Author: Mahendra Ved, New Delhi
Having secured a landslide victory in India’s 2019 elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to consolidate his unprecedented grip on power. He is likely to deliver more of the same — positive and negative — with his fresh five-year mandate.
Modi will attempt to shift political discourse further to the ideological right, although it will not be easy in a country of 1.3 billion people that form the democratic world’s most populous, diverse and multi-faith polity.
Given his resolute manner, he is also bound to prioritise economic change by pushing open-market reforms further. But he faces multiple challenges on this front with an economy afflicted by high unemployment, rising inflation and persistent agricultural distress that could worsen further with a bad monsoon.
Another challenge will come from social complexities. Despite its slogan of ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas, sab ka vishwas’ (universal support, progress, and trust), Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is often accused of exclusionary practices and fear mongering. Critical here are religious minorities and oppressed castes — particularly the 160 million Muslims, and Dalits who are traditionally economically deprived. These sections have obviously contributed to the overwhelming majority of votes Modi and his BJP won in the elections. But critics suggest that they nonetheless fear sectarian attacks. The ruling party that won 303 seats from out of 542 does not have a single Muslim.
Throughout the 40-day election campaign, there was no reference to Muslims slaughtering cows or Dalits working with leather. But they regularly fell prey to attacks from vigilantes — allegedly belonging to BJP affiliates — campaigning to ‘protect’ the cows that are worshipped by the Hindu majority. The Modi government instituted — but later quietly withdrew — a ban on beef production and export (India was then the world’s largest beef exporter), and spent millions to provide shelters for stray animals spared slaughter with limited success.
Perhaps the most important challenge for Modi’s second term is to simultaneously act upon all these issues, although they are unlikely to be publicly acknowledged in the triumphal atmosphere generated by the BJP victory. The media, and social media pivotal to Modi’s victory, now justify or downplay violence like clashes between BJP supporters and rivals in West Bengal as ‘stray incidents’ amid a largely peaceful campaign. Still, these incidents are hardly mentioned even by Modi’s opponents who conceded huge space on what they alleged was Modi’s ‘divisive’ political agenda to tilt the polity towards the majority Hindu community. In the process, the opposition conceded the political base to the majoritarian agenda, and lost badly. The worst loser, for the second consecutive time, is the Congress party, India’s oldest political party.
The word ‘secularism’ became a swear-word, while ‘socialism’ did not figure in the elections, heralding the downfall of the left — communists and socialists of various hues — that had dominated political discourse before and after independence in 1947. There may now be little scope for collective bargaining for industrial and farm labourers.
But there are also several positive takeaways from India’s most contentious election in recent memory. One is the huge majority that ensures the political stability yearned for by young Indians seeking jobs and development. If that can be delivered — even just partially — India may hope to play a role as regional and perhaps global leader.
The next five years should witness the privatisation of loss-making state-run industrial and commercial enterprises, even though they may be taken over by ‘friendly’ businesses who invested funds and faith in Modi.
With the exit of many ageing politicians — who do not easily retire — and the defeat of many family-run parties, Modi is also expected to field a younger team to battle India’s many complex problems.
Another positive is progress in women’s liberation, with women apparently voting independently of their male family members in large numbers. Among other issues, this represents Muslim women affirming their interests against the pernicious tradition of instant divorce. These developments contributed to the election of 78 female lawmakers, the highest ever. And at least one state, Odisha — which resisted the Modi juggernaut and is not governed by the BJP — has sent women as a third of its representatives to the national parliament.
Although he did not start the process, Modi has arguably taken India several notches higher in the comity of nations. The next five years should see this consolidate further.
Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based writer and columnist and the President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) India.