Old problems in new India

Following a massive exercise in democracy across India, the once mighty Congress party lies in woeful disarray and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) resumes its grip on the reins of power with a landslide victory that exceeded even its success in the 2014 poll.

On this they are to be congratulated. The triumph is in large part due to the charisma and ‘strongman’ image of the BJP’s leader Narendra Modi, who came from humble beginnings to challenge India’s ruling dynastic elites and herald in a ‘new India’.

Like many popularists, Modi exudes star quality and brought great energy and excitement to his political rallies, mesmerising audiences with his folksy speeches. His simple messages of national pride and economic growth cut through the wall of criticism he had attracted from much of the press and muted the negative buzz of social media. Rather, social media highlighted Modi’s down-to-earth qualities, showing him ever ready to pose for a striking photo opportunity, such as ostentatiously meditating in a Himalayan cave during the closing stages of the election.

There is no doubt that India’s re-elected prime minister makes the most of his status as a man of the people and uses his populism to play on people’s anxieties. Rather than celebrate secularism, for instance, he constantly suggests to the Hindu majority that – despite their apparently privileged position – they have somehow been marginalised and undervalued. Those from other communities, particularly religious minorities, feel uneasy at such rhetoric.

One cannot, of course, blame Modi for India’s tribalism and divisions. Those problems go back centuries. But he has done nothing to cool tempers or encourage fraternal understanding.

In some parts of India, tensions between communities have escalated dangerously. Kashmir is one such region. There, the BJP’s re-election success was met with violent protests by those who fear the state is about to lose its limited autonomy. The threat of terrorism could be further stirred by pro-Pakistan militants, with an allied China and Pakistan exploiting a febrile situation to their own political advantage and India unable to rely on an increasingly isolationist US for support.

The BJP pushed especially hard to expand its reach in eastern India, where it traditionally lacks support. Modi held many rallies in West Bengal, which paid dividends: the party managed to forge strong footholds in the state, where it increased its seats in the Lok Sabha from two to 18 and its vote share from 16.8 per cent in 2014 to 40.25 per cent this time round. Such unprecedented success in West Bengal ends the long hegemony of the Trinamool Congress and eradicates the influence of liberal and leftist forces from the state. It was the same in Uttar Pradesh, where the failure to unite and mobilise the state’s diverse opposition parties saw the BJP win over 60 seats.

So what lies behind this BJP triumph? Not a booming economy, for in this regard Modi’s first term record was patchy and he did not fulfil all of his electoral promises to bring in ‘acche din’ (good days). True, there was some GDP growth and welcome economic reforms such as a nationwide sales tax; but unemployment spiked, impacting particularly on the youth, and rural wages stagnated. Nor was there much help for poor Indian farmers, struggling with the impact of climate change and water shortages.

If Narendra Modi himself is indeed the BJP’s secret weapon, he is a potent one. He is perceived as a strong, decisive leader, as witnessed by his response to February’s terrorist attack on Indian forces in Jammu and Kashmir. India’s national security, voters seem to feel, is safe in his hands. This is balanced by a compassionate side that has seen him launch various social service schemes, including toilets for all and affordable housing.

Like other modern populist leaders, Modi does things differently. His unique approach to diplomacy includes greeting other world leaders with a bear hug. Greater domestic political strength increases his cachet abroad, so now is an appropriate time to consider India’s role in the world.

Does America still represent India’s principal natural ally, given President Trump’s continued disruption of the established international order and his determination to hike tariffs on Indian goods imported into America? And is China a strategic rival – or even a threat – or could it be coaxed into closer partnership, offering much needed investment in India’s strained infrastructure?

The flush of victory is still warm but the hard work will soon begin. At home, Modi must use his second term to make good on his promises of a ‘new India’: economic prosperity for all and tackling cross-border terrorism from Pakistan.

For the rest of Asia, the hope is that Modi’s ‘new India’ will be a great civilisation which thrives on good relationships around the region and throughout the world. But if old divisions continue to fracture its society, India’s ancient problems will hold it back from reaching its full potential.

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