India’s 2019 elections concluded with the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Many observers noted that after the Balakot attacks, foreign policy entered the campaign discourse in an unprecedented way. Modi took credit for the strikes in many of his speeches. References were made to the idea that Modi’s government struck Pakistan ‘in their house’. He specifically asked first-time voters to vote on the basis of these strikes.
India’s rise in global status has become important for the masses, especially the youth and middle class. Leaders of the BJP are responding to this change — an India with influence beyond its borders has entered the imagination of voters and parties alike. As the recently installed Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted at a public event soon after his appointment, ‘the large majority of people in this country recognise that India’s standing in the world has gone up and … that this is something that matters to them’. Other parties also need to pay attention to this if they hope to design a serious alternative to the BJP.
This may be the first election in India’s 70-year history that global image and foreign policy has figured centrally during a campaign. Modi, together with Home Affairs Minister and party chief Amit Shah, have regularly referred to the ‘increase of respect for India in global forums’ and the recognition of India’s rising status. While there may be some debate about whether India’s soft power has increased with the Modi government, global attention on India’s foreign policies have been key to his successful election this year.
Modi is genuinely proud of his foreign policy achievements. Leaders in foreign capitals have given him unqualified recognition and status. In his 2019 election, Modi capitalised on increasingly globally-linked sections of Indian society, who he noticed were following and commenting on his foreign activities. The Indian diaspora has also been crucial in supporting this.
What international issues featured in Modi’s campaign speeches? A headline focus was on India’s status as having risen on the world stage. On 21 April at a speech in Patan, north Gujarat (away from the large urban populations of central and southern Gujarat), he took credit for ‘India [becoming] the 4th most powerful nation in the world’ and that ‘India’s strength in the world is visible and stronger under me’ with an ‘influential and powerful’ foreign policy.
Perceptions of India’s global presence and
of Modi’s foreign engagements have begun
to shape both the BJP’s electoral discourse
and domestic perceptions of Modi himself.
This has resonated among the youth and
the middle class, but it may be a more
widespread phenomenon than one
may first assume
In many campaign speeches, he often said that ‘at the G20, there were two meetings: one with Russia, China and India, and one with the United States, Japan and India. What was common in those meetings was India’. Reception for this rhetoric was notably high among both urban and rural audiences.
There is reason to believe that two key sections of the Indian population — the Indian middle class and the youth — are more favourably inclined to these claims about India’s global power. The globally-connected growing middle class are increasingly proud of the international recognition that India now receives. They attribute it largely to Modi’s initiative, even though former prime ministers Narasimha Rao’s 1991–1996 and Manmohan Singh’s 2004–2014 foreign policies also played a role.
Research on young, mostly educated professional voters in Madhya Pradesh supports this growing attitude — one interviewee in Vivan Marwah’s research on Indian millennials argued that ‘there is no one else apart from Modi … Nobody would talk about India abroad, [but] now everyone knows about Modi’. Another suggested ‘if you look at India today, F-16s are being made in India because of his foreign visits’. Some of these perceptions may not be factually correct but voters are beginning to regard India’s global power as important to them.
Public opinion surveys usually do not focus on India’s global image, but now researchers need to tailor such surveys to find out if India’s global image has become an element of support for the BJP. What surveys have found so far is that Modi’s leadership is important for voters. Global visits and India’s rising power appears to be increasingly responsible for his leadership approval.
Amit Shah and Modi may have crafted their campaign strategy with this focus on international status not only to divert attention away from economic problems at home, but also because they find that the increasingly connected youth and middle classes are strongly receptive to such messaging. This population reads the Western press over Facebook and Twitter and digitally follow Modi’s visits abroad.
In response, the BJP campaign team crafted a targeted social media electoral strategy, monitoring social media discussions and tailoring campaign speeches accordingly. There is a strong two-way feedback loop between social media reactions and the BJP’s ‘rising Indian power’ campaign strategy.
When we speak of Indian elections we assume that the current Indian voter is the same as the previous election. But the voters and party strategy are both changing. The Indian ‘domestic world’ — the home in Rabindranath Tagore’s Home and the World — is increasingly being shaped by external forces. India is becoming a country that now, more than ever, requires an open economic and political framework as domestic governance and global ideas rapidly intertwine.
Such a framework needs to recognise that India has achieved global status and that Indian elections are now shaped, to some yet undetermined extent, by global forces. Questions of how and why the domestic ‘home world’ is beginning now to discuss visions of India’s global placement in the comity of nations need to be asked. Perceptions of India’s global presence and of Modi’s foreign engagements have begun to shape both the BJP’s electoral discourse and domestic perceptions of Modi himself. This has resonated among the youth and the middle class, but it may be a more widespread phenomenon than one may first assume.
Dr Aseema Sinha is the Wagener Family Professor of Comparative Politics and George R. Roberts Fellow at the Department of Government, Claremont McKenna College, California.