Is Modi Really Unstoppable?

As India approaches the Lok Sabha elections, BJP’s electoral juggernaut seems unstoppable, deeply rooted in Hindutva, pose significant challenges for the nation’s democratic structure. Concurrently, the opposition faces its own battle with internal discord and strategic dilemmas
By Arun Bhatnagar
  • Modi’s reputation is bolstered by media, which provides positive coverage and associates his name
    with popular government schemes
  • Hindutva is core to BJP’s agenda, seen in fulfilling Hindu-nationalist demands like revoking Jammu & Kashmir’s special status
  • BJP excels in turning vote plurality into parliamentary majorities, aided by India’s First-Past-the-Post electoral system
  • Electoral boundary revision, expanding Lok Sabha to 750 seats, could favor BJP, especially in its northern strongholds

THE BJP are seeking to create a national identity based on Hindutva, or Hindu-ness, that, it says, was suppressed for centuries by Muslim and British domination.
The events in Ayodhya in January, 2024 were a rallying cry to the BJP’s political base. The guest list for the consecration included celebrities from various walks of life, as also affiliated Hindu nationalist groups, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which launched the temple-building movement.

Opposition Parties have been reluctant to denounce Hindutva policies for fear of irking Hindu voters. Indeed, some Congress leaders have embraced ‘soft Hindutva’—visiting temples and building statues of deities, that has annoyed non-Hindu supporters without luring votes from the BJP.

HINDUTVA’S ROLE IN BJP’S RISE

But Hindutva presents problems for the BJP as well. Its appeal is much more limited in South India, where Islam arrived not by conquest but with proselytising merchants. Hindu reformist movements have more influence in that part of the country and fewer people speak Hindi, in which the BJP’s leading lights mostly deliver their speeches. The BJP no longer runs any of the southern States, having lost an election in May, 2023 in Karnataka to the Congress. Of the 130 seats representing South India in the Lok Sabha, the BJP holds no more than 29.

That helps explain why the BJP is yet to become an overwhelming force. Its share of the national vote in Narendra Modi’s first election victory, in 2014, was 31%. At the next national election, in 2019, it improved to 38%, still well short of a majority.

FILE – In this March 7, 2021, file photo, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters wear masks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they gather for a rally addressed by Modi ahead of West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, India. India’s death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed 200,000 as a virus surge sweeps the country, rooted in so-called super-spreader events that were allowed to happen in the months following the autumn when the country had seemingly brought the pandemic under control. (AP Photo/Bikas Das, File)

PM Modi is a principal source of strength of the BJP. The image he has cultivated appeals across India. His nationalistic rhetoric resonates with the aspirational middle class. His reputation as an industrious administrator appeals to the rich. His humble origins strike a chord with the poor

PM Modi has earned his reputation through the media that ensures positive coverage and enhances the Prime Minister’s image by attaching his name and face to popular government schemes.
A blend of economic development and Hindu revivalism is an appealing formula, particularly in Northern and Central India, and could win the BJP another majority in the 543-seat Lok Sabha that would make Narendra Modi the country’s only Head of Government so far to win three consecutive terms since the first, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964).

Hindutva is central to the BJP’s agenda and the Party has fulfilled several long-standing Hindu-nationalist demands, such as ending the special constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir.
Indian politics has become more competitive over the years, as Congress’ star has waned and other Parties, especially the BJP, have grown bigger. The BJP is remarkably good at translating its plurality of the vote into thumping parliamentary majorities, aided by India’s First-Past-the-Post electoral system.
Were the Opposition less divided and disorganised, the BJP would have much more of a fight on its hands. An obvious problem is Congress’ ossified structure. The Party’s most prominent personality is Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all Prime Ministers. He has lately become more confident, but has also appeared ambivalent about politics—not surprisingly, given that both his father and his grandmother were assassinated.

Why India is Important to America

One tends to believe that democracies can be natural allies. However, the reality is that two nations become allies not because they are democracies but because they share common interests. The India-US relationship is a classic example

PRIME MINISTEr Narendra Modi is a principal source of strength of the BJP. The image he has cultivated appeals across India. His nationalistic rhetoric resonates with the aspirational middle class. His reputation as an industrious administrator appeals to the rich. His humble origins strike a chord with the poor. He is applauded for strengthening India’s international status, notwithstanding the fraught relations with China and Pakistan. 

It may not be surprising to see the USA touting India as ‘indispensable’ for its Beijing Plan, calling the bilateral relationship among the ‘most consequential’, the ‘most important for the US in the 21st century’ and the next day adopting a conciliatory approach vis-à-vis China. 

The US Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, has been to Beijing. An ardent supporter of closer economic ties between the US and China, Yellen said that any American attempt at ‘decoupling’ from China would be a ‘disastrous’ mistake.

One tends to believe that democracies can be natural allies. However, the reality is that two nations become allies not because they are democracies but because they share common interests. The India-US relationship is a classic example: for too long, they remained estranged democracies, precisely because their interests were divergent.

India and the US have some commonalities, especially on the issue of security and terrorism, but they have several areas of divergences too. Therefore, while the US and India can be friends, they have enough differences that stop them from being allies. The ongoing Ukraine war is a case in point where the US-led West and India find themselves on opposite sides.

Indo-American ties are often on a rollercoaster ride, partly because of history, as well as the innate Indian tendency to be a deliberative, argumentative nation. Historically, India, soon after Independence, missed the American bus despite a largely favourable outlook of the top US leadership towards New Delhi. If former Foreign Secretary, M.K. Rasgotra’s memoir, A Life in Diplomacy, is to be believed, John F Kennedy’s administration even offered to help India conduct a nuclear test in 1963, as it felt that ‘democratic India, not communist China, should be the first Asian country to conduct a nuclear test’. Nehru did not accept Kennedy’s ‘extraordinary gesture’.

From Franklin D Roosevelt to John F Kennedy and even Lyndon B Johnson, the US had Presidents who saw New Delhi in a positive light. But Nehru’s India was an ideological State with a Leftist bent of mind that would compulsively rebuke the ‘money-minded’, ‘capitalist’ Americans, even when it desperately needed funds and cereals to bail out a faltering economy and fill hungry stomachs. Nehru, much like ‘a British university man’, seems to have looked ‘down snobbishly at American deficiency in culture’.

Partly, it was also the result of the US impatience in the face of argumentative Indians who could endlessly debate each and every proposition, much to the annoyance of Americans. 

India remained a suspect in the American eyes even after PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee pursued largely pro-US policies. The ten years of Manmohan Singh further boosted the ties, but the innate anti-India-ism remained strong in the American establishment. This probably continues, even after the Modi dispensation has categorically said that New Delhi has stakes in the Western world order and democracy.

Today, as India has gone past Britain to become the fifth-largest economy in the world and is expected to jump to the third spot, there’s another aspect that sets in some reservations about India in the American establishment: while the US-led West sees India as a democratic bulwark against hegemonistic China, it is now equally wary of New Delhi growing too big, too fast. During the early phase of the Ukraine conflict, the West came out hard on India for refusing to abandon Russia and projected it as India’s great betrayal of democracy. Interestingly, most Western countries were running for cover when China was found grabbing Indian territories in the Himalayas in early 2020; the military standoff between India and China continues till date. Instead of coming in support of India, they advised the Modi dispensation to engage with China through diplomacy and trade! India found itself lonely and isolated among the comity of ‘democratic nations’. 

The true feelings of the West towards India cannot be gauged through the formal (and formalized statements) of the US government. Instead, one should heed how the mainstream media, academia, and bureaucracy of that country are reporting, writing, and reacting, respectively. After all, for all its institutional autonomy, the press and the academia in the West, especially in the US, align themselves with the larger interests of the State. One just needs to look at the Ukraine war reportage in the West to see how the State and the media work in tandem.

So, when there is consistent bad press for India in the US media, when antagonistic research works are regularly being produced in their universities and when institutions such as the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) unfailingly club democratic India with communist China, Islamist Pakistan and autocratic North Korea, then one knows all is not so well in the relationship, despite the friendly noises! 

However, before falling into obvious anti-Americanism, one needs to understand that foreign affairs are largely and decisively shaped by a country’s national interests. The West, particularly the US, while acknowledging India’s democratic credentials, is well aware of the fact that, if allowed to grow unfettered, New Delhi might soon propel itself out of the West’s orbit of influence. 

India and the United States have come a long way in trying to leave behind an era of distrust that clouded their relationship in the past. PM Modi’s US visit in June 2023 – his sixth to that country as Prime Minister but the first official State visit – marked new dynamism in the ties. At the time of his visit, Modi was the third leader to be accorded this State honour by the Biden administration – the other two being French President Emmanuel Macron and South Koren President Yoon Suk Yeol. Unlike India, both are treaty allies of the US.

India’s deteriorating ties with the Maldives after November, 2023, profiles the country’s difficulties in dealing with the neighbourhood.  Also, peace in the Northeast, particularly Manipur and Assam, can no longer be taken for granted.

We are now the fourth largest military spender across the globe – the countries that rank ahead are the US, China and Russia. Each year, New Delhi has been increasing its defence budget in the wake of threats from China and Pakistan. 

India and the United States have come a long way in trying to leave behind an era of distrust that clouded their relationship in the past. PM Modi’s US visit in June 2023 – his sixth to that country as Prime Minister but the first official State visit – marked new dynamism in the ties

CHALLENGES FOR CONGRESS

Congress has hemmed and hawed about replacing him and, to the extent that it has done so, has not plumped for a particularly inspiring figure. In 2022, it chose a party veteran as its first leader from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family since 1998, who also heads the Opposition’s Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). However, even at 81, he seems acceptable to popular politicians like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and M K Stalin in Tamil Nadu.
Rahul and his sister, Priyanka, are very much on the scene.
Whereas the BJP is ruthless about sidelining veterans and picking candidates based on their electoral prospects, Congress remains influenced by ageing stalwarts who resist new blood and new tactics. This, in turn, causes bring young members to depart for the BJP, where their prospects for advancement are much better.

When Congress does appoint younger, more charismatic leaders and uses modern election techniques, it can do well. It won State Elections in December, 2023 in Telangana, helped by a fresh face as party leader. But it lost other State polls held at the same time.

The Grand Old Party (GOP) has initiated a recruitment drive to expand its membership and launched an app for members, much like the BJP. It stays a contender in the Hindi-speaking heartland. Its average vote share in the three State Elections there in December, 2023 was 41%, not so far from the BJP’s 46%. In fact, it had led two of the three outgoing State Governments, so could hardly be described as a spent force.

OPPOSITION VERSUS BJP

In December, 2023, an astonishing 146 Opposition MPs were suspended from Parliament; their leaders bill the upcoming Lok Sabha elections as a fight for the ‘soul of India’, a turning point in a struggle between freedom and autocracy. They fear the Prime Minister wants to change the Constitution to empower the executive.
A revision of electoral boundaries, due in a couple of years, could facilitate that by expanding the Lok Sabha to around 750 seats, with most new ones going to the BJP’s strongholds in the North.
A Resolution of the Tamil Nadu Assembly against Delimitation may have no teeth but it is still a strong signal. The Southern States want the current ratios of Lok Sabha (LS) seats across States to be maintained, even when LS seat count becomes bigger.

The non-BJP parties are fighting back, in part by promoting themselves better. The digital id and payments system for which the BJP takes credit was, in fact, initiated under Congress and PM Modi oversaw the final stages of its roll-out. Opposition parties are trumpeting Welfare Schemes run by the State Governments they still control.

The Opposition also decries the government’s ‘failures’, like the sudden withdrawal of most banknotes in 2016, the ditching of agricultural reforms after protests in 2021 and a botched response to the pandemic. Several of the BJP’s promises – to double farmers’ incomes, for example, and to boost manufacturing as a share of GDP – remain unmet.

The country’s digital public infrastructure now includes a universal identity scheme, a national payments system and a personal-data management system for things like tax documents. It was conceived by the Manmohan Singh government, but much of it has been built under the BJP

Another line of attack from the Opposition is the close relationship with a handful of multi-billionaire tycoons; Indian voters dislike cronyism and punished the previous Congress regime after a series of corruption scandals.

The Opposition parties have not landed many punches. That is partly owing to PM Modi’s reputation for probity. Mainly, however, the Opposition has not united around a single message. Seat-sharing Agreements could alter the electoral arithmetic. But it would require strong, decisive leadership.
Some politicians contend that, after 25 years of messy coalition governments from 1989 to 2014, India has reverted to the ‘dominant party system’ of the prior four decades. Back then, Congress won big majorities and ruled with few constraints. It passed laws and introduced constitutional changes to empower the Central Government and so get its way. Most notably, Rahul’s grandmother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi cancelled elections and suspended civil liberties during the Emergency (1975-77).

COST OF FORMALIZATION

The economy has become more formal under PM Modi, albeit at a high cost. The idea seems to be to draw activity out of the ‘shadow economy’, which is dominated by small and inefficient firms that do not pay tax, and into the formal sphere of productive companies.
India’s GDP per person, after adjustment for purchasing power, has grown at an average pace of 4.3 percent per year during the BJP’s decade in power, which is lower than the 6.2 percent achieved under Manmohan Singh, who also served as Prime Minister for ten years (2004-14).
Narendra Modi took office at a time of slowing global growth, caused by the financial crisis of 2007-09, followed by the Covid-19.

A controversial move on the financial front was demonetisation. In 2016, the use of two large-value banknotes, accounting for 86% of rupees in circulation, was banned – surprising many even in government. The stated aim was to render worthless the ill-gotten gains of the corrupt. But almost all the cash made its way into the banking system, suggesting that the crooks had already gone cashless or laundered their money. Instead, the ‘informal economy’ was crushed. Household investment and credit plunged.

In private, even the BJP supporters in business did not mince words.
Nonetheless, it may have accelerated India’s digitisation. The country’s digital public infrastructure now includes a universal identity scheme, a national payments system and a personal-data management system for things like tax documents. It was conceived by the Manmohan Singh government, but much of it has been built under the BJP. Most retail payments in cities are now digital, and most welfare transfers seamless.

Such measures have helped ameliorate, to some extent, the poverty resulting from low job-creation. Fearing that stubbornly low employment would stop living standards for the poorest from improving, the State doles out welfare payments worth 3% of GDP per year and government programmes send money directly to the bank accounts of the poor.
It is pertinent to look at private-sector investment that has been sluggish. But a boom may be coming.
A recent report by Axis Bank argues that the private-investment cycle is likely to turn, thanks to healthy bank and corporate balance-sheets. Announcements of new investment projects by private corporations soared past $200 bn in 2023, according to one think-tank. That is the highest in a decade, and, roughly, double the value for 2019, in real terms.

Fearing that stubbornly low employment would stop living standards for the poorest from improving, the State doles out welfare payments worth 3% of GDP per year

Although higher interest rates have sapped foreign direct investment, the intentions of firms to invest in India seem strong, as they try to ‘de-risk’ their exposure to China. There is some chance, then, that PM Modi’s reforms will kick growth up a gear. If so, he would have lived upto his standing as a successful economic manager.
The consequences of his policies could well take years to be felt in full. Just as an investment boom could vindicate his approach, the strategy of using welfare payments as a substitute for job creation could prove unsustainable. A failure to build governments’ capacity to provide basic public services – like education and healthcare – may hinder growth.

One might ask: What matters more, the Prime Minister’s failures or his successes?
As of now, a large body of Indians may go to the Lok Sabha polls feeling cautiously optimistic about the changes that a popularly – elected Prime Minister has wrought.

The pessimists should remember that India’s democracy has managed to correct itself in the past. The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi (1917-84), lifted the Emergency under pressure from Courts and Students and lost the subsequent election, badly. And while Congress soon returned to power, it could not reverse a long-term decline caused largely by its over-reliance on centralised leadership.
That may be scant comfort for Opposition parties, anticipated to face reverses at the hustings in 2024 signifying, in turn, a crucial moment for India to turn the page on her post-1947, politico-cultural identity.

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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