Narendra Modi and the future of Indian politics

Author: Amitabh Mattoo, University of Melbourne

When India opted for constitutional democracy in 1947, few gave it much of a chance. India’s diversity was overwhelming and it was home to some of the world’s poorest. But India’s democracy has succeeded beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic and faired far better than that of similarly placed countries.

The 16th general election held in 2014 once again demonstrated the faith of most Indian citizens in democracy.

For the first time ever, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an outright majority. It was also the first time in 30 years that a single political party has won power on its own. The last five years had seen a particularly dysfunctional Indian National Congress led coalition, characterised by policy paralysis and allegations of massive corruption.

The BJP fought the election on a single issue: the personality and track record of its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, the three-time elected chief minister of the prosperous state of Gujarat. Modi spoke at nearly 400 public rallies during the campaign and was treated like a rock star. Modi had a simple message: replicating the magic of the Gujarat model of development under his decade-long administration.

He communicated this forcefully to an impatient and, crucially, young India angry with the establishment and the ruling Congress party for letting them down.

Caste has been an abiding feature of Indian politics, particularly in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Political mobilisation and voting patterns in the past have tended to follow caste loyalties. The 2014 elections changed that: voters from all castes chose the decisive leadership and good governance promised by the BJP.

The BJP, traditionally seen as a party of upper castes, has rarely done well in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But in 2014 it won in both states. The BJP claimed 22 of 40 and 71 of the 80 parliamentary seats in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, respectively, leaving behind caste-based parties. The marginalisation of caste politics is also evident nationally: the BJP won more votes among Dalits (lowest in the caste hierarchy) than the Congress, seen as a champion of lower castes.

It is too early to conclude that caste will play no further role in Indian politics, but the result does signal that fundamental issues of governance and basic needs are gaining in salience.

Indians, particularly the young, are becoming increasingly impatient with poor governance. The single most important plank of Modi’s election campaign was his promise to provide good governance, under the slogan ‘minimum government, maximum governance’. He made the Gujarat model of good governance the mantra of his campaign.

But it is not only Gujarat that performed well. Other BJP-ruled states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are considered far better in terms of governance than Congress ruled states.

If there was one negative about the election result, it was the lack of adequate representation for Muslims. The BJP has traditionally been seen as a pro-Hindu party. Modi himself invites adoration from his supporters but fear among his detractors, particularly within the Muslim population. While in this election Modi seems to have united more than 80 per cent of Hindus across caste, linguistic and regional divisions, few among India’s Muslims trust him.

Of the BJP’s 282 members of parliament, not one is a Muslim. Of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, about 32 have 15 per cent or more Muslim voters. Yet because of the vagaries of India’s first-past-the post system, for the first time since independence Uttar Pradesh does not have a Muslim member of parliament.

As the Chief Minister of Gujarat and then as a prime ministerial candidate, Modi could afford to ignore minorities. As the Prime Minister of India he can no longer do so.

Now that his honeymoon period is over, Modi needs to reassure minorities that they can be safe, secure and successful in his India. This means focusing on the agenda for economic growth and good governance that has made Gujarat the envy of other states. Modi must pay little heed to the many who will want him to advance potentially divisive social and political issues.

Those who had expected Modi’s foreign policy to take a more muscular stance will probably be disappointed. Instead, Modi has emphasised using the carrots of economics and soft power.

The incipient Modi foreign policy doctrine has four main elements. First is pursuing a foreign policy of enlightened national interest. This is arguably the recognition that the narrow pursuit of self-interest in an interdependent world can lead to suboptimal policy outcomes.

Second is the idea that India will help to build and strengthen a democratic, peaceful, stable and economically interlinked neighbourhood. The presence of South Asian heads of government at the swearing-in of Modi and his cabinet was encouraging.

Third is Modi’s emphasis on soft power, explained through yet another Modi alliteration, the ‘five Ts’: trade, tourism, talent, technology and tradition. Translating this into reality will require real effort.

Fourth, the Modi doctrine suggests a policy of ‘multi-alignment’ with all the great powers: China, Japan, Russia, the United States and European Union.

If the government can deliver on the promises made, Modi will make history. If he lets himself be distracted by divisive social issues or is provoked into adopting zealous nationalism, he will prove his critics right.

India requires stability and peace within the South Asian neighbourhood and beyond for at least the next decade to emerge as a great power. During that period it is best not to get dragged into external conflicts, assume leadership or prominence on the international stage, or attract too much attention. That is Modi’s biggest challenge.

Amitabh Mattoo is Director of the Australia India Institute, Professor of International Relations at University of Melbourne and Professor of International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

This article appeared in a recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘A Japan that can say ‘yes’’.

SHARE: