As voting draws to a close in the national election, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks increasingly likely to head India’s next government. A recent opinion poll suggests that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance will secure a majority of seats. The leading party in the incumbent United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the Congress Party, is heading for its worst-ever defeat. Even if this sweeping victory does not eventuate (Indian opinion polls have been notoriously faulty in the past), the UPA seems almost certain to lose office when results are announced next Friday.
The campaign has been dominated by the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and his “Modi model” of economic development from Gujarat. In the state where he has been chief minister since 2001, the Modi model has become synonymous with high growth and efficient administration even though doubts have been raised about the extent, origins and benefits of this growth. The rise of Modi, and his particular brand of Hindu nationalism, has created anxieties and expectations both within and outside of India.
Many have argued that a win for Modi, who has a reputation for intolerance towards minorities and an authoritarian style, will bode ill for India. Modi’s worrying legacies in Gujarat include violence against the Muslim minority, a cowed civil society and clashes with the media. Others claim that Gujarat has thrived under Modi and that experience will serve him well as prime minister.
Yet the heavy media focus on the politics and personality of Modi distracts attention from the deep-seated structural changes and challenges in Indian politics over the last 20 years. These will place significant constraints on any future government, including one headed by Modi.
Twin challenges of fragmented power and wealth
The key challenges will be stimulating economic growth while tackling heightened inequality within a politically fragmented but increasingly assertive and impatient polity.
The UPA government tried and failed to meet this challenge by appealing to both the middle classes and the poor through an “inclusive growth” model. This relied on further economic reforms and the introduction of large-scale social protection schemes.
The urban middle classes have benefited from the economic growth generated during the UPA’s tenure and the fiscal stimulus package that pulled India out of the global financial crisis. Yet they have disdain for the government’s inability to maintain the high growth rates of the early 2000s and appear to be abandoning the UPA.
Likewise, recent studies have indicated a rise in rural household expenditure and therefore a decline in poverty. This may be attributable to the Congress’ social protection programs, like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. However, these gains appear to be too little and too late for voters in the face of corruption scandals, inflation, crumbling rural infrastructure and a lack of sustainable job creation.
The BJP campaign has effectively tapped into the electorate’s mood for change, but its election manifesto is weak. Exactly how the Modi model will be applied nationally is uncertain.
The manifesto substitutes policy detail for vague platitudes such as: “Through the idea of Rurban, we will bring amenities to our rural areas, while retaining the soul of the village.” “Rurban” is Modi-speak for bringing urban-standard infrastructure to rural areas. How he intends to do this at a national scale is unclear.
The constraints the UPA faced will also apply to implementing the Modi model, whatever this may turn out to be, across India.
Mounting constraints on national governments
First, the decline of the once-dominant Congress party and the proliferation of political movements and parties has meant that, since the 1990s, national governments have been made up of coalitions of ideologically diverse regional and caste-based parties. During the BJP’s last stint in power, it faced pressure from its coalition partners to give up key election pledges, such as building a Hindu temple on the grounds where Hindu nationalists tore down a mosque in 1992.
Similarly, the Congress’ coalition allies opposed key economic reforms, such as allowing direct foreign investment in multi-brand retail. Congress faced even greater resistance to its retail policy reforms from state governments.
This brings us to a second key constraint. The devolution of power to state governments over the last two decades means that very thing that facilitated the rise of Modi and his governing model may limit his authority as a national leader. Since economic reforms were initiated in the 1990s, regional governments have been encouraged to pursue their own growth and investment strategies. The heightened power and autonomy of the states and India’s federal model have made it difficult for national governments to push through their policies.
An example is the UPA government’s plans to allow the commercialisation of genetically modified food crops by Indian and multinational biotechnology companies. State governments’ resistance and Supreme Court litigation by anti-GM activists derailed these plans.
This raises a third constraint. The conditions that permitted Modi to flourish in Gujarat, which included a close-knit state alliance with big business and weak opposition from political opponents and civil society, are unique to that state. They will be difficult to replicate at a national level.
In other parts of India, as the polity has fragmented and national governments have struggled to build legitimacy, new actors have emerged to challenge key aspects of the “neoliberal” economic project. Members of civil society, such as farmers’ groups and civil rights groups, are using public interest litigation to take advantage of an activist Supreme Court. They have challenged everything from government land seizures for special economic zones to the design of social protection schemes like the public distribution system for food grain.
In some states, informal workers, who have long been marginalised by both unions and governments despite constituting the majority of the workforce, have mobilised to secure education and healthcare benefits. They have done so by using their electoral power in increasingly competitive local and state government elections.
What all this suggests is that the Indian polity today is not conducive to authoritarian leaders with dramatic plans for reform. In a politically fragmented and rapidly transforming nation, it is the playing field that matters and not just the players.