Narendra Modi meets his mother after winning the elections

Modi’s India: Optical neoliberalism in! Secularism out!

Jacques Berlinerblau and Shareen Joshi

Jacques Berlinerblau and Shareen Joshi

Jacques is a Professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His next book is "The Routledge Introduction to Secularism".

Shareen is a Associate Professor of International Development at Georgetown University.

Between 2014 and 2020 Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official speeches emphasized themes of development, growth, and the importance of foreign investment. This “Optical Neoliberalism” – sparkling economic rhetoric about policies that are actually modest in scope – played two crucial roles within the ruling BJP party’s governance strategy. First, it turned the nation’s attention away from Modi and his party’s problematic record regarding religious minorities. Second, it obscured talk of secularism, which was the one constitutional and judicial obstacle to many of the party’s policy objectives. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, Modi has changed course, emphasizing “self-reliance” in economics and making frontal assaults on Indian secularism.
India’s relentlessly upbeat Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has recently struggled to put a positive spin on the headlines. Noteworthy events include the dismantling of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state; the imposition of citizenship laws that favor specific religious groups; a stringent lockdown that left migrants to make their way home on foot, enduring police stick-beatings along the way; skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 infection; significant, and sometimes violent, infringements of freedom of speech; innumerable – and  likely not inadvertent – internet blackouts; and most recently, massive farmers’ protests in New Delhi, resulting in images of India spinning out of control (and more stick-beatings).

Even for a master of messaging such as Modi, the recent news cycle presents some challenging optics. The recent turnaround of the COVID-19 infection-rate notwithstanding, these events clash conspicuously with his cheery pronouncements during his first half-decade of rule. Upon becoming Prime Minister in 2014, Modi sold his compatriots, and the world, on a glossy image of an India that was open for business.

Growth, he predicted, loomed on the horizon. Development was the future. The country’s workforce was ready to roll. Except when he was reflecting on the salutary benefits of yoga, or the wisdom of the Vedas, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sounded more like a Minister of Commerce, or the CEO of a start-up named “India Inc.”

To better understand Modi’s vision for India, we translated all official speeches that are curated on the Prime Minister’s Office website for the period 2014 and 2020. These 815 addresses are delivered in a mix of Hindi and English, addressed to domestic as well as international audiences. We translated them into English and examined the incidence of specific words, terms, and phrases. Our analysis reveals the salience of the aforementioned economic themes in his oratory (and the invisibility of others):

Incidence of words in Prime Minister Modi's speeches, 2014-2020
Table 1. Incidence of words in Prime Minister Modi’s speeches, 2014-2020. Data @ Jacques Berlinerblau and Shareen Joshi for Culturico.

In light of the headlines above, we wish to ponder three variables scarcely mentioned in Modi’s speeches: neoliberalism, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), and secularism. The interplay of these concepts, especially between economics and secularism, has rarely been discussed. But, exploring these connections can help us frame what lies ahead for India.

The hologram

“Good days are upon us,” exclaimed Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a victory rally, adding, “I will take all Indians with me” (see video below). His election in 2014 was as remarkable as it was unlikely.

Twelve years prior, the worst Muslim-Hindu riots in modern India had occurred in Gujarat while Modi was its Chief Minister. In the aftermath of unrest that killed more than a thousand (mostly Muslim) people, Modi was hardly contrite. When asked in 2013 if he regretted the violence, he answered: “If someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind . . . if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course, it is”.

Just before the election of 2014, two open letters in The Independent and The Guardian, signed by more than 100 intellectuals, declared him incompatible with India’s secular constitution. They dreaded the violence of his party against minorities, the “moral policing” of women, and his authoritarian leadership style. But why, then, did tens of millions of Indians vote for him

We submit that a clever messaging campaign white-washed his past while directing the nation’s attention to a prosperity-filled future. Mr. Modi deftly connected his personal story to India’s economic aspirations. He was the “son of a chai wala” (“tea maker”) who believed in “Hard work, not Harvard.” This self-narrative offered a stark contrast to India’s usual dynastic politics. Compared to the Indian National Congress – weak, mired in corruption, and bereft of fresh ideas – Modi looked authentic and vibrant.

The Modi Hologram
The Modi Hologram. Picture @ The Verge.

It also helped that the candidate’s communications were, unexpectedly, almost shorn of divisiveness. Themes of economic development and national pride were leavened with encouraging, albeit somewhat generic, Hindu religious themes. This shift, carefully relayed through speeches and social media, had first occurred in Modi’s second term as Chief Minister of Gujarat (2007-2012). Modi rebranded himself as Vikas Purush (“Development Man”). “Modinomics” – the embrace of entrepreneurship, technology, globalization, investment, and trade – promised jobs for India’s “demographic dividend” (see video below).

By 2014, leading economists lionized Modi’s neoliberal credentials. Columbia University’s Arvind Panagariya credited Gujarat’s miraculous economic growth to his leadership. Nobel prize winner Jagdish Bhagwati lauded Modi’s “practical approach to trade and investment”. Time magazine shortlisted Modi for its “Person of the Year” award. A poll by NDTV in September 2013 revealed that 75 percent of India’s top CEOs supported him.

The 2014 election season was marked by an uplifting communication campaign. Catchy mottos such as “Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas” (“Everyone together, development for all”), “Maximum governance and minimum government” and “Enhanced Connectivity” resonated. Social media targeted, and won over, the youth. Elsewhere, a holographicavatar of Mr. Modi, Star Trek merging with Uncle-ji, was blasted into the poorest corners of India (1). For spectators who lacked electricity, running water, or a television, the idea that Modi was “chosen by God” to undertake “difficult tasks” for them was deeply alluring. In May 2014 the BJP became the first non-Congress party to win an absolute majority in the Indian Parliament. A whopping 87% of the Indian population held a favorable view of Narendra Modi. He had assembled a multi-class and multi-generational coalition. His voters stood like an immense field of wind turbines, eager to be spun, to power profits, and to create the India promised to them by the folksy and well-spoken “Development Man”.

Optical Neoliberalism

Once the euphoria of victory subsided, Modi’s government had to deliver. This was easier said than done. India, as they say, is a land of contrasts. The nation’s 250,000 millionaires wanted less government. The 400 million below the international poverty line needed more. The urban economy demanded investment. The agricultural economy, redistribution. Everyone, of course, needed jobs.

Modi’s speeches often referred to poverty alleviation policies (see Table 1). To his credit, he did prioritize initiatives like the Ujjwala and Ayushman Bharat. One supplied LPG stoves to 60 million women. The other provided health insurance to a million people. Flush toilets, 92 million in all, were built through the Swachh Bharat Mission. These initiatives were popular for those poorly served by India’s limited infrastructure.

Such initiatives however, were overshadowed by the neoliberal measures trumpeted in his speechcraft. One of Modi’s first executive actions was to abolish India’s Planning Commission, which had since 1950 produced and overseen Soviet-style five-year development plans. Since state control and over-regulation are the sworn nemeses of all that neoliberalism holds dear, Modi replaced it with a new body, NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India), to support “cooperative federalism”.

To attract capital, Modi prioritized a Make in India campaign. Restrictions on foreign investment were lifted. Laws were changed to improve the business climate. It became easier, for example, to start a business, get construction permits and declare insolvency. Between 2014 and 2017, India was among the star performers in the International Finance Corporation’s Ease of Doing Business index – a metric of “High Neoliberal Accomplishment” if there ever was one (2)!

Optical neoliberalism – quick-win policies designed to look good for investors and the journalists who write for them – generated frequent and excited hashtags. But economic analysis, which does not typically include “Twitter Effusiveness” in its models, tells a different story. Some of the hyped-up policies suffered from botched implementation. This hurt the economy, particularly the poor. The demonetisation policy launched in 2016, which immediately cancelled ₹500 and ₹1,000 banknotes (unless they were deposited in a bank account), led to prolonged cash shortages, job losses, and delivered no economic gains. The complexity of the new Goods and Services Tax (GST) slammed struggling entrepreneurs (3). Likewise, agriculture, which employs 65% of the country and contributes just 15% of GDP, stagnated. The promise to “double the incomes of our hardworking farmers by 2022” was not supported by substantive policies. The Farm Laws of 2020, eventually passed in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, appear to support businesses more than farmers. The latter are now protesting in the streets – and paying for it with their lives.

The record on jobs is no better. For all the glitter of Make in India, foreign investment declined steadily since 2015. According to the State of Working India Report, the excessive focus on economic growth and “ratings” led to the neglect of Indian labor: “each percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) growth has resulted in fewer jobs being created over the past 25 years, barring the 1999-2004 period” (4).

The final verdict lies in topline numbers. Between 2016 and 2019, GDP growth halved from 8.2% to 4.1%. In 2020, the pandemic lockdown and soaring case-loads led GDP to contract by 7.7%, wiping out four years of progress. Optical neoliberalism got Modi re-elected in 2019, but the policies delivered little to India.

Secular silence

While Modi spent the years 2014-2019 speechifying about neoliberal economic policies, he almost never mentioned “secularism.” Such an oversight would not be unusual from a leader in a country such as the United States. There, the level of secular “literacy” is nearly nugatory; Americans usually equate it, erroneously, with atheism (5).

India’s leadership class, by contrast, rarely loses sight of secularism. Its champions have been no less integral to national identity than Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B. R. Ambedkar, Rajendra Prasad, and Indira Gandhi. With the exception of France, there is likely no country on earth that thinks as intelligently and critically about this subject. India’s constitution (amended in 1976) is one of the few that actually uses the term “secular” – though does not define that multivalent term anywhere (ditto for the French constitution’s discussions of “laïcité”) (6).

So why did Modi avoid this subject in his speeches? Here, he could have pressed his advantage. Secularism – not just in his country but around the world – was hurting. Assailed by religious conservatives of all stripes and the academic, post-colonial Left, secularism’s greying champions were and are in retreat (7).

Modi’s silence is rendered even stranger when we consider that the secularism endorsed by his rival, the Indian National Congress (INC), was unpopular and rife with contradictions. Many of its core policies were based on problematic concessions hammered out at the time of independence from the British in 1947. A case in point is the Muslim Personal Law, Shariat, Application Act of 1937 which permitted Muslim subjects to live by their own religious laws. That Act of 1937 is a vestige of British Colonial Secularism, a cynical secularism which the “Raj” imposed on its subjects abroad, but not on its own citizens back home. British secularism was a command-and-control operation: its goal was to pacify “unruly” multi-religious communities while enabling further economic exploitation (8). Despite endless discussions about the drawbacks of the “communalism” that the 1937 Act fosters, it stands to this day; its greatest defenders have been the INC. The Constitution of 1950 did not annul it. Rather, Article 44 stipulates that the “State shall endeavour to provide for its citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.” The uniform civil code was never enacted (which, we stress, also gave Hindus the opportunity to live by their own civil laws for all these years).

Modi’s and the BJP’s commitment to ending the “pseudo-secularism” of “minority appeasement” is well known. This is, of course, a reference to the BJP’s agenda to override the special protections for minority communities. The One Nation, One Country campaign seeks, finally, the uniform civil code.

As such, the Prime Minister’s studied reluctance to discuss secularism could be explained in a variety of ways. In India, every aspect of secularism – its Hindi translation, the majority/minority dynamic, the influence of Ashoka, Akbar and Lord Canning, etc. – has already been strenuously debated. Maybe he sensed secularism fatigue (9)? Modi may have also intuited Hindutva fatigue. In the 1990s the BJP quickly learned that their astringent brand of Hindu nationalism was popular, but not enough to win elections. What galvanizes the masses of India is an economic vision. Religious grievance politics has a role in national campaigns, but not a starring one.

Still, Modi’s silence on secularism is curious. Perhaps the data from his speeches cited above might leads us to this explanation: he wagered that optical neoliberalism (i.e., bright banter about growth, development, job creation) would distract the electorate from the complex arrangements that comprise an Indian secularism already in disarray.

In the meantime, though, Modi and the BJP’s actions point to an intense anti-secular Hindutva agenda. Policies, ranging from the status of Kashmir to citizenship rules, seek to dismantle India’s long-standing secular compromises. After re-election in 2019, the anti-secularism is no longer subtle. But there is no trail of words. Lots of talk about culture and yoga (Table 1), almost nothing about secularism.

In hindsight, the verbiage of neoliberalism combined with the silence on secularism served as a screen behind which Modi pursued the most anti-secular policies in modern Indian history.

Three paths

At this pivotal moment, where is Narendra Modi’s India headed? Economic growth powered by neoliberal policies? A fresh round of Hindu majoritarian provocations? Both? Neither? Modi’s rhetoric and record do not permit simple answers.

One recent event, however, prompts speculation on the future. On August 5, 2020 in the city of Ayodhya, Modi performed a bhoomi puja ritual, a Hindu groundbreaking ceremony, for a new temple. In 1992, on the same patch of land, Hindu nationalists razed a medieval mosque to the ground. The ensuing violence killed thousands. Nationalists justified it as an act of vindication: half a millennia ago, the Mughal emperor Babur is believed to have destroyed a shrine that marked the birthplace of Lord Ram. Upon the rubble, Babur erected a sturdy three-domed mosque.

The image of a saffron-clad Modi settling scores with Babur was deeply unsettling. “A future historian,” sighed Yogendra Yadav, “might record 5 August 2020 as the day secularism died in India”. This eulogy suggests that Modi is now, finally, playing his true hand. It is not a coincidence that the event occurred on the one-year anniversary of the dismantling of Jammu and Kashmir.

So, yes, maybe secularism is dead. Many other Indian democratic norms, such as freedom of dissent, may also be dying alongside. If so, the Ayodyhafication of Indian communal life will be the new normal. The collapsing economy may re-trigger the BJP’s grievance politics; a new era of conflict may lie ahead.

A second possibility points to a more pragmatic Modi and a resilient secularism. Perhaps the Ayodhya excursion was akin to the final thunderous booms of a fireworks display, before all goes silent. True, the Supreme Court had enabled the rebuilding of the Ram temple. But it had also recognized the “criminal” act of the initial demolition and the carnage that followed.

In the Ayodhya case, the secular status quo held, though just barely. Secularism involves long-standing compromises and tradeoffs, which are far easier for demagogues to lampoon than to replace. After stress-testing Indian secularism, Modi may have calculated that he had reached the limit – and went out with a bang.

The last possibility synergizes with one of the previous two. Whether India is headed for religious-nationalist chaos or secular detente, is unknown. What is clear is that the neoliberal experiment is now being amended, with a new economic messaging strategy already afoot. Mr. Modi has inflected optical neoliberalism with rhetoric that emphasizes aatmanirbharta (“self-reliance”) and self-sufficiency. These terms were used 30+ times on Republic Day, 26 January 2021, more than any other non-generic words.

But who is the nation’s collective “self”? Does it include Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, and Christians? Does it include the many professors, journalists, artists, and activists who have been silenced by the current government? Either the Indian “self” is a liberal democracy where debate, difference, and critique are valued, or a theocratic state run by one large denomination.

Modi and the BJP more broadly tout the concept of “Ram Rajya” (“the nation of Ram”). But what is Ram Rajya? Mahatma Gandhi insisted it was not “Hindu Rule.” Rather, it was “the Kingdom of God” and an “ancient ideal of true democracy.” The first step to Ram Rajya is “self-introspection.” which to Gandhi means to “magnify your own faults a thousand-fold and shut your eyes to the faults of your neighbors. That is the only way to real progress”. Let any forthcoming temple to Lord Ram enshrine that wisdom.


Jacques Berlinerblau and Shareen Joshi



  1. Lance, P., “The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India”, Hachette, 2015.
  2. World Bank, “Doing Business 2017: Equal Opportunity for All”. World Bank, 2017.
  3. World Bank, “India development update : India’s growth story”. World Bank, 2018.
  4. Azim Premji University, 2019, State of Working India, Centre for Sustainable Employment, Bangalore: Azim Premji University, 2019.
  5. Berlinerblau, J., “How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom”. Also see Berlinerblau, J., Fainberg, S., Nou A., “Secularism on the Edge: Rethinking Church-State Relations in the United States, France, and Israel”, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
  6. Rao, B., “The Variant Meanings of Secularism of India: Notes Toward Conceptual Clarifications,” Journal of Church and State, 2006.
  7. Berlinerblau, J., “Secularism and its Confusions,” in “Secularism on the Edge”, 2014.
  8. Chandrachud, A., “Republic of Religion: The Rise and Fall of Colonial Secularism in India”, Viking, 2020.
  9. Sen, A., “The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian, History, Culture and Identity”, Penguin, 2005.
Received: 15.02.21, Ready: 05.03.21; Editors: Editor #1, Jessica Brown.

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