Whither India post-election?

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As the dust settles, the counting complete and the electronic voting machines stored away until the next time (although two million of them are alleged to have ‘disappeared’ somewhere between the manufacturer and the Election Commission) and aside Mr Modi winning a second term – whither India today? The question is not rhetorical, and the next five years of the Modi premiership are going to have a profound impact on the subcontinent as a whole and not just India. Unlike previous elections, including those won by the Ghandi dynasty, this time the vote was for the man, Mr Modi, and the symbolism he exemplified. The BJP is the party that he hangs his hat on but it is Modi the Man that Indians voted for in their many millions, sending the once-powerful Congress Party into the margins with its leader, a shadow of his dynastic forebears, losing his own family seat in the process. The CP will not recover in the near to medium term and goes into the political wilderness.

The Indian election is the largest democratic exercise on the planet and India is the largest constitutional democracy. There are 543 seats in the Lok Saba, the Indian parliament, and the BJP has 34 percent of them, enough to govern by itself and not seek the support of minor parties. Mr Modi is the first non-Congress prime minister to return to power in India having served a full five-year term.  It is going to take weeks or possibly months before the opposition in parliament sorts itself into something coherent, and for now Mr Modi has a virtually free hand. Worthy of note is that the number of Muslim members of parliament has increased slightly from 4.2 percent in 2014 to 4.8 percent and there are now 26 Muslims in the Lok Saba. Also of note is that none of them belong to the Hindu nationalist BJP.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has offered his congratulations to Mr Modi and spoken positively of the opportunities for peace-building that his election presents. Mr Modi has reciprocated in similar vein. Commentators and analysts nationally and internationally are wary and cautious, welcoming the warmth that lies on the surface and wondering how Messrs Modi and Khan are going to square the circle of Kashmir which has defied every attempt to do so since Independence.

The recent Balakot incident featured little in the campaign, presumably because it was from an Indian military perspective something of a foot-in-mouth moment. There was anti-Pakistan rhetoric to be sure and expected, but the Muslims of India – 14.2 percent of the population – had little to feel comfortable or sanguine about once it was all over. The reason for that and here we must speak plainly is that Mr Modi has taken India to the right, deep into Hindu nationalist territory and in doing so challenged the secular constitutional nature of the state. Some analysts and not only in Pakistan see Mr Modi as doing what General Zia did, pushing a religious agenda to the detriment and exclusion of all else and others. The fallout from the Zia years are still felt in Pakistan, and the consequences short and long-term of the Modi victory might only be imagined in this respect.

The challenges faced by the new Indian government are enormous, and the previous five years of Modi government have done little to mitigate or reduce them, a fact that might have played against him electorally but the voters decided to put the deficits aside and elect the man who would ‘save’ them and their country.

But consider – unemployment is probably at 6.1 percent which is a five-year high and the report that would give the details has been suppressed; economic growth peaked at 8.2 percent in 2016-17 and has been in decline ever since; trade and the trade deficit with China and a grumbling trade spat with the Americans – and then the bigger picture and the Chinese and concerns about Chinese ‘encroachment’ into south Asia via the Belt and Road initiative of which Pakistan is a part, and tied to that the fear of Chinese ‘encirclement’. All are interlinked and all are consequential. How Mr Modi and his government and Indian diplomats around the world manage all of this, along with a galloping population explosion – more than 50 percent of the population are under 25 – and at least a dozen active armed insurgencies within the borders to say nothing of the mental health crisis among farmers that has given rise to an escalation in the suicide rate, remains to be seen.

Hindu nationalism is flavour de-jour in India, but it may have a bitter taste elsewhere in the region. Nationalism generally is on the rise around the world, and Europe has seen this in countries such as Hungary. It drove the engine that powered the UK to the Brexit referendum with consequences that grow darker almost by the day. Northern Italy has seen a flowering of what are in reality fascist parties and politicians, despite what they may call themselves. It is far too early to pronounce any kind of judgment on the re-election of Mr Modi but if history is any kind of benchmark – and it is – right-wing nationalism rarely if ever has the hoped-for outcomes that the populists who vote for it envisaged. Proceed with caution…extreme caution.