Future historians may well look back at the 2010s as the period that fundamentally altered India, its democracy, and its self-imagination as a nation — powered by a tectonic political shift.
And no image defined it more effectively than Narendra Modi taking his oath of office and secrecy as the Prime Minister, amid the presence of the entire leadership of the neighbourhood countries, in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhawan, on May 26, 2014.
Modi's rise symbolised all that had changed in India. His rise was also a precursor to all that would change through the rest of the decade. And that was because Modi was not just an individual figure — but represented the redefinition of the idea and conception of political power in India. With him, those who exercised power changed; those in whose interest power was exercised changed; and the ends for which power was exercised changed.
This transformation in the use of political power was a reflection of a more fundamental change in Indian society, aided by technology. But political power itself also played a part in redefining society and the dominant ideological worldview that underpinned it. It was this intersection — between politics, society and ideology — which shaped the India of the 2010s.
Go back to the end of the last decade, and see what passed off as conventional political wisdom. Here was the consensus. Citizens, especially the young, were growing increasingly apathetic and were not engaged politically. India could not, ever, again have a single party winning a majority at the Centre — for the era of political fragmentation and coalitions was here to stay. National parties would continue to recede, as regional parties increased their footprint. Lok Sabha elections were no longer national in character — but a conglomeration of state-level polls. Arithmetic mattered most, and whichever party was able to get its caste matrix and alliances right would prevail.
Two general elections later, here is where we are.
Both 2014 and 2019 were, despite regional variations in the outcome, truly national elections — fought on the plank of a common national message. Leading regional forces, which had dominated state politics for decades, were suddenly swept aside. It was the young voters, often first-time voters, who were active participants in elections and asserted themselves politically. Chemistry trumped arithmetic, as elections became truly presidential, fought on the plank of leadership — definitely at the level of the Centre, but also in the states.
Modi became the face of this redefinition of the political landscape. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which after its second consecutive defeat in the general elections in 2009 was staring at political oblivion, now became not just the dominant — but the hegemonic force — in Indian politics. And with it, the politics of India changed.
It did not just change because Modi represented a different style of functioning. It did not just change because Modi became the first leader who had been a three-term chief minister to become Prime Minister, without ever having been in Parliament before his elevation to the top. It did not just change because Modi was a deeply polarizing figure, loved by many but equally criticised by many others.
It fundamentally changed because Modi represented those who saw themselves as being on the periphery of India's political system for seven decades. Yes, the BJP had been in power at the Centre — and in many states. But never before had the BJP — and its wider ideological parivar of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — accessed power in this manner. Modi represented the rise of those that believed that Indian democracy had been captured by elites who were not connected to India's cultural, more specifically, Hindu roots; who merely saw the state as a vehicle to extract resources; who practised "vote bank politics", including appeasing Muslims and other minorities; and who weakened Indian national security and the economy.
For many, Modi, thus, became a symbol of India's deeper democratisation — of power moving out of the hands of established elites to a newer cohort. It was not Janpath and Jor Bagh, but Gandhinagar, Banaras and Nagpur, which would shape Indian politics. The periphery was now the mainstream. And this new mainstream would redefine the Indian state and how it functioned and fulfil its vision.
But how did this happen?
The Social Churn
This redefinition happened because of four underlying changes, which had been in motion for many decades.
The first was the rise of the political Hindu. India always had a majority of Hindus. But Hindus also has multiple other identities. Their different identities, their specific geographies, their class backgrounds, and their exposure to the world shaped their political views. The Hindu identity was present in private lives, manifested itself only occasionally publicly, and wasn't necessarily a key determinant of political choice.
But this had begun changing. The sustained work put in by the RSS and its affiliates; the perceptional shifts due to popular culture, from the time of the public telecast of Ramayan; the political mobilisation around the Ayodhya issue; the growing threat of Islamic militancy and the consistent terror attacks emanating from Pakistan; the rise of faith-based channels and public display of religiosity; the perception — partially real, partially manufactured — that in India, secularism was a facade to only win minority votes; and the return of many to their roots, to the idea of tightly embracing their identities at a time when there was cultural and economic uncertainty unleashed by liberalisation helped create a category of Hindu voters who first saw themselves as Hindu, before their other identities.
The second, related change, was the rise of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) as the dominant political force across north and west India. When OBC political assertion first began, in the wake of the implementation of the Mandal committee recommendations, their natural home were socialist and caste-based formations. Upper-castes were seen as the adversaries. But over two decades, OBCs accessed economic opportunities; their dominance grew; they got more secure, and they began to assert not just their caste identity, but their Hindu identity.
The third change was the rise of the younger, more ambitious, more aware citizen. From India's smallest towns and villages, this large, admittedly heterogeneous demographic, had a set of common dreams and anxieties. They wanted to access opportunities which would ensure higher incomes, but they had a conception of the nation. They saw the past as the wasted decades, swamped with corruption and backwardness, both of which they associated with the Congress. They wanted to be a part of an India which was "strong", and which was "respected". They were aggressive and wanted to see an aggressive India. They valued self-made individuals — and had disdain for those who had risen only because of their surnames.
All of this was enabled by the fourth change: technology. Smartphone and social media is integral to life in India today. It is where people make up their minds and convince others about what they believe in.
The Ideological Turn
This transformation in society enabled the rise of Modi. But the rise of Modi too reinforced these very changes in society, and shaped a new worldview, challenging the ideological categories of the past.
Here is how the new regime thought and acted. If India was weak in the past, India would now be strong — this strength would be manifested in retaliatory attacks in Pakistan; in moves which curtailed autonomy or special status in Kashmir; in Modi sharing the stage with world leaders and embracing them. If India was too partial to minorities in the past, it would now be proudly Hindu — this would be manifested in Hindu leaders who asserted their identity, in legislations such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and in refashioning textbooks and changing names of cities. If India was corrupt in the past, it would now modernise the economy and lock up all those responsible for sins which held the country back — this was manifested in demonetisation, in the Goods and Services Tax, in the appeal to citizens to live with short-term suffering in the quest for a formal economy; in the push for digitisation; and in the pursuit of corruption cases, especially against political rivals.
But make no mistake. The ideological battle is still underway. India's democracy and diversity mean that a single vision of the nation — or political hegemony of one actor — does not go uncontested.
As the BJP consolidated electorally, opposition parties came together to challenge it, and have gained power in many states, as witnessed in recent state polls. As the BJP pushed its ideological agenda, the Opposition — but more widely, civil society, students, and minority groups pushed back, as can be seen in the recent protests against the CAA.
Still, even as the opposition remains and grows, this will be remembered as the decade when Modi became the face of a new India, where a set of new political actors exercised political power and set out to refashion the meaning of India and the meaning of being Indian.
The next decade will show whether the project succeeds, or is reversed.