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After the Election: What Next in India?

By Herbert Wulf*

India has voted in a new parliament. The strongman, Prime Minister Modi, suffered a setback, as the opposition did very well, beyond all expectations. With the support of smaller parties, Modi has received a third term in office. Will these results change India’s foreign, economic and socio-political policies?

This article was issued by the Toda Peace Institute and is being republished with their permission.

BONN, Germany | 1 July 2024 (IDN) — The ruling BJP not only missed its self-declared target of 400 of the 543 parliamentary seats, it also fell short of the required majority of 272 seats. Modi, the alleged saviour, who shortly before the election described his birth as not biological but divine, got a bloody nose. This was despite the fact, as the daily newspaper Indian Express wrote, that this was the least free and fair national election in the history of independent India, in which everything was turned against the opposition: money, media, and administrative apparatus. The electoral commission was blatantly biased. And yet the people have inflicted serious setbacks on the ruling establishment.

For the first time since Modi took office in 2014, the ruling BJP was unable to draw on the general discontent among the population with its polarizing pro-Hindu rhetoric.

What will the future of India look like: in terms of foreign policy, economic and socio-political policy?

In its foreign policy, India has moved closer to the West in recent years, especially towards the USA, but also Japan, Australia and the EU. This rapprochment is mainly due to India’s concern about China’s aggressive policy. The two major Asian powers, India and China, are competitors for influence in Asia and the world. The common border in the Himalayas is contested. New Delhi is watching China’s advance in the Indian Ocean with great displeasure and is arming itself against it. India’s armed forces are still dependent on Russian arms supplies. Around 60 percent of their arsenal comes from Russia. But the US has not only promised defense industry cooperation, it is supplying state-of-the-art arms technology. Fighter jets come from France, missiles and electronics from Israel. India clearly tries to diversify its sources for weapons.

But Modi and his government are not simply joining the Western camp. The attempt by the US, the EU and NATO to persuade India to take a tough stance against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine has failed miserably. Modi’s efforts at the beginning of his term in office to normalize and stabilize relations with China have failed. However, India continues to maintain friendly relations with Russia and, above all, India’s raw material and energy imports from Russia are significant. And, although it was long ago, India’s political leaders have not forgotten that the Nixon government in 1971 was on Pakistan’s side against India in Bangladesh’s struggle for independence and tried at the same time to instrumentlize Chinese activities in the Himalayas against India.

Since then, Indian governments practice a diplomatic balancing act of presenting the country as non-aligned, striving for multiple alliances depending on its own interests. It is unlikely that this will change in the near future. India, even with a weakened Modi, will keep all its options open.

Modi has some successes to show

Economically, Modi has some successes to show. India, the most populous country, is now the fifth largest economic power in the world. Growth during Modi’s first ten years in office was rapid. Consistent growth rates of 6, 7 and 8 percent annually are dream results, compared to the figures of the major industrialized countries. India’s middle class is growing. But India’s wealth is extremely unevenly distributed. Around 800 million of the 1.4 billion population live in poverty. The per capita income is around 2,400 dollars per year. In comparison, the US per capita income is over 80,000 dollars. The Indian business elite, pampered by Modi with tax advantages and public contracts, has amassed enormous fortunes. Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in Asia and the ninth richest man in the world, owes his rise to Modi. He has a fortune of over 100 billion US dollars.

Modi, who sees himself as an economic mover, has launched a number of major projects to modernize India: “Make in India”, “Smart Cities”, “Clean Ganges”. In Modi’s opinion, “India is brimming with self-confidence and self-reliance.” In the concert of the great powers, India wants to strengthen its role and the government has the ambitious vision of developing the country into a fully-fledged great power by the centenary of its independence in 2047. Prime Minister Modi speaks of a “quantum leap”.

But what economic vision does he have in mind? Should India replace China as the world’s workbench? Although the industry has been heavily subsidized, India’s exports have barely grown under Modi. Would it be better to focus on expanding the service sector (especially information technology)? At the same time, Modi propagates India’s self-reliance and self-sufficiency. In 2020, he said: “The state of the world today teaches us that a self-reliant India is the only path.” But protection of India’s industry, the concept of import substituion practiced until the early 1990s, was also intended to make India’s industry strong. It was largely unsuccessfully.

Even the high growth rates of the economy are not enough to employ the more than 10 million young people who enter the labour market every year. High unemployment remains an urgent problem. There is a lack of new jobs. Despite some reforms, the economy is groaning under excessive bureaucracy and corruption. The New York Times concluded after the election that Modi sometimes seems ambiguous. Like Reagan and Thatcher, he came to power and promised to reduce the size of the government. In practice, the state has a hard hand in most areas. At the moment, the economic concept for the future remains open.

Socio-politically authoritarian style of government?

Will Modi continue to practice his socio-politically authoritarian style of government? And will he continue his decidedly Hindu chauvinist policy, which discriminates against all non-Hindus? He and his ruling party, the BJP, have transformed India into an explicitly Hindu nation in recent years. In 2019, the government passed two laws to marginalize certain citizens in an effort to consolidate Modi’s Hindu nationalist India. The government revoked the constitutional special status of the states of Jammu and Kashmir and placed them under the administration of Delhi. The majority of the population there is Muslim and has been fighting for independence for decades. The military brutally cracked down on demonstrators, whom Delhi considers terrorists. The government in Delhi censored the press and shut down the internet and telephone for weeks. Thousands of opposition politicians and journalists were imprisoned, many to this day.

In the same year, the “Citizenship Act” followed. Under this law, all non-Muslim immigrants who came from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before 2014 will be granted asylum in India. The law therefore explicitly does not apply to Muslims who are automatically and openly deprived of their citizenship. As Arundathi Roy, India’s best-known contemporary writer, put it, the law is a version of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws of 1935 that requires the submission of ancestry papers.

Modi’s third term as prime minister will be the test of whether his concept of Hindutva, the clear prioritization of Hindus, which has been enforced with vehemence and unfair means, will continue to be dominant. Hindutva is the core of his BJP’s ideology. But the two coalition parties he needs to form a government decidedly disagree on this issue.

A number of the democratic norms have been undermined by Modi’s government. Police and Judiciary, who had to follow the BJP line, threw opposition politicians in jail. Will the press, which has been largely brought into line by the government with police and legal means, be able to emancipate itself from the government? Much depends on the now strengthened opposition, which has made headlines in the last decade mainly through intra-opposition disputes, intrigues and scandals. Will she be able to fight for the constitutional values of a secular, multicultural India, or will Modi’s autocratic course remain largely intact?

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*Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Council of SIPRI. [IDN-InDepthNews]

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