Commentary / World

With a fractured opposition, Indian leader gets second chance

by Ramesh Thakur

In the most polarizing, toxic election in India’s history, the voter turnout of 67.1 percent (604 million) was the highest ever. Fierce social media wars contributed to the nastiness. It is hard to say whether political discourse was coarsened more by Prime Minister Narendra Modi or his opponents.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has scored a second sweeping landslide, winning 303 seats, up from 282; the tally for the ruling National Democratic Alliance coalition increased from 336 to 350. The BJP held its own with slightly reduced majorities in the heartland states of central and western India, failed to make significant inroads in the south and succeeded in gaining new footholds in the non-Hindi speaking east. The Indian National Congress party betrayed a shocking lack of vision, strategy and ground-level strength, refusing to refresh its leadership, organization and policy agenda. Its increased strength from 44 seats to 52 was inconsequential.

Modi may have escaped punishment because the opposition parties had not earned victory. In the big picture, Modi’s record looks modest. India is the world’s fastest growing major economy, the third biggest in purchasing power parity and seventh in nominal dollars. Yet, with a per capita GDP rank of 116th in PPP and 133th in nominal dollars, it has the world’s biggest pool of poor, sick, hungry, stunted, illiterate and sexually assaulted people.

Modi’s national-level economic policies left a lot to be desired. Demonetization was a disaster that stalled economic growth and imposed genuine hardships on many, for zero lasting gain. He failed to leverage his parliamentary majority to implement deep reforms, for example privatizing nonperforming state-owned banks that hold 70 percent of India’s financial assets, or redirecting India into an export-oriented economy. Its share of the global $16 trillion trade is just 1.7 percent. A pragmatic incrementalist rather than a transformative reformer, Modi continued to operate within the national consensus of substantial public ownership and state control.

He launched too many initiatives and, based on his Gujarat experience, centralized decision-making in his office. But India is not one state — it’s a heavily regionalized federal country. State leaders have to be cajoled and persuaded into aligning their policies with national goals and priorities. Between campaigning continually for state elections and traveling like a global salesman, Modi was insufficiently attentive to executive decision-making and program implementation.

Yet signature initiatives on daily issues like toilets, gas connections, housing loans, rural electrification and electronic transfers of subsidies directly to farmers, reached deep into rural India. The benefits of these micro-schemes were seen and felt by ordinary folks to whom GDP is an abstract concept. The goods and service tax was badly designed and implemented but is a sensible reform that has replaced the patchwork of state taxes and should in time turn India into a single market. The bankruptcy code will facilitate productive use of assets. Foreign investment rules have been liberalized.

Perceptions of widespread corruption on a massive scale contributed heavily to the defeat of the Manmohan Singh government in 2014. This year Modi campaigned on the metaphor of being the country’s night watchman. He was vulnerable on the charge of unfulfilled promises on creating jobs, repatriating ill-gotten wealth stashed abroad, jailing the corrupt and speeding up growth and development. In a telling sign, he refused to campaign on the BJP election manifesto, instead alternating between attacking the opposition and showcasing his cultural and national security nationalism in saffron-and-khaki garb, turning India into the Republic of Jingostan.

India’s urban elites are as much a part of the scolds, sneers and snobs as Western counterparts and as disconnected from the voting heartland. Their three pressing concerns were the assault on democratic institutions, the transformation of India into a majoritarian Hindu-first society, and the rise of Modi as an authoritarian strongman. For the heartland masses, however, the three urgent concerns were caste and religious identity; job and income security; and teaching Pakistan a lesson. Voters trust their strongman over the liberal elite’s gentleman for tackling these problems.

Pre-poll alliances are crucial in consolidating instead of splintering the votes of the different cohorts. In 2014 the BJP’s vote share increased by 12.5 percent to increase seats by a whopping 143 percent; the Congress vote fell by 9 percent to cull seats by 79 percent. They refused to learn. Unable to forge an alliance in many key states and united only by the negative agenda of bringing down Modi, they had no answer to Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s challenge: “Modi versus who?” The miscalculation will haunt the opposition parties for the next five years.

Modi won because people concluded that for all his mistakes, he is more deserving of one more chance than the Gandhi-Nehru family, which constrained India’s growth for 60 years. In the second term, will we see the business-friendly Modi who implements bold structural reforms to create the necessary million new jobs every month, for example by making it easier to fire and hire workers and privatizing big loss-making enterprises like Air India? Or will we see the divisive cultural nationalist who refuses to check the vicious and ugly lynch mobs who threaten to turn India into a Hindu Pakistan?

On social policy, Modi must reverse the sectarian polarization, rein in the hate-spewing Hindutva mobs and practice as well as preach inclusion. An excellent role model for him to emulate is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose brilliant performance in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch mosque massacres in March drew global praise. In direct contrast, Modi’s silence on the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in 2015 that “was abhorrent to the spirit of Hinduism,” marked “a chilling turning point” in India’s politics and broke Modi’s global momentum.

On foreign policy, Modi must manage a world that is simultaneously in disarray and in a state of great power flux. He has veered between courting China and being in denial on the breadth and depth of its active opposition to core Indian interests, for example U.N. Security Council and Nuclear Suppliers Group membership. He should cooperate where interests coincide but be firm in forging working arrangements with potential partners like the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the United States). With the U.S., Modi must act on the reality that it is the most important partner for India’s economic and security interests, yet also work with Europeans, Russia, China and Japan to protect India’s interests against U.S. abuse of its dominant position in global finance. Before long Modi might have to make the tough call between China (Huawei) and the U.S. on its 5G network, just like Australia, Canada, Japan and the European democracies.

Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. A version of this article was published in Pearls and Irritations.

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