Some feel dejected, some excited. In the wake of last week’s election outcome in India, The Beaver finds that the political loyalties of LSE’s Indian students don’t appear to tilt obviously in one direction.
Tulika Lahiri was visiting home when the election results began rolling in. She wasn’t thrilled. It looked like Narendra Modi, the leader of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was headed for a decisive victory and another term as India’s prime minister.
“I did not anticipate a win this big for Modi, considering the shocking ways in which the country has been compromised in the last few years,” said Lahiri, who is pursuing a master’s degree in global media and communications at LSE. “The forthcoming years are going to tough for women, marginalised groups and communities that do not rank high on the BJP’s designated hierarchy.”
Like many Indian students here, she worries that Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalist politics will reshape India into a less tolerant and inclusive place. She’d seen enough of that in his first term. “The advertisement of such ethno-religious sentiments is a direct retraction from the secularity and equality that India emblematises,” she said.
But not everyone feels that way. Other Indian LSE students cheered the election results last week, in which Modi and the BJP walked away with an even larger share of the vote than expected. These students said that Modi had ensured that India remains firmly on the path of development, thanks to initiatives like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and infrastructure investment, even if he had occasionally stumbled. And while none directly endorsed his controversial promotion of Hindu majoritarianism, they said that he simply made a more natural leader than the head of the opposition Indian National Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, who is associated with the dynastic rule of the Gandhi family.
“I believe India today is more than ever united with a stable government and is on course to become one of the global superpowers,” said Akash Mehta, who is pursuing a masters degree in administration and international development at LSE. He was enthusiastic for the future: “The mandate given is humungous.”
Somjeeta Chatterjee, an undergraduate studying politics and economics at LSE, is a British citizen and unable to vote, but she, too, supported the BJP and Modi in particular. “Sanitation has improved, more people have access to credit, India has new technology and infrastructure,” she said, pointing to his first term achievements. “India has emerged as a powerful country, both economically and politically.”
The Beaver spoke to around a dozen Indian students or students with ties to India at LSE and other London universities, finding that the stark divisions in students’ political loyalties mirror the fault lines that run through India’s electorate back home. In some ways, their divergent views also echo recent election outcomes in countries around the world where outsize personalities like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Australia’s Scott Morrison have triumphed in highly polarised races. As in those elections, the strong personal style of a leading candidate became a central feature of the race in India, students here said.
“This was a referendum on Modi’s personality,” said Rohun Gupta, who earned an undergraduate degree from UCL in 2011 and has overseas citizenship in India. “The main thing was Modi and his personality and his dominance. He was the centrepiece.”
Yet at the same time, the students’ opinions as a whole do not obviously tilt in one direction. That makes their ideas about the leading political party in their home country relatively heterogeneous at a time when plenty of other student population on campus — Americans with respect to the Trump presidency or the Republican Party, British students with respect to Brexit or the Conservative Party — have far more one-sided opinions.
But they do have one important characteristic in common with students from many other countries: a deep sense of mistrust with the leading candidates and parties. Students freely attested to Modi’s flaws as a candidate, but they also felt that Rahul Gandhi, who has been widely panned in the media as ineffectual, had grown too closely associated with the Gandhi family.
“People cannot visualise Rahul Gandhi as India’s prime minister,” said Chatterjee, the LSE undergrad. “He lacks the talent and the charisma.”
“It whittles down to choosing the lesser of two evils in the end,” said Riddhi Kanetkar, a student at UCL, though she ultimately found the “alarming” right-wing policies of the BJP a more persuasive reason not to support the BJP.
India is a relatively young country, and its young voters are a powerful constituency. But there are still plenty of unanswered questions about their political loyalties, including whether Modi can rally them around a politics that tilts more socially conservative.
The writer Vivan Marwaha recently traveled around India speaking to millennial voters in cities large and small. In an essay last week in the Washington Post, “The Secret Behind Millennial Support for India’s Modi,” he concluded that Modi was able to deflect the attention of young voters away from his poor performance on some important economic aspects of his first term — unemployment was recently running at a 45-year high — by “running an emotional campaign and presenting himself as the only person capable of cleaning up the proverbial mess that the country finds itself in.”
But Indian students at LSE and other London universities are not typical young Indian voters. By and large, they come from relatively wealthy families. The Beaver asked Marwaha to elaborate on how he viewed the political leanings of this group.
“Wealthier Indians are more supportive of the BJP,” he wrote. “They largely supported Modi in this election because many of them feel a strong sense of antipathy towards the Congress Party and Rahul Gandhi.”
If that’s the case, then the large share of strong BJP detractors here might be atypical, and perhaps more liberal than their political bloc as a whole. If so, then they would have that in common with their fellow students from countries around the world.