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Can Narendra Modi handle India’s rise? – KJ Vids
After a long electoral process which lasted more than one month, the BJP Party led by incumbent Prime Minister Nerandra Modi has once again emerged victorious in India’s parliamentary elections.
As such, Modi will continue to guide India for another five-years term that coincides with a delicate moment for the country’s rise. Modi will have to face various challenges, and his decisions will leave a lasting mark on India.
Modi’s Political Career
Nerandra Modi has a long political career behind him. Born in 1950, he had his first contact with politics when he was still a child.
Aged only eight, he attended the meetings of the RSS organization for the first time. The affiliation to this political group, whose ideology is based Hindu nationalism, marked his life forever.
In the late 80s, Modi became involved with the BJP Party, which can be regarded as the political expression of the RSS organisation.
In 2001, Modi became Chief Minister of his native state of Gujarat; and only one year later he became involved in one of the most controversial episodes of his political career and of India’s history.
In a still unclear incident, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims took fire, resulting in the death of around 60 people.
The Muslim community was soon blamed, leading to anti-Muslim attacks that are believed to have been allowed – if not organised – by Modi’s government. The ethnic infighting that followed resulted in several hundred people losing their lives. Following the event, the local Parliament was dissolved, and new elections were organised.
Modi won once again and served until 2014, when he won the Indian general elections as the chief of the BJP Party; thus, becoming the country’s Prime Minister. The results he has achieved during his five years as head of the government are mixed.
Economically, Modi implemented neoliberal policies based on liberalisation and privatisation. Restrictions on foreign direct investment have been relaxed, and the price of diesel has been deregulated. Many environmental-friendly restrictions have been reduced or lifted. Corporate taxes and custom duties have been reduced, the wealth tax has been eliminated, and sales taxes have been increased.
An ambitious “Make in India” programme has been launched to encourage foreign companies to produce in the country; with the aim of turning it into a global manufacturing hub and of making industrial production account for 25% of the GDP by 2025. However, the objective is far from being achieved. Similarly, Modi’s promise to create new jobs did not translate into practice, and some even argue that unemployment has actually increased.
In an attempt to tackle corruption and black money, Modi retired the 500- and 1000-rupees banknotes. In the short term, this resulted into a cash shortage and in turbulences on India’s financial markets, but it seems that it has actually brought an increase of the income tax revenues and that it has encouraged the use of digital currency. All in all, India’s GDP has grown at a steady pace of around 6-7% per year, making of the country the world’s third largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity.
Yet, the actual benefits for the population have remained limited. Income inequality has become more marked and the funding to several social care programmes has been cut; something quite problematic for a country were millions still live in poverty.
Modi had also pledged to double the income of farmers, who represent a considerable portion of India’s population. However, the burden debt on farmers remains high, and combined with an agricultural reform that makes it easier to buy land, this has resulted into discontent and protests in the rural communities.
Another problem that affects the countryside is the widespread use of wood or kerosene for cooking, which has a significant environmental impact. A project to subsidize the use of gas brought many villagers to switch their habits for a certain period, but the subsequent reduction of the subsidies has reverted the trend.
The efforts to clean the Ganges, which is also a sacred river for Hindus, have also stagnated. Better results have been achieved into improving access to toilets: many more have ben build all over the country, but not all of them are functioning.
In regard to the safety of women, the number of cases of violence that are denounced is now higher, but the conviction rate has remained roughly the same as before.
In socio-political terms, the role of Hindu nationalism on Modi’s government has been significant. Pre-existing ties between the BJP and the RSS organisation have grown stronger: the latter actively supports the BJP and many of its members have been appointed to important positions. Manifestations by Hindu nationalist have become more common; and there have been tensions with the large Muslim community, sometimes resulting in violent episodes.
At the same time, non-Muslims from neighbouring countries can now obtain the permit to legally live in India more easily. Several non-governmental organisations have been investigated, sparking criticism from many. Modi has also implemented policies to reform the public administration, digitalize bureaucracy and centralise power in the hands of the government.
In terms of foreign policy, Modi has acted according to his nationalist stance. He promised to be thought on Pakistan and accused it of supporting Jihadi terrorism.
There have been repeated clashes between the armed forces of the two countries in disputed Kashmir, and the Indian military performed various surgical air strikes on objectives in Pakistani territory.
The latest and most serious episode occurred in February 2019, when Pakistan retaliated in the wake of another Indian air raid, thus triggered a skirmish during which an Indian fighter was shot down and its pilot was captured.
With tension between the two nuclear-armed powers at their highest level since decades, the issue was finally solved when Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan released the Indian pilot; a move that actually reveals that Pakistan – being militarily inferior – wants to avoid an escalation but that made Khan look like a responsible leader to the international audience.
Apart from that, Modi’s term has also been marked by a growing geopolitical competition with China. India fears to be encircled by the PRC, which maintains very friendly relations with Pakistan and is fostering closer ties with Nepal all while investing all over the Indian Ocean to build ports in the context of its “Maritime Silk Road” initiative.
India and China also faced each other in a small-scale military standoff along the disputed border in 2017. Modi acted to counter China’s presence: he supported a pro-Indian candidate who surprisingly won the elections in the Maldives after the pro-Chinese President tried to consolidate its power, he has engaged Myanmar economically to avoid it getting too entangled with the PRC, and most importantly he has built closer relations with other powers who share India’s concerns over China’s rise. This has resulted in the reviving of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue which includes India, the US, Japan and Australia.
But under Modi’s premiership India has also been modernizing its armed forces, also by developing the local defence industry and by procuring advanced weapons systems from abroad; such as 36 Rafale fighters and six Scorpène-class diesel-electric attack submarines from France. India’s first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the INS Arihant, was also commissioned; but its actual capabilities are definitely inferior to its counterparts from other countries. Yet, much work remains to be done; and even though the military expenditures have grown in nominal terms, they have actually declined when taking inflation into account and considering them as a percentage of the GDP. Moreover, the money was mostly spent on personnel and not on actual modernization initiatives.
As such, even though many of Modi’s policies have not been completely successful, the recent elections demonstrate that he is still immensely popular in India; having won even more seats than in 2014. Yet, there are various challenges that he will have to face in the next term.
Domestically, Modi will have to properly deal with three issues. First, he will have to ensure that the economy continues to grow, and most importantly that this brings benefit for the poorest segments of India’s population. Apart from political considerations, this is also essential to turn India into a world-class power capable of satisfying its international ambitions.
Second, environmental considerations should not be neglected. India is one of the world’s areas most exposed to the effects of global warming, and its cities suffer from heavy pollution and overcrowding. The government must take the environmental aspects into consideration, or current development will translate into high social and economic costs in the long term.
Third, while a Hindu nationalist discourse surely appeals the Hindu masses, it could exacerbate tensions with the Muslim minority which counts approximately 200 million people, meaning 14% of the country’s population. Inter-ethnic fighting, terrorism or even armed insurgency could undermine India’s social cohesion and hinder its rise.
As far as foreign relations are concerned, coping with China’s rise and with Pakistan will be the main challenge; especially considering the ever-closer ties between the two. Pursuing a nationalist foreign policy and acting toughly may be good for domestic electoral purposes, but it brings also the risk of resulting in either a diplomatic débacle or in a military escalation. The latter scenario would be particularly dangerous, because both China and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons.
All in all, the next five years will be a complex endeavour for Modi and for India as a whole. How the challenges ahead will be managed will largely determine whether and to what degree India will succeed in becoming a full-fledged great power on the international scene.