Modi Could Bring India ‘Five (or 10) Years of Pain’

“India is in for five and maybe 10 years of pain, then Hindutva will backfire and the country’s vast diversity will reassert itself.”

That comment, which I heard recently from an experienced Indian journalist, sums up the views of those who fear that India’s current general election will lead to five more years and maybe longer of the authoritarian Hindu nationalist government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his hard-line acolyte Amit Shah, currently president of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The remark presupposes that Modi and his BJP-led National Democratic Alliance will win the election when votes are counted on May 23, with a big enough majority to be able to govern without recruiting more-moderate regional parties.

It assumes that Modi’s primary message – that he alone is capable of protecting India from external forces, notably Pakistan – has overridden concerns, at least in key north India states such as Uttar Pradesh, about his government’s failure in the past five years to create jobs for aspirational youth, protect farmers and the poor, and meet his 2014 Achhe Din promise that “good times are coming”.

Time magazine swings

The opening remark may of course not be justified. The BJP might lose heavily in UP against a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of two regional parties and might not manage to offset that with gains elsewhere, notably in its former stronghold of Madhya Pradesh and in West Bengal, which Modi has targeted.

That could mean it doesn’t win the 200-220 or so seats it needs for the NDA coalition to build a 272 majority figure in the 543-seat Lok Sabha. It would then need to gain the support of other parties that might insist on a softer version of the Modi style of government and Hindutva, maybe even with Modi stepping side. The alternative would be for the BJP to go into opposition, though it is difficult to imagine Modi adapting in parliament to the role of opposition leader.

At this stage, it is unrealistic to try to forecast the result. The election has not been fought on the record of Modi’s government or on the opposition’s policies, but has become a rancorous and acrimonious battle that has sharpened religious and other divisions. Modi has replicated his centralized presidential style of government by making himself the focus of the election campaign as the chowkidar (night watchman) who alone can protect the country.

Divider in Chief

Time magazine ran a cover (above) on May 9 dubbing Modi “India’s Divider in Chief”, with an essay provocatively headed “Can the World’s Largest Democracy Endure Another Five Years of a Modi Government.”

It tried to cover its back with a second article headed “Modi Is India’s Best Hope for Economic Reform,” but there have been widespread reports in Delhi that Modi was horrified by such a public blow to his carefully nurtured international image, especially in an American magazine (though it was not the cover in the US edition). A BJP official started an online petition protesting at the critical article.

Voters queue in West Bengal – Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri photo

In an aggressive and unruly election, there have been many official complaints that political leaders have broken the code of conduct, but a pliant Election Commission has rejected most of those relating to Modi – another example of the prime minister undermining India’s respected institutions, a regular feature over the past five years.

The BJP is flush with funds to spend on electioneering and on attracting smaller parties into its coalition. Much of the money has come from companies, some through a new electoral bond scheme that has favored the BJP.

The Tata group’s electoral trusts, headed by Ratan Tata, the former group chairman and a Modi fan, alone contributed a much bigger sum of Rs5-6 billion (US$71.5-85 million) to political parties in the current election, which was more than 20 times its amount in 2014. The reliable Business Standard has estimated that the BJP received Rs3 billion to Rs3.5 billion out of that total this year, with the Congress possibly getting around Rs500 million and smaller amounts going to regional parties. Such heavy party funding is not gratuitous: it is an insurance for the future and buys favors.

BJP appears worried

There have however been signs that the BJP is worried about the likely result and there have been recent indications that Modi is losing his grip. In the past few days, he has even been swung irrationally to criticizing Rajiv Gandhi, father of Rahul the current Congress president, for what he did when he was prime minister in the 1990s and calling him bhrastachari number 1 (corrupt number 1).

Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi campaigning

Congress produced a sound program-based manifesto and Rahul Gandhi has fought an earnest campaign, casting aside some of his earlier lack of focus.

He has failed however to engage the government on its shortcomings and has also failed to establish himself as a viable future prime minister. His sister Priyanka (above), who has been playing a prominent role for the first time, has helped to motivate Congress activists and may help to pull in votes, but there is little sign of cohesion or potential leadership among its allies.

Spread over seven phases, voting for the 900-million electorate began on April 11 and ends May 19, when exit polls will be published indicating the possible result. The sixth phase has taken place today, May 12, with voting in seven states including Delhi where the BJP is focused on defeating candidates from the regional Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that has built up a good record running the city state’s government.

Security not jobs

“Don’t give vote for development to BJP candidate….vote for him because Narendra Modi made the country’s border secure”, Amit Shah was reported saying this week.

That remark was based on a fallacy built up by Modi that no previous government had sent the army to strike against terrorist forces in Pakistan as he did on September 28, 2016 (followed on February 26 this year by the air force entering Pakistan and engaging in combat for the first time since 1971). Modi’s persistent claim that the 2016 attack was the first ever has been contradicted by the Congress Party, which has announced the dates, and one attack in 2011 has been reported in detail.

But Modi’s claims, which have created divisions between top army officers who back his demands and those who deny them, are widely believed. “Modi has the guts to strike Pakistan: no one has done it before,” I was told last month by an erudite middle-class professional in the Maharashtra city of Pune.

I went to this firmly pro-Modi city to promote a new “Modi” edition of my book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality and to explore how deep the support runs. Scarcely anyone in a rotary club meeting that I addressed would give any credibility to my line that the Modi years were “not what was needed.”.

A slight criticism of Modi’s Swachh Bharat toilets and cleanliness campaign (that I basically praised) brought one angry industrialist in the audience to his feet in protest. Everyone seemed committed to the line that Modi had done well with economic reforms – and those that disagreed were not prepared to say so publicly.

One businessman spent over 30 minutes telling me in detail how almost everything Modi had done – even the disastrous demonetization of 86 percent of bank notes in 2015 – was a success. I heard later however that, like many others, he would not admit his true feelings to anyone in case his criticisms were fed back to Modi or Shah, triggering harassment by taxation and other officials on him and his company.

This brought home to me what I had often heard in Delhi, but never completely believed – that widespread fear has grown since 2014 of reprisals being taken against people who criticize Modi. The public face of that has been criticism of anything to do with defense policy being dubbed as “pro Pakistan” while the private angle is general harassment.

Book review rejected

This has also led to an increase in self-censorship by the media. An editor in the IANS news agency, which is controlled by Anil Ambani, one of Mumbai’s prominent Reliance brothers and a Modi crony, refused to run a review of my Implosion book because it had “some serious stuff against Modi”. Elsewhere I was told that my “Not What Was Needed” analysis of the Modi years made me unwelcome.

During my almost three weeks in India, I heard mixed views. In more liberal and broad-minded Mumbai, the business reaction varied widely, though with a majority view that there was no realistic alternative to five more BJP years

In rural Madhya Pradesh, I heard from a villager how he was against the BJP because the cash economy had been disrupted by Modi’s demonetization and a campaign to spread the use of bank accounts.

The Economist editorial and “Agent Orange” headline

On the outskirts of Delhi, I heard how the AAP had improved schools and health clinics, and simplified electricity bills, while the local BJP assembly member had stopped being accessible and helpful once the party came to power in 2014. “They have anger inside them – we don’t dare disagree with BJP supporters,” I was told.

The view from eastern UP was that the BJP had done well with national schemes to electrify villages and finance construction of homes, as well as repairing local roads. The write-off of farmers’ loans was also welcomed, though the loans had not always been spent on crops – my contact financed his sister’s wedding.

Internationally there is a mixture of horror at the Modi Shah Hindutva excesses and a feeling that Modi provides the best option for economic development, despite the negatives. They are however concerned about corporate cronyism (which goes against Modi’s unrealistic claim to have clamped down on corruption), and about the government’s apparent lack of concern for established regulations, citing issues such as corporate taxation and e-commerce regulations.

Agent Orange

The Economist was far blunter (above) than Time magazine. It ran “Agent Orange” as a strap headline above a main header saying, “Under Narendra Modi, India’s ruling party poses a threat to democracy – Voters should turf it out, or at least force it to govern in coalition.”

“Agent Orange” carries a message of savage condemnation because it was a poisonous herbicide or defoliant used in Vietnam as a part of America’s scorched earth tactics to destroy jungle and food sources, and to reveal guerrilla hideouts (earlier used during the 1950s by the British in Malaya). The chemical, dioxin, caused hundreds of thousands of death in Vietnam and led to birth defects in subsequent generations.

The Economist’s apparent inference was as toxic as the chemical: Modi and Shah are obliterating broad swathes of India’s traditional secular life, endangering Muslims with what is dubbed a majoritarian approach, destroying basic freedoms, and devastating the country for future generations.

This is the core issue now being widely debated by both Modi’s committed critics and by those who think India needs another five years of his leadership on economic and structural development, but fear the Hindutva consequences. The question is how embedded Hindu nationalism has become in India’s way of life – and how great the pain would be for those who are not committed Hindu nationalists.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. A new “Modi” edition of his book “IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality,” which analyses the current government’s record, is available on Amazon India, Amazon US, and Amazon UK.