EDITORIAL: Will Modi's battle with the past put him in charge of India's future?
HONG KONG (China Daily/ANN) - In seeking re-election, India's Narendra Modi has waged a muscular Hindu nationalist campaign that suggests a mandate for a second term in office could be interpreted by his Bharatiya Janata Party as consent to steer India toward a majoritarian Hindu state, in a break with the country’s constitutional legacy.
As the world’s biggest election draws to a close in a five-week staggered and punishing exercise in peak Indian summer on Sunday, millions of political workers and government staff heave a collective sigh of relief while the nation begins its wait with bated breath for the results of what is considered the most important election since 1977.
The seventh and final phase of polling of the ongoing 17th general elections began in 59 parliamentary constituencies on Sunday, across seven states and one union territory.
The long drawn out elections, which began on April 11 and involved over half a million security personnel and nearly 4 million polling staff manning a million polling booths across the vast nation, will in a few days deliver the verdict on how the people feel about the direction in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to take India.
But for an election so crucial to its future, this campaign has been mostly about the past.
Despite being born amid mass killings in Hindu-Muslim riots during India’s independence in 1947 from the British and its partition into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan, the new Indian nation chose to keep religion out of its guiding state policy.
But in seeking re-election, Modi has waged a muscular Hindu nationalist campaign that suggests a mandate for a second term in office could be interpreted by his Bharatiya Janata Party as consent to steer India toward a majoritarian Hindu state, in a break with the country’s constitutional legacy.
Business-friendly Modi, who rode to power in 2014 on the promise of taking the economy to new heights, was faced with grim statistics going into this election. Some 11 million jobs are estimated to have been lost last year. The male workforce has shrunk for the first time since 1993-94.
These numbers are particularly stark for Modi, who had promised to create 20 million jobs a year, and is facing a mostly young electorate. Half of India’s 1.3 billion people are below 25 and more than 65 per cent below 35, with 15 million casting their vote for the first time in this election.
India’s economic growth slowed in the 2018-2019 financial year, factory output has shrunk for the first time in nearly two years, corporate profits are down, and consumption and investments remain weak. Exports, which grew over 125 percent in the five years under the previous government, crept up just 10 percent under Modi.
But most troubling for him, India has been facing an acute agrarian crisis, resulting in demonstrations and protests by farmers. Non-farm rural workers have also suffered as a result of the slowdown. Rural voters are politically the most important as two-thirds of its population live in villages.
Many of Modi’s initiatives such as cash support to villagers for installing free toilets and homes have won him new supporters. But the dire economic climate meant focusing on his performance in office would be risky. Instead, Modi framed his campaign in overtly nationalist terms, basing it on the government’s tough response to a terror attack in restive Kashmir in February that killed 44 soldiers just before the election was announced.
Modi had ordered covert air strikes across the border in Pakistan after the terror attack, a decision he has been flogging to press his credentials as a tough leader with the ability to protect the country. To press his point of being a strong statesman, Modi, a master communicator, also managed to dominate media coverage with attacks on past prime ministers for failing to do what he achieved in five years.
He has been particularly harsh on former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991, and is the father of the opposition Congress party leader and Modi’s main rival, Rahul Gandhi. For days on, at the peak of the campaign, Indian media was dominated by claims and counterclaims on whether or not Rajiv Gandhi had misused a warship for a family holiday in 1987.
A survey of over 2,73,000 voters across the country in October-December by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-profit, had showed the top three priorities for Indians were jobs, primary healthcare and drinking water. Action against terrorism, the cornerstone of Modi’s nationalist rhetoric, was the second-last among the 31 governance issues the respondents were asked to choose from, which also included roads, public transport and farm subsidy.
The respondents had ranked the Modi government’s performance on all 31 as “below average”. The result of this election, when it comes in possibly on May 23, will reveal if five weeks was long enough time for Modi to convince them otherwise, or too short to discuss the other 30.
The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Sydney Democracy Network, The University of Sydney.