Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigning for the BJP in Mumbai
On the 16th of May, 2014, history was made when for the first time since Indira Gandhi’s second term in 1984 India elected a single-party majority government. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 281 seats of 543 in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament), while the previous regime, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), was decimated, winning only 44 seats — a drop of 162 seats from 2010.
Narendra Modi, the former tea-seller-turned-politician, rose through the ranks of the BJP to become one of the most recognizable figures in Indian politics — largely as a result of his charismatic appeal — following a late start in politics with the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Modi’s ten-year term as chief minister of the state of Gujarat succeeded in bringing prosperity to the region through a platform grounded in economic growth and direct investment, both foreign and domestic — a period widely considered one of the most peaceful and lawful in the region’s modern history. Yet despite clear successes, many Indians despise him for his alleged role in the Gujarat Riots of 2002, during which he suggested that malnutrition in children under the age of five was caused by girls wanting to look skinny, and it seems his time in power may be running out.
Modi’s charisma and adept use of social media led to a wave of national popularity often referred to as “NaMo fever”. But Narendra Modi’s authoritarian style has come into question following a streak of questionable political appointments, including that of Gajendra Chauhan to the Film Technology Institute of India, as well as his tightening grip over India’s Institutes of Technology and the Historical Council. Modi’s staunch Hindu beliefs have been blamed for attacks on minorities, such as for alleged beef consumption, in a spate of incidents nearly unheard of under his predecessor.
India’s parliamentary system is such that implementation of federal law is largely left up to the states, meaning that Vidhan Sabha (Legislative Assembly) polls are crucial to the stability of the central government. The first challenge to Modi’s popularity was in the capital, New Delhi, where the BJP assumed they would take over following a turbulent rule by the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). But Modi failed to garner significant votes, with the party winning a miserly three of 70 seats — the AAP taking the rest. Another blow to Modi’s popularity came in one of India’s poorest and most politically significant states, Bihar. Here the BJP won only 53 of 243 seats, losing to an opposition group of regional parties and the Congress, the Mahagatbandhan (Grand Alliance) taking the state.
The largest and fourth-largest states in the country by seats in the Lok Sabha (Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal) are going to the polls soon, where the BJP wants to play a role in forming both states’ governments. In the former, which goes to polls in 2017, the proliferation of regional parties will make it difficult for any national-level group to gain seats in the Vidhan Sabha, while in West Bengal the challenge will be overcoming significant religious and cultural differences. In each state, the BJP intends on using Modi’s popularity in order to gain votes and seats. However, this is the first time since 1977 that a non-Communist government has completed a full term in power — potentially causing problems for the Trinamool Congress. These elections are important tests for the BJP when it comes to law enforcement as these two states usually guide the country in health, education, and infrastructure.
But despite setbacks, Modi is making progress towards establishing India as an assertive Asian power — as seen during the Doha Round of the WTO to the Paris Climate Conference. Yet there is fear, however, that the prime minister is making foreign visits and rallies a greater priority than more pressing domestic issues such as religious and ethnic tolerance, tax reform, and the Child Protection Act. The government has been remarkably silent on the latter two issues given Modi’s usual transparency. If the Modi administration continues in this manner, it risks losing touch with the electorate — a situation perhaps best avoided by embarking on a country-wide fact-finding tour, starting with the North-East, in order to come to grips with the national situation.
Along with these foreign visits, some of the prime minister’s stances on domestic policy appear far-fetched. Excepting the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan/ Clean India campaign, Modi’s major initiatives, including Digital India and Skill India, are admirable schemes that would indeed bring much-needed foreign investment into the country as well as improve worker productivity. But while in the eyes of the BJP these initiatives would help transform India into a service-oriented economy, details on these schemes have been scarce, and outcomes unclear. One possible solution would be to reform the outdated and rigid educational system. For example, pressuring the West Bengal state government into putting some money into Kolkata’s once-proud public universities, which have been going downhill from the 70’s, could help to solve the problem of limited seats and provide a quality education at the same time. Similarly, Modi’s 100 Smart Cities project, if redesigned to be more inclusive of the intended middle-class income groups, would go a long way to spurring long term economic growth and development.
After three decades of ineffective coalition governments, India has the chance to enact real reforms with prime minister Modi’s administration. But to do so, the BJP will need to address its falling popularity in time for the crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. More domestic involvement, less flashy schemes, and more coherence in policy making should put the administration in good stead for the near future. This could be India’s chance to rise to superpower status –hopefully the government will take it.
Aritra Samanta is studying Economics and Political Science with a minor in Mathematics at McGill University.