will begin to find out.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.