The many promises and challenges of new India - Hindustan Times
close_game
close_game

The many promises and challenges of new India

Feb 10, 2024 10:00 PM IST

Prime Minister Modi’s speeches in Parliament encapsulated the short, medium, and long term challenges for the country

It has been a generation since a party approached an impending national election with the kind of confidence and tailwind that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is doing in 2024. Not since the heydays of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi has one party appeared so comfortably placed to come back to power (the analogy is more apt because if successful, Narendra Modi will become the first prime minister (PM) since Nehru to win three consecutive terms and the first since Indira Gandhi to serve three terms). The BJP triumphed in the recently concluded polls in three heartland states, its fortress in the Gangetic plains appears unbreachable, and its rainbow Hindu coalition has successfully repelled attempted inroads by the Opposition by way of its caste census ploy. Even as the party is rapidly moving across states and rebuilding the NDA by picking up key allies, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance appears to be in disarray.

New Delhi, Feb 7 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi replies to the debate on the motion of thanks to the President's address in the Rajya Sabha during the Interim Budget Session of Parliament, in New Delhi on Wednesday. (ANI Photo/SansadTV)(ANI) PREMIUM
New Delhi, Feb 7 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi replies to the debate on the motion of thanks to the President's address in the Rajya Sabha during the Interim Budget Session of Parliament, in New Delhi on Wednesday. (ANI Photo/SansadTV)(ANI)

It has been a generation since a party approached an impending national election with the kind of confidence and tailwind that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is doing in 2024. Not since the heydays of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi has one party appeared so comfortably placed to come back to power (the analogy is more apt because if successful, Narendra Modi will become the first prime minister (PM) since Nehru to win three consecutive terms and the first since Indira Gandhi to serve three terms). The BJP triumphed in the recently concluded polls in three heartland states, its fortress in the Gangetic plains appears unbreachable, and its rainbow Hindu coalition has successfully repelled attempted inroads by the Opposition by way of its caste census ploy. Even as the party is rapidly moving across states and rebuilding the NDA by picking up key allies, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance appears to be in disarray.

So what, the Opposition might ask. Another BJP-led government approached another election with the same gusto two decades ago, they might argue, only to be made to pay the price of its hubris, undone by a clever patchwork of regional alliances and subliminal anger from the hinterland. But the BJP believes, and with good reason, that 2024 is not 2004. This is why the interim budget was just that, a speech listing the government’s achievements and intentions, and not a laundry list of sops for various target demographics. And that is also why, over the course of two speeches in Parliament last week, Modi chose to outline his vision for a potential third term and told the country what he thought the national priorities should be. It was an important moment, for it came from a man who was looking to ensure that his imprint on the country was beyond transient.

In the short term, the PM’s focus was on politics. His no-holds-barred attack on the Congress was an attempt to not only discredit the only national opponent left to the BJP but also dismiss any potential alternative vision it could be building around economic and social justice. In the Lok Sabha, he named a target for the BJP (370 seats )and the NDA (400-plus) for the upcoming general elections. Despite the party’s edge, this will be a tall order given that Nehru breached this target only once (and then too, only barely) and Indira Gandhi could never do it in her lifetime (the Congress’s highest tally of 414 came in 1984 in a sympathy wave weeks after her assassination). He attempted to fend off criticism about his party being hypocritical on the question of dynasty politics by drawing a distinction between dynastic politics and second- or third-generation politicians and reiterated his belief that dynasty politics hurt democracy. This is a line that has worked wonders in the past, cementing his naamdar (dynast) vs kaamdar (hardworker) jibe against a milieu where the Congress has struggled to look past its reliance on the Gandhi family.

His attack on Nehru and Indira Gandhi and his allegation that they never respected Indians should be seen in the context of the government’s decision to award the nation’s highest civilian honour to a Congress PM (PV Narasimha Rao), whose legacy the Opposition party appeared to not be interested in claiming, and to two other stalwart politicians who were as much known for their staunch anti-Congressism as they were for their respective brands of social justice (Karpoori Thakur) and farmer welfare (Chaudhary Charan Singh). After making a successful contemporary argument against the Congress over the last 10 years, Modi is now making a historical argument to re-evaluate the Congress’s contribution to the nation.

The medium-term focus appeared to be on social justice and the assurance that what some analysts have called new welfarism will continue. Modi first told the Lok Sabha about the importance of the government’s schemes such as Swachh Bharat, Ujjwala, Ayushman Bharat, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, and then assured the Rajya Sabha that free ration scheme, Ayushman Bharat scheme, 80% discounts on medicines, PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, pucca houses for the poor, tapped water connections and construction of new toilets will continue in his third term. It was a reminder of the importance of the direct connection the PM has built with a vast population of underprivileged people; it showed that even as some analysts have suggested that the government is moving funding from intangible welfare such as education to tangible goods, the BJP will continue to nurture this labharthi (beneficiary) demographic.

The other prong of this was social justice. Modi not only sought to paint Nehru as anti-reservation but also sought to inoculate his government against any potential charge of discrimination against other backward classes (OBCs). Not only did he position himself as “the biggest OBC”, but he also buttressed his social justice credentials with data on government spending.

Of course, what was left unsaid was the role of religion and majoritarianism (the Ram temple was only mentioned once in the Lower House and none in the Upper House). As Chanakya noted previously, the BJP under Modi has pioneered the emergence of religion as a national identity, and now large chunks of the population use religion as a filter through which they perceive everything. Maybe the PM will channel this religious fervour into his brand of nation building. But the repeated signalling that social justice politics is here to stay was a reminder that the project to corral marginalised communities is not ossified but fluid, and cannot be encapsulated by lazy arguments of mass communalisation.

In the long-term, Modi hinted at three challenges even as he promised to deliver a developed India. In his unprecedented attack on the Congress over the north-south divide, he framed his government’s response over the next decade to an issue that will shape the country like no other. Southern states have some genuine grievances on state finances, and as long as the BJP is held at bay in peninsular India, the political rift will only widen and spill over into ancillary questions of migration, language and culture. The 16th Finance Commission’s deliberations on tax devolution and the impending delimitation might fan more anxieties. The PM repeatedly talked about augmenting infrastructure and his “guarantee” of making India the world’s third-largest economy and said India will use AI, nano-fertilisers, green technologies, natural farming and develop superfoods. He faulted the Congress’s pace of development and said his next government will focus on science and women’s empowerment

And he articulated, possibly for the first time, his plan to tackle second-generation challenges before India — such as jobs, education and the youth bulge. His government has so far tackled first-generation problems of welfare, delivery, housing, clean water and ration, and reaped enormous political dividends. But the PM’s promise to go beyond “ease of living to improving quality of life” showed that he was readying to cater to a new generation of voters — the neo-middle class — whose aspirations will need to be addressed while simultaneously protecting them from sliding back into poverty. The PM believes his “Modi kavach (shield)” of better medical infrastructure, piped water, massive solar power cover and cooking gas connections will help.

Of course, none of this will be easy. As Chanakya has noted before, India stands at a critical juncture. Its demographic dividend can quickly become a burden if standards of education are not lifted and the quality of jobs is not addressed. The country will need to churn out mass employment at many times the current rate while ensuring that the social fabric is not stretched thin by communal and caste disturbances, both possible by masses of unemployed young people. And the climate crisis will continue to wreak havoc, forcing the government to tread carefully between populism and futurism. Modi’s speeches this week only encapsulated the promises and challenges of a new India.

Unveiling 'Elections 2024: The Big Picture', a fresh segment in HT's talk show 'The Interview with Kumkum Chadha', where leaders across the political spectrum discuss the upcoming general elections. Watch Now!

Continue reading with HT Premium Subscription

Daily E Paper I Premium Articles I Brunch E Magazine I Daily Infographics
freemium
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Share this article
  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
    author-default-90x90

    History has an uncanny way of intruding into contemporary life and shaping our public conversation. A new controversy emerged recently over the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose.

SHARE
Story Saved
Live Score
OPEN APP
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On