The Modi Effect

Since 2014 we in India have been seeing a Modi wave. Elections after elections being won remarkably and at times even miraculously by the Saffron Juggernaut defying expectations and predictions leaving even the most tenacious journalists and pundits striving with all their might to have an eye on the ground reeling in disbelief. Like it or not, we the sensible observers know that the Modi effect is real. However what is more interesting to me is that this Modi effect has been spreading all around the world possibly to disastrous consequences.


Since May 2014 we have seen populist organizations and agendas winning elections all over the world. The most famous examples being the Trump victory in the US, the Brexit referendum and of lesser but even more ominous note the result of elections in Europe. Italy has thrown away a centrist government and now has an alliance in power composed of two extreme and opposite views, extreme leftist/anarchists of the South Italy and the extreme rightists of the North Italy. The two regions being polarized such extremely economically and culturally caused such extreme narratives to win from their own constituencies and forced to come to power at the Government. In Germany Angela Merkel’s coalition Government came close to be unseated by extreme right wing parties. Merkel may have breathed a slight sigh of relief but the pattern does sound ominous to future German elections. In Greece too we have far right groups winning unexpected mandates threatening to break Greek commitments made to EU in return for the bailout.


Now that we know that this trend of far right or I would say extreme ideology of populism winning power is real we need to understand why? How is that notions of extreme populism that seemed nonsensical just a few years back now have endorsements from a majority? Has the world been becoming more intolerant, more racist and more bigoted? Is there a true resurgence of Nazism and Fascism all around the world? Are we seeing the death of Pluralism, Liberalism and Democracy?


I am afraid we are. But the real culprits may not be who we think they are.


Let us consider US and India the two biggest examples of this trend in our world – One the most powerful and the other the biggest democracy in the world. In both nations demagogues have come to power on the backs of a silent but angry majority. In India it was the latent Hindutva anger that has seen BJP winning successive elections. In US it was the anger of the rural white population in the so called “Fly Over Country” that elected Trump as opposed to the conventional wisdom of a Hillary Clinton. Even today several years after Modi came into power and people have been disillusioned with several failed promises and rising jingoism the Saffron Juggernaut is gaining steam.


It is at this point that we should look at the genesis of this juggernaut. In India it was the years of political patronizing of the Muslim vote bank that led to a grievance being perceived by the majority Hindu population. Successive parties kept wooing the same segments of the population for the sole reason that they were expected to vote in bloc. They forgot that this attention being given to one section of population is likely to alienate the remaining section of the population. Muslims are indeed more marginalized and need more state support in several areas like education and civic assistance in several parts of the country and it is fitting in the progressive stream of thought that due attention be paid to such marginalized communities, however these parties should also have talked to or at least listened to the Hindu populations. Even though not being subjected to any injustice per se, Hindus felt that no attention was paid to them and that made them feel disenfranchised. The bastions of progressive thoughts – Media and Universities – They too failed spectacularly in this regard. Whenever lone voices spoke of Hindu marginalization it was brutally suppressed and brushed aside as right wing Hindutva fascism. The concept of neutral debate, the very practice of discussion between different streams of thought have died out in our Universities and Media. There is and has been only one acceptable narrative – That of the left, the communist ideology. Yes, the communist thought is far more progressive in theory than other systems of political thought but these communists forgot to be aware of the bane of Leftism – The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. So there was no longer the space or attention for the perceived or real grievances of a majority and the pressure started to gain steam.


Having no one to listen to one is a terrible state of affairs. In that case you tend to adulate anyone who speaks to you. Progressives were the ones who were supposed to give voice to the voiceless, the marginalized, however they forgot that when they became the establishment they created a whole new class of voiceless.


And it is these voiceless masses of Hindu Majority in India and White Rural Christians in US who have led to the rise of Modi and Trump. The same is happening across the world leading to Dutertes in Philippines to the BNPs of UK. The Juggernaut of the far right seems unstoppable.


So what is the solution?


The Media should start addressing this issue and start self-correcting. Today Media plays the most important role in polarization and creating of narratives for issues. Today’s media intelligentsia are unapologetically of the leftist breeds and markedly anti-right. It is high time Media stopped taking sides in these narratives and in fact started to adopt a more neutral tone. It is high time media realized its own biases and corrected itself, publicly and start listening to the hitherto demonized. It is easy to dismiss all the people who vote for Modi as mindless Hindutva mob who hate Muslims. It is easy to dismiss everyone who supports Trump as Racists.


The system is ripe for a correction of narratives. And it is time the so called progressives actually embraced the basic tenets of progressive thought – of actually being receptive to streams of alternate thought.

4 comments for “The Modi Effect

  1. nandkumar varma
    June 24, 2018 at 12:19 pm

    Very well argued. However, in a polarised atmosphere, the minute you voice your opinion, you are bracketed as for or against a particular ideology. Add to this the false narratives and propaganda. Since the opposition parties also present no better alternatives, the situation is likely to worsen in the next few years.

    • June 24, 2018 at 12:23 pm

      True, however the responsibility for this polarization lies with Media who add in their own intrinsic biases where they should remain impartial for TRP and brownie points with ideological sympathizers. If the media realizes their contribution to the mess things can improve. Right now they are just feeding this Catch 22 situation

  2. Jay
    June 25, 2018 at 10:14 pm

    Gokul, I agree with your comment about media feeding polarization through one-sided narratives and convenient tarring with the same brush (all Modi supporters are this… all Trump supporters are that etc). That said, this piece too is generous with cliches and substantial generalizations (.. Modi effect has been spreading all around the world..;… populist organizations..;.death of Pluralism, Liberalism and Democracy… demagogues have come to power… etc). So bear with me as I share my thoughts through answers to two specific questions:

    Q1. What is the Modi Effect?
    (a) The Modi effect is his success in repeatedly getting a 5-15 per cent fence sitter population to come and vote for the BJP in several elections since 2014 (percentage varies per state and election). In a first-past-the-post political system with dozens or more large parties, this is all it takes.
    (b) So are these those ‘marginalized’ and ‘disenfranchised’ Hindus whom you mention? Certainly not, those are the core vote base of the BJP and would have voted for Modi, Advani or Sushma Swaraj, and whoever comes after them. The Modi Effect attracted people who may have not voted at all, or voted for some other party, and in 2019, could vote for someone else.
    (c) Why did they vote for him then? Possibly based on his track record as an administrator, all the media attention he got since 2002, visible desperation of his political opponents (people like winners), his oratory, voter disenchantment with the UPA corruption, his positive international image since 2014 etc – so while these voters are probably entirely Hindu, but the rest of the description doesn’t fit (many could also be first-time voters). Note: He may also have got additional votes from core BJP supporters who turned up larger numbers than usual, thinking that their votes may actually count – in some states they often do not.
    (d) Anyway, this has nothing in common with the Trump victory, or Brexit or any other political development! Neither is there any thread that links Trump’s victory to the increased vote-share of anti-immigration parties or Euro-skeptics in the EU.
    (e) Donald Trump won the lowest vote-share of any Republican candidate in a 2-horse race since Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon B Johnson in 1964! So even core republicans did not vote for Trump, then who did? There was no majority, silent or otherwise.2016 was about Hillary Clinton’s inability to get Bernie Sanders voters to turn up and vote, which lost her several swing states (while winning the popular vote). It helps to be a bit specific, since from a very high level, everything looks the same but is not.

    Q2. What is populism, and who in Indian politics is therefore populist?
    (a) Populism (at least in my words) is galvanizing the masses based on emotive issues about which they know very little but feel rather strongly, typically applied in an ‘us versus them’ framework.
    (b) To me this appears to be the raison d’étre of every caste-based, community-based and ‘secular’ party out there; BJP too has also played the populist game with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement; Congress, Trinamool and the Left, as defenders of secularism, sell little else even today.
    (c) So, first of all, if everyone is populist, is anyone populist? (Your guess is as good as mine). And second (relates to Point #1) – what was the ‘Populist’ issue that drove the Modi Effect (as defined above)? Other than BJP pet peeves that are in all their manifestos (Mandir, Article 370 etc), there is none – which is why he is being baited on 15 lakhs and job creation even today.
    (d) On the other hand, elections won in Europe can actually be categorized as populist since the usual core issues around growth, jobs and economy have taken a back seat to emotive issues like immigration (also used by the BJP in Assam btw, but from long before Modi’s time). Since economic liberals can still be social conservatives, EU countries offer fertile ground for targeted right-wing politics in a multi-party democracy where most people have a similar view on several other topics. This has fueled the rise of right-wing parties in several countries, and in some of them, they are partnering with Euro skeptics who use austerity measures to foster a similar ‘us vs. them’ ill-will among the proletariat, to great success.
    (e) But there is a difference – once the issue disappears, these parties will too (check votes for UKIP in elections post-Brexit). In India, on the other hand, they don’t disappear. Again, helps to be specific since words like Populism are meaningless without context.

    Otherwise, as mentioned, very well written – look fwd to reading more from you.

    Rgds, Jay

    • June 26, 2018 at 12:09 pm

      Food for thought indeed. Thanks, I need to re-examine some of my premises 🙂

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