Modi 2.0: Successes, defects and a challenge
In the first year of his second term in office, Narendra Modi has seen tremendous political and ideological success. But this period has also led to questions about the robustness of institutions; social harmony; and economic management. It has also made it clear that Modi’s legacy will be determined by how he handles the gravest crisis independent India has seen in decades — the coronavirus pandemic.
First, this year has been a success for him, both on the political and ideological front. Politically, when he took over a year ago, Modi was armed with a resounding mandate — a mandate bigger than the one the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got in 2014. It was a vote for stability; it was a vote for national security (in the wake of the Pulwama attacks); it was a vote for the welfare schemes his government pushed in its first term (Ujjwala, rural housing, toilet construction, direct income transfer to farmers); it was a vote which reflected the dismal state of the Opposition; but it was, above all else, a vote for Modi and his leadership.
There have been state-level setbacks that the BJP has faced over the year. It lost Maharashtra and Jharkhand, it failed to win Delhi, and it just about managed to retain Haryana. But none of this has dented the fact that Modi remains India’s most popular mass leader.
It has also been a year of ideological success. Ever since the BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, was formed, “integrating” Kashmir with the rest of India, by removing Article 370, has been a foundational pillar of the worldview of the party and its ideological affiliates. On August 5, the Modi government did precisely this by effectively nullifying the special status enjoyed by Jammu and Kashmir, and dividing the state into two Union territories.
Ever since the BJP passed its famous Palanpur resolution in 1989, the Ram Temple has been an article of faith for the party. The government may not have had a direct role, but the Supreme Court’s verdict enabling the construction of the temple in Ayodhya marked a political and ideological success for Modi. The fate of Hindu minorities in neighbouring countries has figured in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s official resolutions for decades. The passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA — which enables expedited Indian citizenship for non-Muslim persecuted minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan — marked a step in this direction, cementing the Sangh’s view of India as the natural homeland for Hindus. And while the Uniform Civil Code may be elusive, the party believes that with the passage of the triple talaq bill, it has taken a step closer to eroding the framework of distinct laws for minorities.
But this has also been a year which has, arguably, left India with a set of deeper defects and challenges.
The first is a democracy deficit. Electoral democracy in India remains robust. But a democracy also hinges on a set of other variables — the state of individual freedom, civil liberties, and independent institutions. Kashmir is a symbolic example of this democracy deficit. To be sure, it is a special case because of the challenge of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. But many — including this newspaper — supported the effective abrogation of Article 370 because it was meant to give citizens of Jammu and Kashmir the same rights as citizens of India elsewhere. But the past year — which has seen the prolonged detention of leaders, curbs on political activity, the inability to hold elections, the suspension of high-speed Internet — has in fact diminished rights for the people of the region.
This democracy deficit extends to the rest of the country in other forms. There are regular crackdown on dissidents and critics of the government through draconian legislations and use of investigative agencies; it has also manifested itself in the weakness of other institutions — be it the Election Commission or the Supreme Court — to assert their own space in the face of a strong executive. None of this is unique to the functioning of the current government, but that is little consolation.
The second deficit is of social harmony. When Modi spoke in Parliament after his second victory, he extended his motto of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas to include Sabka Vishwas. He reached out to the minorities, which was a promise of a fresh beginning, given the trust deficit that exists between the BJP and Muslims in particular. But as the party pushed forward its ideological agenda, this trust deficit only grew. The protests against CAA and a possible National Register of Citizens (which the government later claimed was not on the agenda) symbolised the deep mistrust and anger that Muslims in particular have for the current political dispensation. The government defended its decisions and even made a strong case about how the legislation will not impact the rights of Muslims — but the fact is it was seen by minorities as changing the fundamental secular character of the Constitution. This has resulted in the worsening of Hindu-Muslim relations over the past year. Given India’s diversity, this is worrying and can have adverse consequences on the political framework, inter-community ties on the ground, and internal security.
The third big weakness was in the realm of economic management. Growth rate in 2019-2020, as Friday’s figures revealed, was 4.2%. In every quarter of the year, growth has decelerated. Core industrial activity has dropped. Consumption has dipped. And unemployment has risen. It is noteworthy that the 2019-2020 GDP figures only take into account a week of the national lockdown, which shows that the economy was in the most fragile condition that it has been over a decade even before the pandemic came home. Modi has now had six years in office — and the government cannot pass the buck to its predecessor anymore.
But if these were the contours of the first year in office, it is now clear that the Modi legacy will be defined almost singularly by how he manages to steer India through the pandemic. The government showed decisiveness in imposing a national lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus — but it may have underestimated the scale of economic devastation and the humanitarian crisis that would accompany the lockdown. India faces a triple challenge now. On the health front, cases are continuing to rise — and the health infrastructure is under strain. On the economic front, the Indian economy is set to contract, which will leave many businesses unviable, and deepen poverty. And on the humanitarian front, as the migrant worker crisis revealed, India’s poorest will have to face the worst consequences of the crisis. How Narendra Modi migrates these challenges and helps India revive is the key question for 2024.