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An original version of this interview was published in French at Le Grand Continent.

Since April 19, and until June 1, the world’s most populous democracy is voting. How does Modi’s authoritarian power intend to remain at the helm of a nation whose politics are becoming one of the most hotly contested on the planet? To follow this election and its implications, we have enlisted the expertise of Christophe Jaffrelot who is responding to our questions below and who has helped us coordinate a series of publications this spring.

How is the voting process being contested this time around and how can it help us understand the uniqueness of these elections?

Several points of tension can be identified. Firstly, electronic voting machines are increasingly contested because the election commission refuses to conduct the verifications requested by the opposition. There are ways of verifying that no virtual ballot stuffing has occurred, and a number of computer scientists have demonstrated that these machines are easily tamperable.

The other major bone of contention in this campaign concerns the role of the media. Since Modi came to power, the Indian media has shown an increasing lack of objectivity. Practically all television channels are now under the influence of the government. NDTV (New Delhi Television), which was the last independent channel during the previous election campaign, was acquired by Gautam Adani, the regime’s chief oligarch, two years ago.

Since Modi came to power, the Indian media has shown an increasing lack of objectivity. Practically all television channels are now under the influence of the government.

In India, political communication still mainly goes through television channels, even though social media is playing an increasingly significant role as well as a small number of remarkably courageous journalists.

We are witnessing, unsurprisingly, a saturation of the one-sided television space while there is still no televised debate, still no press conference from the Prime Minister—who is therefore never called upon to respond to criticism or to explain sensitive issues such as mass unemployment or China’s encroachment on Indian territory. Media coverage of the Prime Minister and his team far exceeds the airtime given to the opposition. This imbalance is exacerbated by the financial resources available to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party that has been in power since 2014. In 2019, the party managed to spend more than three and a half billion dollars on its campaign—more than all opposition forces combined. Moreover, the law creating the famous “electoral bonds”—recently declared anti-constitutional by the Supreme Court—allowed anyone to donate anonymously to political parties. As a result, the BJP received about three-quarters of the funding and companies got something in return, as several great pieces of investigation journalism have now shown. Electoral competition is thus unequal in terms of media and financial resources.

How would you characterize the BJP today?

The BJP is a dominant party that is increasingly personalizing around its leader, Narendra Modi. Previously, it was a rather collegiate formation that had at least two heads, including former Prime Minister and BJP founder Atal Vajpayee as well as LK Advani, for instance. The party also had many regional leaders at the helm of Indian Union states or party branches. The centralization of its apparatus around a single figure has occurred in a spectacular fashion: BJP campaigns for regional elections are now systematically led by the Prime Minister—who also appoints the regional government leaders when the BJP wins. Therefore, it is not known in advance who will be the head of government of a state of the Indian Union when one votes BJP in regional elections: one votes BJP because one votes Modi, then Modi decides the casting.

Is Modi’s hegemony over the BJP now total?

Yes, the party is now completely dominated by Narendra Modi—and of course also by Amit Shah, the Home Minister, who has been his right-hand man for over twenty years.

But, importantly, the party is not that hegemonic! While it prevails in the North and West, it remains rather weak in the South and East. The north-south fracture is even more pronounced than it was five years ago in that the BJP no longer governs a single state in the south. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala have all shifted to regional parties or Congress.[1]

We will see if Modi manages to reverse this trend and if we witness some decoupling—like in 2019—between how Indians vote nationally and how they vote regionally. It is possible, for example, that the BJP will win many seats in one of the most important southwestern states, Karnataka, even though the party lost the regional elections in the state by a wide margin in 2022.

Indian democracy has changed significantly during Modi’s reign. What makes this year’s campaign different from that of 2019?

Each election, Modi focuses on a theme that he pushes throughout the campaign. In 2014, it was the “Gujarati model” of development. In 2019, it was the Pakistani threat after a terrorist attack attributed to Pakistan, followed by Indian reprisals, stirred up a frenzy of militaristic nationalism in the media.

In 2024, the inauguration of the Ayodhya temple set the tone, followed by the announcement of the implementation of the new citizenship legislation. This Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA, 2019), passed in 2019, had remained dormant until then. Under this act, only non-Muslim refugees from three neighboring countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan) are now eligible for Indian citizenship. In parallel, the state is restarting its operation to count illegal migrants, raising fears among Muslims born in India—who lack documentation—of being considered refugees and then deported. Camps have already been built for this purpose, notably in Assam. Whether it’s Ayodhya or the CAA, the BJP’s campaign plays on ethno-religious sentiments. If there’s one theme Modi can’t campaign on, it’s the economy. Unemployment has never been higher since the 1970s, and many have fallen into poverty due to his policies, from the demonetization of 2016 to the long, drastic, and impromptu lockdowns of 2020-21. Many workers who left cities to return to their villages during the lockdown haven’t returned, a sign of industrial stagnation—whose share in GDP continues to erode.

The BJP’s campaign plays on ethno-religious sentiments because if there’s one theme Modi can’t campaign on, it’s the economy.

Does the opposition stand a chance?

It certainly worries Narendra Modi! Otherwise, why imprison Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi Chief Minister, and freeze certain Congress bank accounts? These decisions reflected the government’s nervousness. The opposition is more united than in 2019. Facing the BJP is a coalition of opposition parties, the coherence of which is still unclear as the distribution of constituencies among these parties is still being discussed.

In this context, the main opposition leader is Rahul Gandhi, as in 2019. But differently than 2019, because he now has the dimensions of a mass leader, in part as a result of the South-to-North march—“Yatra”—for the unity of India he undertook in 2022-2023 (the Bharat Jodo Yatra) in protest against the policies of the Modi government. In 2024, during the elections, he undertook a Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, a march from East to West for the Unity and Justice of India, which ended in March in Mumbai. The impact of his campaign is hard to gauge, partly due to inadequate media coverage, but if we go by the echoes of social media, Rahul Gandhi has become a crowd-puller.

Has the opposition found a leader in Rahul Gandhi?

Yes, but not all opposition regional party leaders recognize him as their rallying point. The cohesion of the coalition, named Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), remains to be demonstrated. The parties forming it are mostly regional and are often competitors of the Congress in their states. Some have already switched sides. Nitish Kumar—leader of Janata Dal (United), a party in northeastern India that has long been allied with the BJP—left the INDIA coalition to return to the BJP’s. However, in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party—a socialist party mainly rooted in Uttar Pradesh itself—and Congress have allied, as have AAP and Congress in Delhi and neighboring states. The faction of the Shiv Sena—a nativist party based in the state of Maharashtra, long allied with the BJP—headed by Uddhav Thackeray and Congress are also strong allies in Maharashtra.

Seat adjustment will be crucial: if these parties agree to field only one candidate against the BJP in many constituencies, given the single-round voting system, they have a chance of winning more seats because multiple contests will maximize their chances. It’s worth remembering that the BJP has never won more than 37% of the vote on average, but with over 50% in many northern and western states. If it remains above 50% in these areas, seat adjustment won’t change much. But elsewhere, like in Maharashtra and Karnataka, it could have an effect.

What issues could the opposition focus on?

What the opposition seeks to do now is to counter the BJP’s ethno-religious discourse, convincing voters that having a job is more important than having a temple.

What the opposition seeks to do now is to counter the BJP’s ethno-religious discourse, convincing voters that having a job is more important than having a temple. The issue of jobs could indeed become a central theme, as the social crisis is deepening. Another emerging theme is the covert link between Modi and business circles, which increasingly appears to underlie corrupt practices and extortion, with the government threatening companies with various legal actions (including tax audits) to obtain donations, and some firms financing the BJP in exchange for favors.

Are there tangible signs of the economic crisis in Indian society?

Authoritarians don’t like data, and some of the statistics from India that are still available should be taken with caution. The decennial census, which should have been conducted in 2021, has been postponed indefinitely—a first since its inception in 1871. But while reliable data is scarce, there are indicators. The sluggish sales of consumer goods that the lower middle class favored, such as motorized two-wheelers, are one of them. In rural areas, the impoverishment of many farmers is leading to large-scale social movements, which the media often underreport. Another indicator: the increasing number of Indian migrants worldwide—whether at the US-Mexico border or at Orly Airport en route to Canada—reflects the lack of jobs in India, as does the unprecedented length of queues outside public sector companies advertising job openings. The preference for “government jobs” over private sector jobs is very significant, partly reflecting the continuous decline in private investment over the past decade.

Can you cite a major aspect of the opposition’s program?

Positive discrimination via the extension of hiring quotas for the lower castes, who are one of the collateral victims of the Modi government. By privatizing public enterprises (including ports and airports for the benefit of oligarchs), the government has reduced the number of jobs that were under quota as part of the policy of positive discrimination in favor of the lower castes. Therefore, the opposition proposes to organize a caste census to better assess the underrepresentation of the lower castes in the public sector.

How do you explain the importance of this theme?

Caste is perceived as the antidote to Hindu nationalism. The caste policy and Hindutva have indeed had a long-standing relationship. For thirty years, there has been a dialectic between the two. In 1990, then Prime Minister V.P. Singh granted 27% of public sector positions to the lower castes. It was at this time that the BJP launched its campaign for the reconstruction of a temple in Ayodhya, in place of the mosque that allegedly succeeded it in the 16th century, thus mobilizing Hindus on a very popular issue.

This strategy aimed to reunify the Hindu community, which was increasingly divided along caste lines, against Muslims portrayed as a threat. It worked well: the BJP, originally a party of high castes, created a Hindu voting bloc that, by bringing it to power, allowed it to neutralize the demands of the lower castes by telling them “your real enemy are not the upper castes, but the Muslims.” However, today, the model has reached certain limits, due to insufficient growth to combat unemployment and poverty. Within Hinduism, caste could therefore once again become a line of social fracture.

Is the mass of farmers a societal force capable of influencing elections?

Modi recently sought to reform agricultural markets, which he considers inefficient. Farmers saw—quite rightly—in the laws he passed just after his electoral success in 2019, an attempt to privatize the marketing of agricultural products, allowing large agribusiness groups to directly engage with farmers. Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani have indeed invested heavily in agribusiness and retail—and have been the target of this major rural mobilization that lasted nearly two years.

Under pressure from farmers, Modi backed down—he eventually repealed these laws. But the BJP lost the support of farmers in Punjab, India’s breadbasket—especially since, to discredit the Sikh protesters, who are numerous in Punjab, the BJP labeled them “Khalistanis” (i.e., potential separatists). Since then, agitation has resumed and has recently intensified on a key issue: the floor prices that farmers want to extend to new products and raise where they exist (for rice and wheat in particular).

Could social issues and employment dominate the election campaign?

Yes. But again, some caveats are in order. Like the Turks, Indians don’t vote solely or primarily on socio-economic issues; they also vote, sometimes even mainly so, on identity issues. Therefore, the opposition may need to successfully highlight these socio-economic issues and provide an identity-based interpretation by associating them with caste issues—hence the demand for a caste census – in parallel, they should not appear as anti-Hindu….

Indians don’t vote solely or primarily on socio-economic issues; they also vote, sometimes even mainly so, on identity issues.

Returning to identity issues, what could a third term for Modi, elected on such an explicitly ethno-religious program, change in a country with 200 million Muslims?

We can expect another bold move, as after the 2019 elections. At that time, it was both the abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution, which had given Jammu and Kashmir a degree of autonomy until then, and the Citizenship Amendment Act, which made Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan ineligible for Indian citizenship. In 2024, in the weeks following the elections, Modi could implement another Hindu nationalist tenet by voting for the principle of a uniform civil code. This would involve depriving minorities of the right to use their customary or personal laws.

In such a locked context, what tools do we have to follow electoral and opinion dynamics?

It has become very difficult. We are facing a real deficit of opinion surveys. There are very few, and they are often conducted from very small samples. Only one institute can be considered reliable, the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and its opinion survey unit called Lokniti—but their survey will be published quite late. Few surveys generally help us anticipate the results of an election in India. However, many surveys will still take place because it is a “business”; one should not give them too much credit…

In what you describe of the Indian political landscape in this major election, it seems that no debate is possible, at any level. Are there any places where discussion can still take place?

There is hardly any public, constructive debate left, neither in the media nor in parliament. The so-called “mainstream” media do not promote exchange of ideas, largely because they have lost all critical spirit. To be exposed to contradictory views, one needs to read online newspapers like The Wire,, Newsclick etc., fortnightly magazines like Frontline, or monthly magazines like The Caravan – and to watch YouTube channels. Independent think tanks are also targeted.  The latest to be cornered by the government was the Center for Policy Research, a magnificent institution which was banned from receiving foreign money and had to close its doors.

And in universities?

It’s not much better. Private universities are even easier to control than public universities. They rely on funding from businessmen who depend directly on the government for their other activities. All the government needs to do is send a message to university funders. This is how the government has managed to rein in some departments at Ashoka University, which was so promising ten years ago…Many members of its political science department have left. Public universities are under attack too, including the best one for social sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. But academics try to resist the diktat of the party presidents appointed by the government—most of the time second-class scholars who are, at least, fellow travelers of the Hindu nationalist movement.

On the world stage, especially since the last BRICS summit, India has become the power that everyone is vying for friendship with. With what conceptual tools and historical references can we try to understand the Modi doctrine?

We must start here with what the Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs, S. Jaishankar, calls “plurilateralism” or what others call multi-alignment. This policy has one thing in common with India’s traditional non-alignment: they mean that India does not take side, is not associated with any camp. But today’s plurilateralism is quite different from Nehru’s non-alignment, which aimed to offer a third way, allowing India to act as a mediator—during the Korean War or the Indochina War, for example. Today, Modi does not want India to act as a mediator. Some imagined that he would be able to mediate between Putin and Zelensky. But currently, India does not want to risk alienating anyone—in order to business with everyone. Consequently, it often retreats into abstention at the UN, when it comes to the war in Ukraine, for example. This raises a question about its candidacy for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council because, to participate in global governance, systematic abstention may not be enough. Plurilateralism means that India does business with everyone based on national interests: Putin, Biden, Macron—each in turn.

Plurilateralism means that India does business with everyone based on national interests: Putin, Biden, Macron—each in turn. Intrinsically, Modi’s India has no allies. It only has partners.

Intrinsically, Modi’s India has no allies. It only has partners. That is why the West’s bet on India seems ill-informed and risky to me: constantly appeasing India, acknowledging its title of democracy at every official visit, not being alarmed by its proximity to Russia, etc., probably reflects more than just commercial interests (in terms of arms sales in particular), and even suggests the hope of seeing India turn towards the West one day, especially to counterbalance China. But will it ever desire to defend the international liberal order, of which it does not share all the values, and will it have the means to do so? This is the excellent question recently raised by Ashley Tellis, which has not been discussed enough in Western capitals, still so busy courting New Delhi.

How does the doctrine of plurilateralism project itself geographically?

Geography plays an important role as we have entered the era of the Indo-Pacific, whose motto is simple: resist China, one of India’s neighbors. India admits that this priority of the United States aligns with its essential concern. This awareness has come in stages: a major step was taken in 2020 when the attacks in the Galwan Valley, part of a border confrontation between India and China, resulted in the deaths of twenty Indian soldiers. India then resigned itself to recognize that the Quad— the dialogue alliance between the United States, Australia, Japan, and India—needed to be upgraded. However, Delhi is walking a fine line because the country is getting closer to the West while trying not to further alienate China, because it is not ready to be even more exposed to Chinese military expansionism. China is intimidating, and New Delhi does not want to enter into a confrontational relationship. While India invests in an Indo-Pacific strategy, it will not easily take sides with the West against China in case of a tough situation, in Taiwan or elsewhere.

Moreover, India depends considerably on China. Its staggering trade deficit with China—$118 billion—is not only related to imports of consumer goods but also to inputs necessary for its economy. India would not be as well positioned in the generic drug industry, for example, if a good part of the active ingredients did not come from China.

Isn’t it trying to break free from this dependence?

On paper, of course. But it’s too expensive. India suffers from underinvestment in research and development in many key sectors. Investment in general is declining, and the share of industry in India’s GDP is eroding to be only about 15% today. Without investment in industry or R&D, breaking free from China will be difficult. India hopes that multinational companies invited to leave China by Western powers will set up shop here, but the effects of this “decoupling” or “de-risking” are slow to be felt.

What kind of impact can this positioning have on the election?

The geopolitical dimension is supposed to be a significant element of the campaign. What the BJP is highlighting is how much Modi “has made India great again.” It’s one of his major assets: at every summit, on every trip abroad, television channels loop footage of him embracing all the greats of this world.

The country suffers from such a lack of self-confidence that these kinds of signals play a key role in collective psychology, complementing the affair of the Ram Mandir temple in Ayodhya, with which Modi opened his campaign, and which is presented as a historical victory—allowing Hindus to avenge centuries of Muslim domination.

What is the role of the financial oligarchy in India’s political landscape and especially for Modi?

Modi has managed to build around himself a true political-economic set and model, going back to his Gujarat years. A half-dozen major companies are known to cultivate a clientelist relationship with the government.

Modi has managed to build around himself a true political-economic set and model, going back to his Gujarat years. This model also applies to other authoritarian populists who need to contest elections—Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu. National-populists have to go through elections. Without a popular mandate, they do not have the necessary legitimacy to present themselves as the embodiment of the people on the move. Now, to win elections, a lot of money is needed. Hence the law on electoral bonds, which was enacted to collect money from businessmen anonymously. A half-dozen major companies are known to cultivate a clientelist relationship with the government.

This was already part of the Gujarati model. Modi developed this strategy when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat and received the support of Gautam Adani. If Adani has gained so much importance today, it is because he was the first to offer his services to Modi in the early 2000s when the latter was rather isolated.

India is a global IT hub in terms of services and has developed its national digital strategy, called Digital India. How does Modi mobilize this theme?

India’s human resources in this field give it a strong comparative advantage. Major companies like TCS, Infosys, Wipro, and Mahindra-Satyam are the global back office for many international companies. However, a mortgage is beginning to weigh on this sector: automation, which caused it to lose tens of thousands of jobs for the first time last year. Perhaps Indians have not managed to move up enough in the value chain—due to the deficit in research and development—to escape the effects of automation, which of course concern the simplest tasks.

The Digital India project promoted by Modi officially aims at good governance. According to the language of power, digital governance is the country’s new brand image, which could allow South-South knowledge transfers. In short, India would help the rest of the world govern itself better and cheaper. Its flagship project is the famous India Stack, a mega-platform intended to bring the entire population of India into the digital age. Its cornerstone is called Aadhaar—literally, “the base.”It is a biometric identification system for which India claims to have already registered more than 1.3 billion individuals. It is also an export product to countries in the South.

However, leaks of personal data are common, and it is a potentially powerful surveillance tool, especially since India has not enacted a very effective personal data protection law. The agency that manages Aadhaar is also not independent of the government—which has the ability to access personal data in the name of national security. This will likely pose a problem for negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union due to its GDPR.

The original idea was to control or fight against the informal economy?

This database was created when Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys, considered that “data was the new oil”—an idea that gained popularity in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley. Nilekani then succeeded in persuading the government of Manmohan Singh to register the ten fingerprints and two iris scans of all Indians with a compelling argument: this would be the best way to ensure that subsidies and social benefits escaped corruption due to leaks in a circuit that had been too indirect until then.

However, we still do not have proof that the short circuit through biometric identification of beneficiaries saves money for the state. On the other hand, there is evidence that this system deprives some people of easy access to their subsidies, either because the internet connection is not good, or because their fingerprints are completely erased, or because they have a vision problem that makes iris reading difficult. The flaws in the system, detached from the civil registry records it was supposed to replace, are numerous. In addition, networks of data brokers have been formed to take advantage of the initial idea: “data is the new oil.”

Furthermore, Aadhaar paves the way for forms of surveillance, as files multiply and can be connected. For example, it is with an Aadhaar number that one opens their bank account or telephone line, fills out their tax return, contributes to and receives their pension…

[1] Congress being the party of independence that Mahatma Gandhi restructured in the 1920s and which dominated Indian politics from independence in 1947 to the 1970s and again in the following decades, till 2014, in a more limited manner.

Christophe Jaffrelot is Avantha Chair and Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at the King’s India Institute and also the Research Lead for the Global Institutes, King’s College London. He teaches South Asian politics and history at Sciences Po, Paris and is an Overseas Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was Director of Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI) at Sciences Po, between 2000 and 2008.

Image by John Chrobak using “PM addresses beneficiaries of the Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra via video conferencing on December 16, 2023,” by Prime Minister’s Office licensed under Government Open Data License – India (GODL); “Rahul Gandhi at The Doon School,” by BlakeShramster licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; “Farmer’s Protest at Dhareri Jattan, Patiala, Punjab (21 December 2020) 01,” by Satdeep Gill licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; “An elderly woman voter showing the ink-marked finger after casting vote at the polling booth of Palri Meena, Bagru, in Jaipur, during the Rajasthan Assembly Election, on December 01, 2013,” by Election Commission of India licensed under Government Open Data License – India (GODL)

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.