Which way is India headed?

If India is on way to becoming a great world power, most Indians would want to stay in their country and not move on

Shahid Javed Burki April 29, 2024
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


I write this as India has begun the weeks-long process of national elections. The results of the elections will be announced on June 4, but the outcome is well known. Narendra Modi, the incumbent prime minister, will get another term in office which he has held since 2015. His political organisation, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) will come in with an even larger majority than it obtained in the elections of 2019 when it won 303 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament which has 543 seats. When Modi completes his third term in 2029, he would have served as India’s prime minister for 15 years. This would be the longest tenure of any individual in Indian history. What will Modi do with this unprecedented domination of the Indian political system?

This is an important question not only for 1.5 billion citizens of India, which now has the world’s largest population, having overtaken China a few years ago. It is an important question for several countries outside India’s borders. Pakistan belongs to the latter group. Modi and his political party have not made any secret of their hostility towards their large, predominantly Muslim neighbour. Of special concern is the way Modi and the senior members of his government and political organisation treat the country’s large Muslim population. With 200 million people of Islamic faith who are India’s citizens, the country has the third largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan.

There are several Indian commentators writing about their country from India who worry about what they call India’s old bigotry. Among them is Siddhartha Deb, the author of Twilight Prisoners: The Rise of the Hindu Right and the Fall of India. In an opinion piece contributed to the April 19, 2024 issue of The New York Times, he recalled the Ayodhya episode. “The sleepy pilgrimage city of Ayodhya in northern India was once home to a grand 16th century mosque, until it was illegally demolished by a howling mob of Hindu militants in 1991,” he wrote. “The site has been reinvented as the centerpiece of the Hindu-chauvinist ‘new India’ promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2020, Modi went to Ayodhya to inaugurate the construction of a three-story sandstone temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of the former mosque. He offered prayers to the Ram idol and inserted an 88-pound silver brick as the foundation stone.” However, there is no conclusive evidence supporting Hindu claims that Ram was a historical figure or that a temple devoted to his memory stood there. The temple was completed and inaugurated by Modi on January 22, 2023.

The temple’s inauguration day comes four days before January 26 that celebrates the adoption of India’s secular constitution. Modi and his government have tinkered with other dates to drive home the idea that India is a Hindu country which should be called Bharat rather than India. August 15, which before Modi came to power, was celebrated as India’s Independence Day has been named differently. Now, announced Modi, it would be Partition Horrors Remembrance Day referring to the hundreds of thousands of people of all religions who were killed as 14 million people moved in one direction or the other. That movement was one of the largest in human history.

Continued Deb, in his write-up about the Hindu idea of nationhood Modi was busy implementing: “After a decade of rule by Mr. Modi and his Bhartiya Janata Party, Hindu majority India maintains the façade of a democracy and so far has avoided the overt features of a theocracy. Yet as Ayodhya revealed, it has for all practical purposes become a Hindu state. Adherence to this idea is demanded from everyone, whether Hindu or not.” Debb concluded his article with a warning: “Mr. Modi and his party are giving India the Hindu utopia they have promised, and in the clear light of the day, it amounts to little more than a shiny, garish temple that is a monument to majoritarian violence, surrounded by water-logged streets, emaciated cattle and a people impoverished in every way.”

That many among the Western leadership has bought Prime Mister Narendra Modi’s idea of new India is reflected in the space they are giving his country in the world they are constructing that would keep China at a comfortable distance. Pakistan should draw some comfort from the fact that the rising China is one of its four neighbours. No matter how hard the US and its Western allies try, China cannot be contained by what they believe is a rising India. Some among the western leadership may have bought Prime Minister Modi’s idea that under his rule, India is on the way to becoming a dominant world player. However, there are many in India who believe that is not the case. Deb is not the only Indian writing about his country with considerable skepticism.

If India is on the way to becoming a great world power, most Indians would want to stay in their country and not move on. There are many from India who are taking the risk of entering the US illegally. There is a significant number of Indians who cross into America through the porous border with Mexico in search of better lives. There are other sober analysts who are raising serious doubts about the survival of the Indian political system that the first generation of the country’s leadership constructed in the days immediately following the founding of the county on August 15, 1947. Among those who have expressed caution about the way India’s future is assessed is the British newsmagazine, The Economist, that carried in its issue of April 2024 several articles on the way it saw India on the eve of its months-long national elections. It displayed considerable nervousness about India’s future.

While the leadership in the West may have begun to look at Modi and the country he leads as a way of containing the growing influence in Asia of rising China, that confidence is not shared by many Indians both living inside the country as well as those who are members of the large Indian diaspora. Many Indians are now increasingly concerned about what the British when they governed the large Indian colony called their “Mussalman problem”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to pursue his divisive approach towards representative politics in India. I will take up this subject next week in this space.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2024.

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