On Sunday, for the first time for several weeks, the million and a half voters in the Indian parliamentary constituency of Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, were left alone. For weeks, they had been canvassed, rallied, bombarded with texts, tweets and Facebook posts, subjected to front-page advertisements and giant billboards of politicians’ grim or grinning portraits.
On Monday they voted in the final phase of this protracted, historic and inspiring Indian election.
The winner is likely to be Narendra Modi, who is happy to be described as a Hindu nationalist. The 63-year-old politician has called for a strong India which will not be pushed around on the international stage. He promises an end to the “false secularism” that has favored “particular communities”, such as India’s 150 million Muslims.
The BJP manifesto explicitly promises Western growth without imperiling the nation’s own rich culture. Modi offers a package: governance of the highest global standards by a man who is resolutely local in his identity.
A victory for Modi, or at least one for his Bharatiya Janata party, will add 1.25 billion people to the already sizable proportion of Asia, by far the world’s most populous continent, ruled by conservative leaders, often populist and often, though far from always, committed to a powerful fusion of religion and patriotism which has mobilized huge numbers of people. Many are also authoritarian. This dominance has gone largely unnoticed.
There is, of course, huge variety. The differences between, for example, the Sinhala and Buddhist ethno-religious triumphalism of the Rajapaksa family in tiny Sri Lanka and the moderate Islamism and social conservatism of Nawaz Sharif in troubled Pakistan are patent. Comparisons between communist China, even if a new leader there favours a nationalist narrative, and India are never helpful. They are too different for comparisons to be useful. In Russia, nationalism is booming, the economy is not. But the broad picture is clear. How many progressive internationalists are in power? Not many.
Key to explaining this are the twin linked phenomena: rising prosperity and urbanization. Recent decades have seen hundreds of millions of people across Asia become less poor — if not wealthy — and even more moving from the countryside to cities. Clear divisions between the aspirations and expectations of rural and urban communities have collapsed. The result is a huge number of people caught in a vortex of rapid change, and, more recently, stuttering social mobility and faltering growth. They are also more politically conscious and, as the number of volunteers in the streets of Varanasi last week showed, increasingly active.
Modi is an outsider. He comes from humble origins and grew up in a provincial town in the coastal state of Gujarat. He did not go to the best Indian schools and has never liked India’s capital. He is abstemious and eats simple Gujarati food. In short, he is entirely unlike many members of the Delhi-based political and bureaucratic elite.
This is one reason for the fear he inspires in the Indian capital.
Modi has many critics and when the final results are released on Friday we will probably learn that, even in the event of victory, under a third of voters in India will have actually voted for him. Though he has been cleared by judicial inquiries of having allowed, or even encouraged, sectarian violence in 2002 in the state he runs, suspicions of deep-rooted prejudice remain. Others fear authoritarianism. Concerns about his accession to high office may prove unfounded, but are legitimate.
His supporters, however, see someone else. For if this new urban-rural lower middle-class — also the key constituency for political Islamists and, historically, European revolutionary organizations of every type — are still optimistic, they are also very frustrated.
In Modi, they see a strong leader with a proven record of administration who will bring jobs and security, internal and external. They see someone who will restore “Indian pride,” a little battered in recent years. And above all, they see someone like them. It is their concerns, they believe, he articulates. “I understand you because I am from among you,” Modi told a rally in Gujarat, with some justification.
If much of Modi’s support is based in the hope that he can bring order to the chaos of modern India, some is also rooted in an inchoate resentment directed primarily at the local political elite. Unfortunately, this simmering anger results in outbursts that are often poorly aimed, with the West becoming collateral damage.
This is in part our fault. Our interaction with countries like India is complex. But our policymakers and official representatives are guilty of extraordinarily narrow vision which has helped open up space for people like Modi across much of a continent. This aids the sense among huge numbers of people that globalization is a conversation from which, metaphorically and practically, they are excluded. That conversation takes place in English and it is worth noting that Modi will be the first leader of such prominence and power in India who, like the vast majority of his compatriots, is uncomfortable in what has become the world’s language.
On the political track, our diplomats and politicians inevitably favor those who resemble them most closely. That usually means anglophone moderates or, as they are often termed locally, “liberals.”
There is also an inherent and inevitable journalistic bias toward those who share reporters’, viewers’ and readers’ language and cultural references, however superficial.
Due to the inequality of the growth seen since market-orientated reforms were introduced across much of Asia in the last four decades, the global economy, still dominated by the west, appears to many in small-town India, not as an opportunity for all but a means for a select few to become extremely rich.
Out in provincial cities, Western culture is increasingly represented more by luxury cars, Internet pornography and shops selling international brands in the more exclusive malls than Shakespeare and liberal democracy.
This ignorance is certainly a fault of both sides. But it is the failure of Western policymakers and analysts to grasp the importance of the emergence of the frustrated lower middle-class masses across much of a continent that is the more reprehensible. We are the ones who still, for good or ill, command most of the high ground of international affairs. But it is only through understanding what is happening at a lower, earthier level, that we will be able to grasp why men like Modi can win such support and so much power.
Jason Burke is The Guardian and The Observer’s South Asia correspondent.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.