India Ahead 2024: Challenges & Opportunities

India is poised to enter 2024 with a mix of political dramas, economic trends, and social issues. How the country handles these factors will shape its destiny. India also has to deal with the evolving global scenario, where new players and forces are emerging, and where India has to claim its position and influence. From political changes to economic forecasts, 2024 offers India both opportunities and challenges
By Arun Bhatnagar
  • Modi envisions India as a top-three economy in his third term. The ruling party’s probable victory hints at a challenging contest
  • Congress is deeply flawed; their ‘hangers-on’ enjoy undue influence and privilege, lacking grassroots support and electoral-winning capabilities
  • Concerns arise that the 2026 delimitation may disempower South India by cutting its parliamentary representation
  • China and Pakistan, in an anti-India stance, may pose a threat in the Maldives, showcasing a united front against India

“I do not want India to be an economic superpower.
I want India to be a happy country.”

JRD Tata (Bharat Ratna 1904-1993)

THE year 2023 witnessed clear-cut verdicts in the polls held to five State Assemblies of the Indian Union, including three in the Hindi heartland. The stage is set for the Lok Sabha elections whose schedule might be announced soon after an all-important ceremony (the pran-pratishtha or idol consecration) takes place at the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Temple at Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh) in January 2024.
Invited by the VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) and RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) to attend, the presence at this event of L K Advani and M M Joshi, pioneers of the Ram Temple Movement, appears doubtful, at best.

As matters stand, the Prime Minister is sanguine that the Indian economy will be among the top three globally in his third term in office. Springing surprises with the recent chief minister choices reflect the determination of the BJP’s top brass to select leaders who would be unfailingly loyal to it.
By most accounts, the ruling dispensation is well on the way to its third consecutive electoral triumph at the Centre. But the narrow gap in vote shares would appear to suggest that it may still have a fight on its hands.

Howsoever unlikely, a problem could conceivably arise if the BJP fails to secure a clear majority on its own and the numbers stand reduced to ‘single largest party’. In that event, internal dissensions should not be ruled out.

The rot runs deep in Congress; their ‘hangers-on’ have long been in the enjoyment of influence and privilege, without any grassroots support and the capacity to win elections. The Rajya Sabha seats have kept them going and the First Family have not been able to fathom the implications.
The BJP has emerged as the true heir to Congress’ legacy of absolute power of the Nehru-Gandhi years. In some States, the Chief Ministers have been former Congresspersons. Had they not left, the Grand Old Party (GOP) would have had a substantial ‘talent pool’ at its disposal.

OPPOSITION’S DILEMMAS

Will an Opposition grouping, like the INDIA Bloc, be able to put across a credible blueprint of its electoral and development plans? Time is not on their side but as a former British Prime Minister (of the Labour Party), Harold Wilson (1916-1995), is quoted as having said: ‘A Week is a Long Time in Politics’.
The INDIA Bloc may still have a couple of months or so to tackle the critical issues. There is, first and foremost, the vital question of ‘seat-sharing’ for which there is now no ‘cushion’ available, so to speak, to indulge in contentious discussions and wrangling. One option could be to leave the decision-making in this behalf, by and large, to the head of the ‘dominant party’ in a State. By this token, Akhilesh Yadav would be the final arbiter in Uttar Pradesh, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, the Congress in Telangana (and wherever else it is in direct contest with the BJP), the DMK in Tamil Nadu, Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav in Bihar, the AAP in Delhi and Punjab, and so on.

BJP has emerged as the true heir to Congress’ legacy of absolute power of the Nehru-Gandhi years. In some States, the Chief Ministers have been former Congresspersons. Had they not left, the Grand Old Party (GOP) would have had a substantial ‘talent pool’ at its disposal

The selection of nominees to take on the BJP in key constituencies such as Rae Bareli, Amethi and Varanasi, should be of particular interest.

Mamata Banerjee is believed to be open to considering coalition arrangements with the Congress, perhaps also with the Left and is said to have suggested Mallikarjun Kharge (born 1942), Congress President, as the INDIA Bloc’s prime ministerial candidate in 2024. She is reported to have said: ‘He can be India’s first Dalit Prime Minister.’ This came amid the unprecedented drama of 146 Opposition MPs being suspended from Parliament.

CONSTITUTIONAL CONUNDRUM

Apprehensions are being expressed that, in 2026, the exercise of ‘delimitation’ may disempower South India by reducing the number of its MPs in Parliament. Federalism is under threat too, the latest blow being the Judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court that upholds the striking down of Article 370 which gave semi-autonomous status to Jammu & Kashmir.

Fali Nariman (born January 1929), arguably India’s most distinguished constitutional jurist, alongside Nani Palkhivala (1920-2002) and Homi Seervai (1906-1996) notes: “The conclusion of the Court that the recommendation of the Constituent Assembly is not binding on the President was based on the Courts ‘erroneous’ interpretation of Article 370(3) as being in two separate parts… What the main Judgment has said is not only directly contrary to Article 370(3) but also flies in the teeth of a prior decision of a Constitution Bench of Five Judges… My conclusion… is that the present decision of the Supreme Court, even ‘if politically acceptable’, is not constitutionally correct… the SC verdict lets the Centre get away with violating… federal principles.”

The INDIA Bloc may still have a couple of months or so to tackle the critical issues, such as seat-sharing. Akhilesh Yadav will be the final arbiter in Uttar Pradesh, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, the Congress in Telangana, the DMK in Tamil Nadu

There are many who assert that the country desperately needs to preserve its ‘moral compass’ and how the top judiciary has opened the way for the present (or a future) government to amend the Constitution without having to bother with getting a two-thirds majority in the two Houses of Parliament.
The way appears simple enough: take advantage of, or create, a law and order situation in a State, declare President’s Rule under Article 356 of the Constitution, claim that the President (or Governor) now has all the powers of the State Legislature, and enact whatever change the State Government did not want to make.

IN HISTORY: NORTH-SOUTH CONFLICT

North-South confrontations have occurred in the past. As early as in the seventh century, Pulakeshin II or Pulakesin (610-642 CE), a great Chalukyan monarch who ruled from Vatapi (now Badami, in Karnataka), expanded his Empire to cover most of the Deccan region in Peninsular India.

His most notable military achievement was when he repulsed an invasion of the powerful northern ruler, Harshavardhana (590-647 CE), attested by the Chinese traveller, Xuanzang, who recorded: ‘Shiladitya Raja (that is, Harsha) filled with confidence, was at the head of his troops to contend with Pulakeshin but he was unable to prevail upon him’.

The cause for the conflict between Harshavardhana (whose capital was at Kannauj in present-day UP) and Pulakeshin II is unclear. Pulakeshin may have granted asylum to Harshavardhana’s rivals. Another possibility is that Harshavardhana sought to take advantage of the turmoil arising from the struggle between Pulakeshin and his late father’s younger brother, Mangalesha.

Later, a Treaty was concluded that made the Narmada River the border between the Chalukya Empire and the dominions of Harshavardhana.

ECONOMIC PROJECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS

A widely respected economist, Raghuram Govind Rajan (born in Bhopal in 1963), who was Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) between 2013-2016 (when the late Arun Jaitley happened to be the Union Finance Minister) lately said that the country would reach the end of the demographic dividend by 2047 (Amrit Kaal) and still be classified as a lower middle-income economy, if the growth rate remains at 6 percent annually, without population growth; should India not grow fast economically, it will grow older demographically before it gets richer. He added that some Southern States are growing, with regard to population, at below reproduction rate – in other words, the fertility rate has fallen below the reproduction rate, thus slowing growth.

In December, 2023, the RBI, while maintaining the status quo in key policy rates, raised the GDP growth forecast for the financial year, 2023-24, to 7 percent. Responding to the criticism he has faced for an inaccurate prediction (after the country recorded better-than-expected GDP growth), Raghuram Rajan – who had apparently told Rahul Gandhi that India would be lucky to achieve 5 percent – opined that GDP grew at 7.6 percent in Q2 because of strong global growth and high government expenditure on infrastructure.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has criticised the RBI’s intervention in the foreign exchange market – a charge that was, expectedly, dismissed by the Central Bank.

The growth of merchandise exports slipped into the negative zone in November 2023 with challenges in the key markets showing no signs of easing – in the first eight months of the financial year, merchandise export growth was in ‘positive territory’ only in August and October 2023.

FROM GLORY TO IGNOMINY

At a time when the inauguration of the new Parliament building in New Delhi in May 2023 was being projected as an event of the utmost importance, India’s ace wrestlers – including women – were being dragged by the Police who were unaware that the Prime Minister himself had often spared the time to receive sportspersons when they won Medals.

More and more young girls of exceptional talent are entering the arena of athletics. They usually have their origins in modest family backgrounds. The prevailing sorry plight of women wrestlers, created by completely ignoring their allegations, makes for low motivation towards their future participation in competitive sports.

Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan warned that India would miss the demographic dividend by 2047 and remain a lower middle-income economy unless it grows faster than 6 percent per year. Otherwise, India will age before it gets rich

A worrying trend noticed in recent times pertains to vicious polarisation. Virtually anything that remotely brings blame to the door of the authorities is treated with suspicion and disdain. The supporters of those in authority spew venom.

CHALLENGES OF GOVERNANCE

The challenges facing a new government (post the 2024 elections) will require firm and imaginative handling that can only be ensured through appreciably better standards of governance, much higher civil services integrity and efficiency, political stability and enhanced commitment to performance and results, especially in regard to unemployment, spiralling prices, poverty alleviation and a perceptible reduction in the glaring socio-economic inequalities, not to mention a return to normalcy in Manipur.
Thanks to sycophants and yes-men in the administration, almost every announcement or initiative of the Government is followed by praise and adulation of such magnitude that the real issues are overlooked.
The reality hits a year or two later.

FOREIGN INVESTMENTS & TERRITORIAL TENSIONS

The drive to attract foreign investment can be said to have met with public enthusiasm but private reluctance. Some overseas funds have taken minority stakes in Banks and existing assets with strong franchises; millions of dollars have poured in for the powerful corporate giants that have the unique talent of being able to manipulate the senior bureaucracy in any regime and navigate regulators and courts.

After years of trying to make it on their own, several foreign firms have realised that a better way of getting ahead in India is to team up with a well-connected local conglomerate.

CHINA-PAKISTAN AXIS : A PERSISTENT THREAT

Things are also difficult in the field of external relations. China and Pakistan are united in demonstrating an animosity that aims at thwarting India at every step. Their axis could work against India in the Maldives.

New Delhi can ill-afford to repeat earlier mistakes and lose land; there should be no holding back in asserting claims when it is a question of safeguarding territory. There can also be no denial of truth with respect to the ground realities.

It was officially stated by India that the bridge built by the Chinese on the Pangong Lake is located in an area that has been in their ‘illegal occupation’ since 1962. Under the (so-called) ‘China-Pakistan Agreement of 1963’, Pakistan ceded to China about 5180 sq km (in the Shaksgam Valley) from the areas illegally occupied by it in Ladakh.

China is saying that Bangladesh has every right to conduct the polls as per its Constitution – which echoes New Delhi’s stand – but this has upset the BNP-JeI as it trivialises their demand to hold elections under a ‘caretaker government’

If the Chinese have not actually encroached on India’s territory in Ladakh, then why are the latter’s troops not in a position to access previously established ‘patrolling points’ and what exactly are the remaining ‘friction points’? In Arunachal Pradesh, are all the newly-built Chinese enclaves and the towns re-named by them located in Indian territory?

A TEST OF DIPLOMACY

The much-touted ‘Neighbourhood First’ strategy is a shambles and calls for the PM’s continuing attention to arrest decline.

The countdown to Bangladesh’s general elections on 7 January 2024 has begun, with India and the United States backing rival political parties. While New Delhi has thrown its weight behind Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League which is eyeing a fourth successive term, Washington DC is sympathetic to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – Jamaat-e-Islami(BNP-JeI) combine.

Interestingly, China and Russia have thrown their hats in the ring, as also the European Union. Since New Delhi has a bigger role in Bangladesh than Washington DC, Beijing, Moscow and Brussels, getting Sheikh Hasina re-elected is an important priority for India’s diplomatic-cum-security establishment. She has given India no reason to doubt her commitment.

The growth of merchandise exports slipped into the negative zone in November 2023 with challenges in the key markets showing no signs of easing – in the first eight months of the financial year, merchandise export growth was in ‘positive territory’ only in August and October 2023

China is saying that Bangladesh has every right to conduct the polls as per its Constitution – which echoes New Delhi’s stand – but this has upset the BNP-JeI as it trivialises their demand to hold elections under a ‘caretaker government’. Relentless the US pressure on Dhaka poses the danger of driving Sheikh Hasina towards Beijing which is good neither for New Delhi nor Washington DC.

INDIA-US RELATIONS

The Governments of India and the United States have exhibited maturity in addressing what is made out to be a fairly serious strain in the bilateral relations. In a hard-hitting interview to the Financial Times, London (that has been vocal on the subject), Prime Minister Modi played down any impact the Pannun issue might have on Indo-US ties, pointing out that ‘there is strong bipartisan support for the strengthening of this relationship’ and that he wouldn’t ‘link a few incidents with diplomatic relations between the two countries’.

He observed: ‘We envision a system where anyone around the world feels at home in India, where processes and standards are familiar and welcoming. This is the kind of inclusive, global standard system we aspire to build’.

At an earlier point in time, the American press gave wide currency to a ‘candid’ comment by former President, Barack Obama (born 1961) when he said: ‘…Despite its genuine economic progress …India remained a chaotic and impoverished place, largely divided by religion and caste, captive to the whims of corrupt local officials and power brokers, hamstrung by a parochial bureaucracy that was resisting change …’.

In a letter to the Prime Minister in January, 2022, a group of faculty members and students of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) at Ahmedabad and Bengaluru flagged issues in respect of ‘hate speech’ and ‘attacks on minorities’, saying that the government’s silence was emboldening those who subscribe to rising intolerance in the country. The letter urged the PM to steer India away from the forces of division and disunity. So far, India is not a scene of communal bigotry. But there is evidence of certain States dropping pretences of State neutrality vis-à-vis religion.

A carefully nurtured democratic exceptionalism can be jeopardised and the impact could also be external if the signs of creeping authoritarianism are not nipped in the bud. A democracy which begins to mainly speak with one voice, which privileges obedience over freedom and in which the inherent checks on executive power are weakened, is a contradiction in terms. Elections alone do not define the core of democratic functioning.

India’s democratic and liberal record has been a source of strength and inspiration, opening many doors to her political leadership and diplomats, especially in the West. No government should risk losing this capital.

Arun Bhatnagar

Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and retired as Secretary, GOI. He attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi in the early sixties. After retiring as Secretary (Personnel & Training) in the Union Government in 2004, he worked with the National Advisory Council (NAC) and, later, as Chairman, Prasar Bharati, New Delhi. He has had postings in the President of India’s Secretariat and in the Indian High Commission,
London. Bhatnagar’s earlier Book, ‘India: Shedding the Past, Embracing the Future, 1906-2017’, was well received as a historical narrative.

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