Opinions - 04.06.2024 - 09:00 

A New India Emerges: Can the World Look Past its Democratic Flaws?

India has held 18 general elections in its 77 years of independence – a rather rare distinction among developing postcolonial countries. Despite decades of unfulfilled economic potential, the fact that India is a democracy has lent the country a certain appeal in international politics. And as the geopolitical rivalry between China and the US heats up, India’s strategic importance has grown.

In recent years, however, India has experienced democratic backsliding, The way the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has intervened in this election – freezing opposition party bank accounts and arresting their leaders, disqualifying opposition candidates  are departures from the past. These bald-faced actions highlight the ruling party’s sense of impunity  it knows it is well placed to be re-elected for a third term and does not fear being held accountable for violating the country’s laws.

The Nehruvian dream of a liberal India that displays moral courage remains unfulfilled. Meanwhile, as the US and its allies look to India for support in balancing against China, New Delhi will continue to act with impunity. Historically, although the US has imposed sanctions in India over its nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, such measures are unlikely today. As Narendra Modi and the BJP prepare for their record third term in office, and global sentiment about India remains largely bullish, what can we expect from the next phase of Indian politics?

Looking back at 10 years of Modi

10 years into BJP rule, how democratic is the Mother of Democracy? Property rights are secure, depending on who you are. Governments in BJP-ruled states have been conducting punitive demolitions of Muslim-owned properties following protests and incidents of religious violence. Critics of the government including leading think-tanks such as the Centre for Policy Research, global NGOs such as Oxfam India, and news companies such as the BBC have had their offices raided by the Income Tax department. Although petty corruption appears to have decreased substantially over the past ten years, the electoral bonds scandal that erupted weeks before this year’s general election indicates the use of coercive state agencies to extort political funds from corporations. 

Meanwhile, the government’s pursuit of Hindu nationalism and frequent hate speech by BJP members have increased religious polarisation and fear among India’s minorities. Religious violence has increased over the past decade, and the government is resorting to repression more frequently The BJP has also become the leading spreader of disinformation in India, actively manipulating and distorting the flow of information and simply shutting down the internet. Modi’s authoritarian style of governance is also well-established. Power has become increasingly centralised under his leadership and there are few checks on the executive given the his party’s majority in parliament. Bills are often passed without debate and the 17th Lok Sabha, elected in 2019, worked the fewest days since 1952. A skilled speaker, Modi has given thousands of speeches and addressed numerous rallies, but he has never held a press conference and did not answer a single question in Parliament during his first two terms in office.

While these issues are no secret, they are of less significance to India’s new partners given the country’s economic size and strategic value. India’s economy has continued to grow, GDP per capita (PPP) has improved from USD 5000 in 2014 to over USD 7000 in 2022, and extreme poverty has been eliminated. At the same time, however, unemployment remains a persistent problem, labour force participation remains low especially among women, and India reportedly has the world’s third-largest percentage of zero-food children. While India’s huge, young population offers the prospect of a youth dividend, a significant portion of the country’s human capital lacks the education or training required for high-skilled jobs. The quality of education and inadequate infrastructure are still key concerns.

Despite eroding democratic institutions, growing social divisions, and significant economic challenges, today’s India is projecting greater confidence and assertiveness on the world stage. Its foreign policy has become more muscular and the Indian government has become more vocal in pushing back against Western criticism of its human rights record, often viewing these as interference in internal affairs or reflecting a colonial mindset. Given India’s growing strategic importance, its continued stability and prosperity are going to be key for maintaining regional security.

Engaging with Modi’s ‘New India’

After a decade of Modi-led BJP rule, we know what the government’s main agenda is: promoting Hindutva, increasing welfare through cash payments and subsidies, and developing the country’s infrastructure. The government has reportedly spent over USD 400 bn in direct benefits to over 900 million people in the past decade and more than USD 300 bn on infrastructure in the last three years. These areas are going to continue driving the government’s policymaking, with Modi having approved USD 15bn worth of infrastructure projects while on the campaign trail in March. 

If (as is widely expected) the BJP wins a simple majority in the Parliament on its own (i.e more than 272 seats), the government may focus on more contentious reforms in its third term. Having already delivered on core promises such as building the controversial Ram Temple at Ayodhya and changing Kashmir’s constitutional status, the next big ticket agenda items are likely to involve pushing through a Uniform Civil Code. On the economic front, Modi may attempt to tackle contentious agricultural reforms again to increase corporate investments in the sector with a view to increase agricultural and rural wages, which have fallen during the BJP’s second term.

The government will also continue pushing the Make In India project expanding manufacturing, which currently accounts for only about 17 per cent of GDP, is going to be key for creating jobs and growing India’s exports. With international firms looking to de-risk from China and diversify their supply chains, investing in India is going to be a winning strategy for countries looking to deepen ties with India. Switzerland's reputation for precision engineering, high-quality manufacturing, and advanced technology aligns perfectly with India's growing demand for sophisticated industrial solutions. Swiss expertise in machinery and robotics can help modernise Indian factories and boost productivity. Given the Modi government’s emphasis on expanding digitalisation and ambitious clean energy goals, India also presents a lucrative market for Swiss fintech and firms specialising in renewable energy, energy efficiency solutions, and waste management technologies.

In foreign policy, New Delhi is going to continue pursuing strategic autonomy, even though it may find it increasingly difficult to build closer relations with the US and its allies while it maintains its historically close ties with Russia. Despite the growing economic and strategic ties with the West due to converging interests, India will continue to reject formal alliances, and trade disputes and protectionist policies may pose hurdles as well. However, the onus for developing closer ties also rests with the West, who’s credibility is increasingly beleaguered by its hypocrisy. The US, for instance, has routinely partnered closely with countries with gross human rights violations and poor democratic records from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and Israel to name just a few. 

At a crossroads

The past decade under Modi’s leadership displays a complex record of achievements and challenges. Looking ahead, the next phase of Indian politics will be closely watched both domestically and globally. The BJP's anticipated focus on contentious reforms, economic development, and infrastructural expansion will shape the nation's trajectory. As India navigates these complexities, its ability to uphold democratic principles, foster inclusive growth, and maintain its strategic autonomy will be crucial.

Regardless of the dispensation in New Delhi, a country of India’s size and record of global south leadership should have more say in global governance. The West also needs India, and must therefore not only treat New Delhi as an equal, but also offer more tangible benefits to partnership. This is no longer the India that believes in Gandhian softness or Nehruvian civility; this is the BJP’s New India that thrives on a masculinist aggression and takes pride in winning at all costs. Is a prosperous but undemocratic India a price the world is willing to pay for its strategic partnership? This is a question that world leaders, and India's own citizens, will have to grapple with in the years to come. 

Dr. Manali Kumar is a postdoctoral associate with the Institute of Political Science at HSG and the editor-in-Chief for 9DASHLINE. Her research explores whether and how India's national identities and interests have changed with its emergence as a rising power. 

This text first appeared in Neue Zürcher Zeitung: 
Indien am Scheideweg: eine Bilanz von zwei Amtszeiten Narendra Modis

Image: Adobe Stock / muhammad

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