The election was a disaster for the Indian National Congress (INC) and its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) allies. Congress lost 162 seats, declining from 262 seats to only 44. The UPA managed only 59 seats. This was a vote decline of 17.8%. Congress was wiped out in large sections of North India, and may take years to recover. This was the second worst defeat in Indian electoral history and the first ever suffered by a sitting Congress government.
This election will also have state and local implications, with non-BJP Chief Ministers in several resigning to be replaced with new Chief Ministers from the BJP and allied parties.
Implications for domestic politics
The scope of the defeat has fed predictions that Congress will have to transform to survive and remain competitive. While sitting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been made the scapegoat, blame for the debacle will settle on the Gandhi family, in particular Rahul Gandhi, whose performance was lackluster. The scope of this defeat has led to calls for the Gandhi family to end its dynastic claim on power, step aside and allow new leadership. Many Congress supporters are in shock and looking at alternatives. This is one that is likely to fall by the wayside as tempers cool. Congress has not cultivated a cadre of leaders capable of stepping in to replace the Gandhi’s, and it is highly unlikely they would agree to exit. Speculation that Rahul Gandhi will give up any claim to the Prime Minister’s seat and turn over the mantle of leadership to his sister Priyanka is somewhat more likely.
Now that Congress has been harshly knocked from power, it will have to readjust to its role as leader of the opposition. With only 44 seats, Congress will have to search for electoral allies and form an opposition bloc that is as broad as possible. The Left Parties are adamantly opposed to the BJP and would like to cooperate. Opposition desperation may bring the UPA and the Left parties closer together. It may be difficult for Congress to find potential allies in the new order. Many regional parties have no ideological concerns, and will want to take the opportunistic path and support the NDA government. PM designate Modi has already indicated that he intends to remain in power for at least two terms.
What is the future of Hindutva?
Narendra Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ultra Hindu nationalist organization that forms the core of the BJP. As such, he has been a strong supporter of its communalist (anti-Muslim) agenda. While Modi stayed away from Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) for most of the campaign, the BJP remains wedded to its anti-Muslim agenda. Not one of the BJP MP’s is Muslim. Modi is indifferent to Indian Muslims (14% of the Indian population) at best, and hostile at worst. As a result of the BJP victory, the new Lok Sabha will have fewer Muslim members than any parliament since 1952.
The RSS and its allies in the BJP will try to pressure Modi to use his mandate to further the party’s stated agenda. They will, for example, call for him to erect a Ram temple in Ayodhya, change the constitutional status of Kashmir, and enact protectionist trade and investment policies. He is unlikely to do so. He has angered Pakistan by calling for the extradition and conviction of Dawood Ibrahim, a leading Indian underworld figure linked to the 2008 Mumbai attacks. This, like many statements uttered on the campaign trail, is likely to be forgotten and never acted upon.
Instead of taking “hard measures,” Modi is likely to stress less controversial alternatives to mollify his hardline supporters. Modi has indicated that his government will place a much stronger emphasis on what he calls “cultural factors.” His government will likely stress pride in Indian civilization, Indian identity, and greater use of the Hindi language. He will also reach out to the Indian diaspora and try to recruit overseas Indians as supporters of his economic and foreign policy initiatives. This is most particularly true of the well-organized Gujarati diaspora.
Economic Policy will dominate
Modi has calculated that Hindutva does not have sufficient appeal to win elections and keep his government in power. He has therefore consciously downplayed the Hindu nationalist agenda and focused almost exclusively on economic development. India’s poor economic performance was a key factor in the BJP victory. In the 10 years that the UPA government has been in power, Indian economic growth has declined, while inflation and corruption have increased. This has fed India’s well-documented “anti-incumbency” factor.
Another key element in the Modi victory, which may have been equally significant, was the BJP’s use of modern election tactics, most especially astute use of mass media. The Congress Party seemed adrift throughout the campaign, with Rahul Gandhi seemingly incapable of demonstrating charisma and competence. The BJP’s skillful campaign enabled it to capture 52% of the parliamentary seats with a vote share of only 31%.
Modi has promised to carry out economic policies that will reduce poverty and inflation and create an “India that works.” He will likely adopt an “internationalist” trade policy that stresses economic growth, trade liberalization, encouragement of Indian international trade, and easing foreign investment in India.
A key component of Modi’s economic plan will be infrastructural development. He is likely to push through a series of enormous infrastructure projects and has talked of bullet trains and the creation of 100 new cities. Most observers expect he will rely on Chinese and other East Asian companies for these projects, and that American firms will not win large contracts.
Lackluster ties to the USA
Modi has cultivated economic ties to East Asia (most notably Japan – but also China), Europe, Russia, and Iran. Although India/US trade has increased from $6 billion to $86 billion from 1990 to 2011, the US/India economic relationship is troubled.
India and the USA are locked into a series of trade disputes, involving patents, generic pharmaceuticals, India’s WTO policy, and dumping accusations. This poor climate is unlikely to change. The disputes have increased hostility towards India by American businesses and politicians, while many Indians remain suspicious of the USA.
Modi is unlikely to make concessions to the USA to improve ties. Instead, he is likely to exacerbate these existing trends by reaching out to Russia for energy supplies, most notably natural gas. India wants to maintain its economic relationship with Russia and has refused to become involved in the Ukraine dispute, which has angered the American establishment. India also has strong economic ties to Iran and only reluctantly supported US policy after much pressure.
The US has tried to enlist India into an active alliance and has designated India as a “strategic partner.” Indian administrations, both Congress and BJP have remained cold to these overtures and have instead chosen to maintain India’s commitment to nonalignment.
Changes to Defense Policy
Defense analysts believe that Modi will make quick and far-reaching changes to Indian defense policy. These could provide an economic opening for the US defense industry and increase American market share in India. Modi is likely to appoint a permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, a four star general, to head India’s military. This will later be changed into a five star general position to be called the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).
Modi will also likely increase Indian defense spending from 1.74% of GDP to 2% and start addressing shortfalls in equipment by increasing purchases. American producers could land huge contracts.
Modi has also promised to implement more privatization of the defense sector and open it up to foreign investment. This could involve setting up more factories in India to lessen Indian dependence on imported defense equipment and open up chances for American investment.
The BJP has announced that it is likely to drop India’s “no first use” policy when it comes to nuclear weapons. This will anger many within the American non-proliferation lobby and increase tensions in the region. Modi has promised to maintain a modern nuclear establishment that includes not only nuclear weapons, but also civilian uses of nuclear power. India will likely increase spending on its nuclear sector, both civilian and military.
Modi has stated that India must overcome its power shortage if it hopes to stimulate and maintain economic growth. Nuclear power projects will be one component of a multifaceted energy program, and will include large nuclear projects. Despite the US/India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement negotiated by the Bush Administration, most if not all of these contracts are likely to go to non-American firms.
Modi’s Foreign Policy
India, like the US, is an inward looking nation. Most Indians are not personally involved with foreign policy, and it is not a key factor in Indian politics. Indian foreign policy has been consistent for decades, despite the purported political ideology of the administration in power. There is little to indicate that a Modi government will undertake any radical foreign policy shifts.
Indian politicians are generally not interested in foreign policy issues. Regional parties have parochial agendas, as do many politicians from the national parties. They prefer to gain benefits for their own states and regions and see little utility in getting involved in complex international issues that they often do not understand. This colors their perceptions of foreign policy.
Modi has stated repeatedly that he wants China to be a major trade and investment partner. This is unlikely to happen. There is deep suspicion of China within India because of unresolved border disputes, the Tibet issue, and China’s alliance with Pakistan. Most Indians see China as India’s principal adversary and this tension is likely to increase as their rivalry grows.
India has strong defense and economic ties to Russia that have been in place for decades. Modi will not change this. He will likely rely on Russian energy supplies to help alleviate India’s chronic energy shortages. Russia will remain a principal supplier of energy, trade partner, and arms supplier.
A weak Foreign Ministry and Foreign Service have hamstrung India’s foreign policy. The Indian diplomatic corps is far too small and underfunded. This has hurt India’s performance in international affairs. The previous government had started to address this and authorized a 43% increase in Foreign Service Officers. There are claims that this has led to a decline in the quality of officers, however, as entry requirements have been lowered.
Modi will likely focus on domestic and political issues and may not get around to reforming India’s foreign policy establishment for some time.
The problems plaguing the Indian economy are structural. They are not tied to any particular political party. There has been too much emphasis on the Gandhi family and Manmohan Singh, with observers incorrectly blaming them for India’s poor economic performance. In essence, the influence of Indian political leaders, whether from the left or the right, is limited. Structural factors prevent any party from ruling effectively.
The two principal problems are corruption and poor governance. These two problems are so deeply embedded that they have become cultural rather than political. It would take a far-reaching cultural change to have a significant impact in these areas. Narendra Modi, for all of his talk of radical change, is too closely tied to the Indian status quo to take the measures necessary to seriously address deeply entrenched problems.
The implementation of economic liberalization has created a class of the super-rich. This class has used its vast wealth to increase its economic and political influence over the Indian economy and political system. Economic liberalization has also increased the gap between the wealthy and the poor, and made it difficult for the middle class to maintain its standard of living.
Corruption (nepotism) has prevented India from establishing a working meritocracy. The Indian middle class, with no access to inherited wealth or privilege, must rely on educational credentials to carve out a secure economic niche. With no functioning meritocracy, they often find that their dreams are out of reach, as they cannot gain access to sought-after jobs, and investment capital.
Coming from the right side of the political spectrum, Modi has chosen not to address the issue of “distributive justice.” For him, it is all about economic growth and trickle down economics. He will encourage economic growth at all costs. Indians at the bottom of the economic ladder and without economic and political influence will remain cut out of economic development and the divide between the rich and the poor will continue to grow.
Economic liberalization has also led to a vast increase in corruption, which has now become all-pervasive. The BJP is no different from other parties in this regard. Rent seeking is now common among Indian politicians and bureaucrats, who enrich themselves at public expense. This is unlikely to change under a BJP regime. Corruption often prevents implementation of economic programs, as the funds are siphoned off into private hands and not invested in their stated projects meant to benefit the public.
Criminality among Indian politicians is also increasingly common. 17% of India’s current MP candidates face criminal charges, including rape and murder. This is a long-term trend in Indian politics. The Indian electorate seems indifferent, as Indian politicians are elected to office even after their criminality is made public.
The governance problems are exasperated by the low and declining quality of government officials and politicians. Many Indian MP’s are elected because of nepotism and celebrity and do not take an active interest in governance.
These structural problems will hamper the implementation of Modi’s economic policies. He has made many promises that will be very difficult to keep. Over the course of time, the high expectations of the Indian population will become increasingly disappointed and public resentment will mount. The Indian “anti-incumbency” factor will then begin to kick in.
The Congress-led opposition will be in disarray for some time. This will provide Modi with a long honeymoon period, but structural and ideological shortcomings will prevent him from taking advantage of this opportunity. There will eventually be a political shift. The Congress and its allies will start to form a more cohesive opposition that will oppose Modi wherever possible. He could well see his chances of winning second term wilt away.
American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects. From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer. A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington. From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.