Modi’s clean image and firmness on national security shaped BJP victory: Harvard scholar

Ashutosh Varshney, the Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and professor of political science at Brown University.

A leading Indian-American scholar, known for his liberal views, says that the results of the election in India may be indicative that a great deal more of the electorate in India now is “comfortable with the main tenet of Hindu nationalism” than in the past.

Ashutosh Varshney, the Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and professor of political science at Brown University,told the Harvard Gazettelast weekit is possible that compared to anytime earlier a  lot more people are now “comfortable with the main tenet of Hindu nationalism  that the Hindus, the majority community of India, have primary ownership of the nation, and the minorities are secondary citizens  at least politically, if not legally”

In response to a question about the factor behind BJP’s incredible electoral success, Varshney told the Harvard Gazette May 31 in an interview following his return to the U.S. after observing the elections in India that while all elections are driven by multiple factors, he did not have the data to identify the one factor that stood out against the others, but added that anecdotally, one is able to point to the most important factors.

“One (of the important factors) is the sheer weight of Modi’s personality and his credibility. A lot of Indian political leaders have been tainted with corruption charges. Indeed, so many have had that charge leveled against them that for a prime minister not to have any credible charges of personal corruptibility has stood him in very good stead,” Varshney, who is also a resident fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, told the Harvard Gazette.

He said besides Hindu nationalism, the other factor has to do with national security. He noted that responding to a recent terrorist attack, Modi ordered the air force to strike inside Pakistani territory. “The very fact that an air force strike took place inside Pakistan’s territory made him extremely popular and showed his decisiveness. As a result, national security became an election issue — a big election issue,” he said, adding that Congress, the main opposition party, had virtually nothing credible to say on the topic.

To a question why the opposition’s political messaging failed to resonate with the electorate, Varshney noted that there were three main issues the Congress party leveraged during the campaign, including attempting to paint Modi as corrupt and claim that he’s a thief whereas the prime minister styled himself as “the watchman of the country.”

He said Congress’s second issue was unemployment, and the third was responding to the country’s farm crisis. “The watchman is a thief” slogan drowned out the two more important themes — namely unemployment and agrarian distress and the slogan did not work.”

Varshney said there are two sides to Modi’s political persona, or political style  one is that he is advancing India’s economic rejuvenation with policies that heavily rely on the model he crafted in the state of Gujarat, where he was previously the chief minister.

He said a lot of the middle class hopes that he will deliver on his economic promises, adding that another part of his economic program is dealing with the underprivileged and the deprived.

“He has proposed a lot of schemes, some of which have at least partially worked. These include simple things like providing gas connections to women who used coal-based energy or building toilets throughout India. It’s not as successful a program as the government claims, studies show, but still, he has partially delivered. A lot of people believe that he will deliver more,” he said.

To a question by the interviewer he told the Harvard Gazette that Modi has been ideologically committed to Hindu nationalism, which claims that India is a Hindu nation and non-Hindu minorities should recognize Hindu primacy, should accept their secondary status, and submit to this primacy in all kinds of ways.

“If he were to implement this ideology, it would be by restructuring state institutions, by changing how the bureaucracy and police work, by perhaps also thinking of changing the constitution” as India’s constitution is a liberal one that says all religious communities of India equally own the nation and all individuals — regardless of gender, caste, language, or religion — have equal claims on the state, and their rights accrue from that. Hindu nationalists never believed in it,” Varshney, author of “Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India", said.

“If Modi were to implement Hindu nationalist ideas, it would also mean restructuring educational curricula, restructuring the media, repressing intellectuals who do not subscribe to that ideology, clamping down on freedom of expression, clamping down on freedom of religious practice, clamping down on freedom of association, and in what would be an extreme act, seeking to change India’s constitution.

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