Modi 2.0: India under ‘Charismatic Authoritarianism’?  

 modi victory

The ultra-Right BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) resounding victory in the 17th Lok Sabha elections in India has surprised many, even within the NDA alliance because of the unexpected pay-offs emerging from the electoral fray. Many still wonder if ‘anti-incumbency factor’ is any more relevant in electoral calculus in a country of 900 million voters (save southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu). More importantly, BJP’s singular achievement by winning 303 seats under the stewardship of Narendra Modi raises questions about the future of coalition politics at the national level (Election Commission of India 2019). It also calls into question the relevance and role of the regional political parties (barring some states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra etc) in the making of national government. There was a feeling on the eve of polls that regional parties would be decisive in the making of new government in New Delhi and many leaders in this broad spectrum of alliances were even dreaming of coveted posts in a future government in Delhi durbar. Poll forecasts, including exit polls, also indicated that regional parties would be potential players in the final tally. But the results shattered all hopes of a regional-dominant alternative force in Indian politics. Worse still, the Indian National Congress(INC) faced unexpected setbacks from even ‘comfortable’ locations in these regions, except in states like Kerala and Punjab. A critical question is if the erstwhile ‘Congress system’ of the post-independence decades gives way to a ‘Saffron-Brigade’ model with characteristics of a new authoritarian system—with Narendra Modi at the centre of an incredible political gravitational pull.

The 2019 elections was surely a testing time for BJP given a vast array of socio-economic problems that got accumulated during the last five years—from farmers’ distress to skyrocketing oil price, from burgeoning unemployment to the slowdown in Indian economy following demonetisation, introduction of GST etc. Besides, the very electoral process was under a shadow of doubt with the Election Commission taking a pro-government stand on questions such as EVMs, VVPATs, electoral bonds etc. It was also a critical litmus test for the Sangh regime insofar as the electorate was to decide if Prime Minister Narendra Modi should still be held in high esteem as the symbol of its own brand of nationalism. Hence the Sangh dispensation came out with a well thought-out ‘state-of-the-art’ strategy by capitalising the post-Pulwama, the post-Balakot sentiments even as the opposition parties, particularly the INC, were dissipating their time and energy on too many trivial things. Several significant questions that called for serious political introspection remained idle on account of the diversionary strategies resorted to by them. The electoral strategies of the INC and other opposition parties focused on peripheral issues that would have facetious attraction (even amounting to targetted belittling of leaders like Modi).  Consequently, there was a  general propensity to get the basic issues sidelined—with no serious engagements on the structural or institutional crisis of the system. One major reason for such a sorry state of affairs was the ‘shared’ responsibility of both INC and BJP which led two major fronts with more or less the same economic agenda and programmes. Though the Indian economy and polity experienced major changes during the last three decades, under both the UPA and NDA regimes, there was hardly any serious debate on the basic issue. This was reflected again in the recent elections (though the INC came out with some hackneyed reform measures). No wonder, both the Congress and BJP continued to sideline the basic problems of the system which would have their perilous pervasive impact on the living conditions of the people. Then, the focal point of the election campaign shifted to a few issues which had more emotional appeals.

Meanwhile the social base of the INC has been on decline in the post-emergency period. Though the Congress could still win in period elections (with occasional setbacks in states), its social landscape witnessed deepening frustration of its traditional vote bank, including the emerging urban middle class. In north Indian states like UP and the entire northeast, the mounting frustration found expression in their voting pattern. Rising unemployment in traditional sectors, besides shrinking opportunities in the emerging industrial fields, triggered greater uncertainties and insecure social conditions. The Sangh dispensation began to capitalise this deeper social crisis by effectively manipulating the ‘cultural crisis’ by securitizing social issues.  The social crisis triggered by the neoliberal  reforms naturally disturbed the social solidarity of the Indian villages which paved the way for BJP making inroads into the social base, which the Congress traditionally held for long (Seethi 2017; Seethi 2019). The success of Modi is his regime of ‘event’ managing the social constituency by negotiating with traditional caste groups even as it has been maintaining a ‘panoptican’ state in terms of monitoring and controlling its potential ‘enemies’ and ‘friends’ (Ibid).  An advantage of the Modi regime is the global geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape which concur both domestic and international agenda.

Sadly, the Congress appeared to have no alternative social agenda–different from the one being in place under the NDA regime.  Hence, it had the single-point agenda of meeting the ‘threat’ from BJP even as the threats from social dislocations caused by the ‘austerity’ regime continued to be much deeper, fundamental and all-pervading. The Sangh Brigades, however, emerged successful with their hyper-nationalist campaigns and strategies in the elections. BJP President Amit Shah wrote in the party manifesto that “Under the leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, we have been able to make an India that our friends praise, our competitors respect and our enemies fear… This election is not between two political parties; rather, it is an election to dissipate the negativity that makes us oblivious of our glorious past and our cultural roots and values” (BJP 2019). The Pulwama terrorist attack and the Balakot airstrikes were effectively used as rallying points to externalise an array of internal problems. The Sangh Brigades knew that ‘national security’ could be a comfortable terrain to divert people’s attention from crucial issues, including corruption charges reported on the Rafael deal.

‘Charisma’  factor?

Many post-election analyses attributed the victory of the NDA to the ‘charisma’ of Narendra Modi. It is a natural but a tricky value addition to the electoral outcome. In fact, in a Weberian sense, charisma is not singularly pertaining to the personality of the ‘charismatic leader’ of a given order, but to the very structure of the social relationship constituted between the ‘charisma holder’ and the ‘charisma believer’ as elucidated by Rainer Lepsius. Lepsius explains that “The social structure that comes out of a charismatic relationship represents an emotional collectivization held together by an emotional bond with the leader. A charismatic leader is not only a person who is given great expectations and trust and to whom special skills are attributed.” As such, a “charismatic leader constitutes a new leadership, a new structure of social relationships, and a new cognitive definition of the situation of social action (Lepsius 2016:Weber1978).

Modi used his dispensation to hold sway over the system through its hegemony—manifesting itself with its coercive and consensual strategies within a new social relationship. The ‘Sangh hegemony’ has been made possible through a set of interventionist tactics using the state apparatuses, on the one hand, and the agencies of the civil society, on the other hand. The RSS and its ever expanding connectivity with 59266 Sakhas across the country served the cause(RSS 2019). Obviously, Modi never sought to convince the people to overcome the deepening social crisis through a precise programme, but he persuaded them that something completely ‘new’ needed to be put in place. Modi’s legitimacy and its charismatic core appeared to be the product of the Sangh authoritarian regime and its ability to manipulate the criteria that mark out how charisma is to be negotiated and demonstrated. Modi’s ‘New India Pledge’ is part of this ‘Charismatic authoritarian system.’

This write up has also appeared in the Global South Colloquy.  The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at [email protected]



Bharatiya Janata Party (2019): Sankalp Patra, Lok Sabha 2019, available at

Election Commission of India (2019): General Election to Lok Sabha Trends & Result 2019,

Lepsius, M. Rainer (2016): “Max Weber’s Concept of Charismatic Authority and Its Applicability to Adolf Hitler’s “Führerstaat,” in Claus Wendt (ed.), Max Weber and Institutional Theory, Cham: Springer:89-109

Modi, Narendra (2019): #IAmNewIndia Pledge,

RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)(2019): Annual Report 2019,

Seethi, K.M. (2017): “Tectonic Shift In ‘Congress System’: Debating ‘Leadership’ and Silence on Policy Regime,” Countercurrents, 18 March, available at leadership-and-silence-on-policy-regime/

Seethi, K.M. (2019): “‘Testing Time’ for the Indian Electorate,”  Countercurrents, 25 March, available at

Szelenyi, Iván (2016): “Weber’s theory of domination and post-communist capitalisms,” Theory and Society, February, 45: 1.

Weber, M. (1947): The theory of social and economic organization, translated by Talcott Parsons, New York: Then Free Press.

Weber, M. (1978): Economy and Society, Berkeley: University of California Press.


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