The Modi puzzle

07 Sep 2017


THREE years into his tenure as prime minister, Narendra Modi is riding high. With the next election due in 2019 even Modi’s opponents expect him to win a second term quite possibly with an increased majority. Narendra Modi’s ability to turn enemies into political friends means the BJP and its allies now control 18 of India’s 29 states.

In the latest example, Nitish Kumar, leader of the regional party Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, has joined forces with the BJP. “Nobody can compete with Narendra Modi,” he said when he made the announcement. In 2013, Mr Kumar had ended a previous alliance with the BJP citing deep apprehensions about Modi’s likely agenda.

The opposition Congress party is on the back foot. The party has not only been tarnished by corruption scandals dating back to its time in office but also finds its traditional secularism and defence of diversity challenged by the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. The upper house of parliament in Delhi is the only part of the political system holding out against the still-rolling Modi wave. The prime minister’s supporters are hoping if Modi does secure a second term he will then be able to win an absolute majority in the upper as well as the lower house.

There is debate as to what lies behind Modi’s ‘India first’ slogan.

The idea, prevalent a few years ago, that India might see a surge in regional parties championing local issues has given way to the BJP’s national message. Expressions of Indian patriotism have become so commonplace that it is now considered unremarkable that air stewards end announcements to passengers with the slogan “Jai Hind!” Billboards carry advertisements that associate their products with a resurgent India and retail chains openly celebrate Indianness. But nationalism — and more specifically Hindu nationalism — is only one part of Modi’s pitch to the electorate.

At the last general election Modi campaigned on his economic record in Gujarat. While some say he exaggerated his success there, his message was nevertheless clear: a focus on economic policy had enabled him to create jobs by attracting foreign investment. Given his political dominance there is little excuse for Modi not coming good on all his promises. But the extent to which Modi has managed to turn the national economy around is contested. In 2016-17 India’s economic growth was down to 7.1 per cent from 8pc the previous year. Whilst many countries would be delighted with such rates, India has an especially acute need for economic growth. It is estimated that over the next decade, 25pc of the world’s new entrants on the jobs market will be Indian. The country has to run fast just to stand still.

When Narendra Modi was making his ascent from tea boy to prime minister he was seen as an outlier in India politics. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of which he was a member had three times been banned in India because of its extremism. His suspected involvement in the Gujarat riots in which hundreds, possibly thousands, of Muslims died led the US to impose a travel ban on him and the UK to cut all links. To this day, Modi has never categorically condemned what happened in Gujarat.

But the centre of gravity of Indian politics has shifted sharply to the right. His days as an international pariah are behind him and Modi is now seen as a mainstream politician. Some analysts even argue that the growth of far right groups advocating, for example, violence to defend cows, might even mean that in the future Modi will come to be seen as a moderate.

One of the key issues now is the degree to which the prime minister focuses on the economy. There is debate in Delhi as to what lies behind Modi’s ‘India first’ slogan. Is his top priority to continue building political support by championing Hindu cultural issues or is his main goal to propel India to become a leading global economy? Is he, in other words, driven by nationalism or reform? Recent regulations imposed on India’s multibillion-dollar beef export sector suggest he is still more interested in India’s culture wars and identity politics than its economy.

Some believe Mr Modi will move on from Hindu nationalism and shift instead to a class politics, portraying himself as champion of the poor. Others argue that once he has secured a second term he will pay lip service to his Hindu nationalist constituency and use the political capital he has acquired to push through his economic agenda. But there is one point on which the pundits seem agreed: for the moment Modi is strong. In its rhetoric the BJP still represents itself as an insurgent party fighting an entrenched elite. But in reality the BJP is now the face of the Indian establishment.

The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2017