French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, author of several books on India and some on Pakistan, is considered a leading authority on Hindu nationalism and caste politics in India. He is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, Princeton Global Scholar and non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On a recent visit to Delhi, he spoke to about the Indian elections. In this first of two parts, he offers an evaluation of Narendra Modi, widely expected to be India's next prime minister.

What do you think of this moment in India's politics?
This election is also a critical moment for democracy because the main contender for power, Narendra Modi, has an idea of India that is at odds with the multicultural idea of India theorised by authors like Sunil Khilnani. It is a majoritarian view. That was also the case when Atal Bihari Vajpayee formed government in 1998, but back then, and even in 1999, there was one NDA [National Democratic Alliance] manifesto that was different from the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] programme. The BJP had many allies to take along. This time they may be more free to push forth the policies they want.

Now that Narendra Modi has become the man who calls the shots, forcing the party to accept a generational change, what do you think the relationship between him and the party will be like? If he becomes prime minister, will it be an easy time between him and the BJP's parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh?
It is a change not just of generation but also of style. The way Narendra Modi has won over the party is not through an internal party election, not through a scheduled process. It happened in the space of a few months. He will still have to consolidate and remain a legitimate head of the party, because it is not as if the BJP had no structure. The BJP has been more democratic than the Congress if we go by its record of internal elections. With Modi, a parallel power structure may come up in some time.

I don't see Narendra Modi relying on the party or RSS cadres. They'll get positions and the spoil system will work somewhat in their favour, but not necessarily for key roles. If he becomes prime minister, Modi will probably rely more upon bureaucrats, technocrats and professionals. He will have BJP ministers, but he may deal directly with the bureaucrats of their ministries, for instance. In that case, there will be a de-linking of the prime minister's office with the party. This is what has happened in Gujarat to some extent.

It may not be to the liking of the Sangh Parivar if all authority is concentrated in one man, and the others do not flourish. They may not flourish not only because the man in question does not let them flourish, but also because people see that they do not have any authority – so they don't go to them. Why should peasants of Gujarat turn to the Bharatiya Kisan Sabha – the farmers' wing of the RSS – after it was sidelined by Modi? In Gujarat, some of the Sangh Parivar units have declined because of this modus operandum. I don't know how much this method can be replicated in Delhi, but I don't see Modi operating through the party – where some of his rivals are still influential.

They may be gradually marginalised. We have already seen how Modi's right-hand man, Amit Shah, has taken over the Uttar Pradesh unit of the party. Rajnath Singh could not even get tickets for some of his candidates. This is what I call de-institutionalisation of the party.

How similar is that to what Indira Gandhi did to the Congress?
It is very similar. Except that by the mid-'70s Indira had started to woo back to the party the Congress (O) leaders who were prepared to return. But for now it's a lot like 1971 when Indira won by relating directly to voters. That is also what Modi is doing when he says vote for me, don't think about the local candidate too much. That is also what the slogan "Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi" was saying. This is populism in the true sense of the word, and it implies de-institutionalisation of the party structure. That is dangerous for both the party and the Sangh Parivar. The organisation used to be above man, now they are depending upon one man.

Why are they depending upon this man, why are the going all out to make him win? The Sangh Parivar knew what Modi did to them in Gujarat. Is it wilful suicide, a thought-out plan or a desperate need for power?
It's trade-off. First, they cannot be out of power for too many years. Second, they don't have an alternative. At least, they did not till [Shivraj Singh] Chauhan won in Madhya Pradesh in December 2013 – it was too late. Fourth, Modi has galvanised the local swayamsewaks [RSS volunteers] and the leaders have to listen to them too. Fifth, the RSS and Narendra Modi are on the same page ideologically. There is no denying that today, majoritarian politics is embodied in Modi. The RSS can expect from him, at the national level, some of the things he has done in Gujarat: a new anti-conversion law, the rewriting of textbooks, a uniform civil code – and nothing in favour of minorities… That is part the Hindutva agenda.

Some of the old timers probably know that the organisation is taking a risk by rallying around Modi, but they probably think that the Parivar is too big to be swallowed by one man. And they may also think that they are using him more than the other way round...

So, both Modi and the RSS think they are using each other. In games like these, there is often only one winner.
Yes, that happens. It could be a win-win, but in Gujarat it wasn't a win-win for many subsidiaries of the Sangh Parivar, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

The prospect of Narendra Modi is evoking more fear in the liberal intelligentsia than perhaps even amongst Muslims. How legitimate do you think this fear is?
It depends on whom you speak to – and who you include in the "liberal intelligentsia" whose frontiers are moving... many people are edging already. But this question of fear has much to do with the political strategy Modi will implement. Except in Uttar Pradesh, where polarisation was the repertoire Amit Shah orchestrated for delivering votes in a key state, Modi has projected a rather soft Hindutva-based discourse this time. Whether this style will continue to prevail will largely depend on how his government will succeed in delivering economic growth. If he can quickly achieve positive results on the economic front and revive growth and create jobs, and can thus remain popular – the economy is definitely his top priority – then the development plank will be sufficient for him. If, however, he is not successful on the economic front, there will be strong criticism not just amongst the liberals but in his own camp. He may then resort to the Hindutva-based polarisation strategy.

What is the relationship between Hindutva/secularism/minority rights and development/economic growth/prosperity?
Plan A for Modi is to succeed on the economic front, and if that does not work then emphasising on Hindutva politics may be an important Plan B. It's more a plank the BJP uses when it wants to conquer difficult seats or fears electoral defeat – like in Gujarat in 2002.

Some said that after 2002, the era of large-scale communal violence is over. But Assam in 2012 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013 seem to be disproving that. The BJP has openly used the violence in Muzaffarnagar for electoral gains.
They are not in power in UP and that was probably the best way to make inroads. Muzaffarnagar is a dangerous test case. If riot-driven communal polarisation brings electoral gains once again, it means that the tactic still works.

They are not in power in UP and Bihar mainly because of caste politics. The Mandir-Mandal relationship seemed to have settled with Mandal's victory over Mandir. How, why and when does religion or caste become more important for voters?
Quota politics is exhausted at 49% reservations. The Supreme Court will allow no more. There is also an erosion of caste politics because there is an increasing role of class. Especially where industrialisation and urbanisation are making progress, such as in western India. People migrate to the city or the city comes to them. They find a job in a factory and become part of a different world. During the last Gujarat state elections in 2012, Kolis, who are OBCs, voted for the Congress in the countryside and the BJP in urban constituencies. These urbanised groups of OBCs are aspiring people who haven't arrived yet, but think that they may experienced some upward social mobility thanks to Modi's development-oriented agenda. They are part of what he calls the "neo middle class". These developments have weakened the caste-based parties, which have also been affected by their need to become catch-all parties. The best example here is the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, which has diluted its core identity.

The idea of erosion of caste and rise of class identity has gained currency, but are we really there yet? Caste also operates in the city.
True, upper castes and dalits still belong to different worlds. But this huge group called the OBCs does not form a homogeneous category any more. We are not in 1991 when Mandal had fostered their sense of unity, at a time when jobs in the public sector were the main avenues for social mobility. We are in 2014, after almost 25 years of capitalist growth behind us.

We see this in fast urbanising western UP and in the Muzaffarnagar riots, where violence in villages was being aided by the circulation of videos over smartphones. What is it about urbanisation and industrialisation that attracts people towards a religio-political identity and makes them more right-wing?
Urbanisation makes syncretism more difficult. In the village you can't escape the other. The Muslim hears the bell of the local temple and the Hindu goes to a Muslim dargah if they attribute some power to it. In the city, except in the old core when it exists, that doesn't happen. Ghettoisation of Muslims is making progress, at least in the North and in the West. There is a parting of the ways. In the city, there is greater exposure to propaganda. You can't escape the Sangh Parivar machine easily. Rumours spread faster too, and communal riots are still a predominantly urban phenomenon. But the communal violence that has affected the rural parts of Muzzafarnagar district shows that the gap between village India and urban India is not as wide as before – partly because of the way new forms of communication (including social media) are reaching the countryside. And for the first time, perhaps, villages are experiencing ghettoisation on a religious basis.

There has been some debate in India on the use of the word fascism in the context of Modi. Do you think it is an inappropriate word in Indian politics, or in modern politics generally?
Fascism is clearly a European historical phenomenon. It is not always easy to transpose a notion that is that dated and localised. There are two aspects of European fascism that the Sangh Parivar did not adopt. First of all the priority to the capture of the state. That was not the priority of the RSS, which wanted primarily to frame together Hindu psyche with Indian society. The state was supposed to naturally fall as a ripe fruit in the long term.

The other thing that the Sangh Parivar did not take from European fascism was the cult of the leader. The Shiv Sena did that but the RSS decided not to invest in one main figure as that is doomed to fail – the organisation had to outlive its leader.

Yet they are doing that now with Modi.
Exactly, and we'll have to see how the organisation will evolve if this new configuration is sustained.

What does the Sangh Parivar really want?
It wants to equate the identity of India with Hinduism.

What does that mean in practical terms?
A fusion between the Hindu culture and the public culture of India. This means that Muslims and Christians can remain Muslims and Christians in the private sphere, in the mosque and the church, but in the public sphere they have to show allegiance to Hindu symbols. That is why in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement they asked Muslims to give up the Babri Masjid and chant "Jai Shri Ram". Ram is to be seen as a rallying figure of all Indians, not just Hindus. It also implies that a temple has to be built in Ayodhya, and no special recognition of religious minorities in social programmes. That is why scholarships for religious minorities as recommended by the Sachar Commission have not been given to Muslims in Gujarat. It also means no quota for Muslim and Christian dalits, the rewriting of history of India, new anti-conversion laws and the promotion of Hindu cults – including new Sampradayas and festivals. On the contrary, iftar parties may not benefit from any official recognition. These are some of the ways in which the Hinduisation of India is to be carried out.

So religious minorities need to worry less for their rights and more for their visibility in the public sphere?
Yes, and no. The polarisation strategy can be routinised in the form of a politics of fear. The fear of the other can rely on fake encounters for instance. More importantly, the magnitude of the BJP's success in the long term may be such that, eventually, items which are not on the NDA agenda but on the BJP agenda – like the abolition of Article 370, the Uniform Civil Code and the building of a Ram temple in Ayodhya – may become the order of the day. At least, components of the Sangh Parivar may put pressure on the government on that front with a simple argument: we are now in a position to implement our program. And the government may implement some items of this program for defusing this pressure or if it is losing ground on the socio-economic front. This is the Plan B I mentioned before, which may be seen as a provocation by the minorities, and which may be deliberately offensive.