Nationalist Rhetoric Takes Centre Stage in World’s Largest Elections

posted in: Policy Analysis | 2

“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”


In a few days, a month-long election cycle in India will come to an end, and the results of a mammoth electoral exercise will be announced. Indeed, with over 900 million registered voters (more than the combined population of the United States and the European Union) electing 543 Members of Parliament from among 8,049 candidates representing 677 political parties, this is the world’s biggest democratic undertaking.

As in previous elections, issues around jobs, growth, and development are unsurprising themes of this campaign. However, interestingly, national security and foreign policy have also emerged as key issues, especially in regards to Pakistan. The saliency of national security as an issue at the polls increased significantly in February 2019 after a suicide car bombing by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad killed 40 Indian security personnel. This was the deadliest terror attack on India’s state security in over 30 years and occurred at a time when incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s net approval rating stood at only 32%. The subsequent rise in tensions with Pakistan has proved to be a great opportunity for Modi, who is the face of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to set himself apart from his political adversaries on this issue. The fact that Pakistan is a Muslim-majority nation also allowed the BJP to further fan the flames of Hindu nationalistic sentiment to bolster its own image. By early March 2019, Modi’s approval rating had risen to 62%. 

A comparison of Prime Minister Modi’s speeches from the 2014 and 2019 elections found minimal usage of words like ‘Pakistan’ and ‘terrorism’ in 2014. However, this changed significantly in 2019 when, after the attack, these words were used frequently by virtually all BJP leaders, including Modi himself. National security and the perceived threat of war is a tremendous electoral tool in India for three reasons. First, it unites voters across class, regional, and religious lines in seeking a ‘strong’ and ‘decisive’ leader. Second, to a large extent, it has acted as a distraction from BJP’s mostly unremarkable performance between 2014 and 2019 on key indicators, such as employment. Finally, national security as an election issue bears great strategic value rhetorically, as it is hard for opposition parties to come up with an effective counter-narrative.

However, the media’s role in making the conflict with Pakistan a central election issue and fuelling public panic and anger can also not be ignored. The media has greatly profited from cross-border violence by finding creative ways to attract viewers. At the peak of the crisis, Indian and Pakistani television anchors both dressed in military uniforms as they presented the news; an Indian newscaster even hosted his entire segment while holding a toy gun. As Akash Sriram writes here, articles in print and online media portrayed Modi as the person responsible for brave strategic moves against terrorist outfits. The framing of journalistic content was designed to demonstrate India’s hard power to its audience. This, together with the fact that Indian audiences are typically exposed only to Indian media reports and are generally isolated from international media narratives, has certainly impacted public opinion, and, eventually, the elections.

So, was national security a winning platform for the BJP? In short, it seems very likely yes. With all seven phases of voting over, four major exit polls are predicting big wins for the BJP and its National Democratic Alliance (a coalition of right-leaning political parties in India). India is facing serious challenges in the farming sector, unemployment is on the rise, and the economy has plateaued and may even be headed for a recession. At a time when economic policies and job creation should have been at the center stage of our national conversation, war, religion, and national security have instead dominated. Ironically, Jaish-e-Mohammad might soon prove to be BJP’s greatest ally this election.

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Teslin Augustine is a Master’s candidate at the Willy Brandt School. She holds a dual Bachelors degree in Arts and Law (B.A., LL.B. (Hons)) from the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, India. Teslin is a lawyer licensed to practice in India and has 6 years of professional experience in advocacy and policy analysis. She has worked as a Legislative Assistant to a senior Member of the Indian Parliament and has, as a Public Affairs Consultant, advised several Fortune 500 companies on advocacy strategy and government relations. At the Brandt School, Teslin is the Indian awardee of the DAAD Helmut Schmidt (Public Policy & Good Governance) Scholarship 2018-2020. She is also Research Assistant to Prof. Patrick Mello. Her research interests include energy, environment, and foreign policy.

2 Responses

  1. trulyIndian

    Very unfair to discredit world’s fastest growing economy and a democratic election process involving 1 billion citizens (over 3 times the size of EU!).

    Wrongful comparison: To equate a UN designated Terror group ‘Jaish-e-Mohammad’ as an alleged ‘ally’ of BJP a party which gets Citizen’s majority on its slogan of ONE INDIA ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’ is Wrong. It was under PM Modi’s international diplomacy that head of ‘Jaish-e-Mohammad’ -Maulana Masood Azhar was designated as a Global Terrorist. The fact that sole UNSC permanent member – China’s stiff resistance ( ongoing since the time of previous UPA government) was overcome on 1st May, 2010 speaks volume about the global recognizance of PM Modi’s international diplomacy (

    Safety of citizens: Under UPA government 2004-2014, bomb blasts and terror attacks were routine and spread all across India [search for 2013 Hyderabad blasts; 2012 Pune bombings, 2011 Mumbai bombings, 2010 Bangalore stadium bombing, 2009 Guwahati bombings, Mumbai terror attacks of 26 November 2008 with live caught Pakistani Terrorist), August 2007 Hyderabad bombings, 2006 Mumbai train bombings, 29 October 2005 Delhi bombings etc.) ; whereas under PM Modi (post May, 2014), bomb blast (single) was confined to the state of J&K. This state has a history of across the border supported terror violence with 70% of Kashmiri Hindu inhabitants forced to vonvert into Islam or get brutally killed thus majority of Kashmiri Hindu were forced leave the state in 1990s. (refer: Key reasons for situation going out of control being special status granted under Art. 370 which prohibits central government role in the State… Modi Government under its new manifesto has declared to remove this obstacle permanently

    SCAMS: not a single scam determined till date under PM Modi’s Government, whereas the ten years of 2004-2014 under UPA Government saw numerous scams as determined by Supreme Court examples: 2G Scam worth $ 40 billion; Coal Scam worth $ 200 billion; several other billion dollars scams, chopper scam, National Herald Scam (for which Congress’ Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi had to pay bail security amount to avoid getting imprisoned as per Court Orders)

    Some of world class achievements under PM Modi:World’s fastest growing large economy surpassing even China; World’s highest FDI recipient; UN Declares International Yoga Day, Electricity for all; Cooking Gas Cylinder for all; Sanitation for all, Bank accounts for all, GST, Infrastructure, etc. (refer:

    World recognition: World bank and IMF applauded Modi Government economic policies; Several Nations including South Korea, UAE, Russia conferred TOP Civilian Award to Modi. In contrast, some of the notorious persons incidently coming from a single family -Nehru conferred top India award to themselves (Bharat Ratna to Indira Gandhi by herself, and to Rajiv Gandhi by himself)!!!

    To sum: PM Modi ended years (over 70 years post Independence) of religion/caste based divisive politics, promoted One India for ALL, busted corruption, strengthened economy, infrastructure, defence, international image, STOPPED unwarranted tax payer freebies, boosted morale of Indian citizens globally.

  2. Teslin

    Irrespective of our individual viewpoints, I am glad the article touched you enough to write such a detailed comment! 🙂