Not a new India

While India has become a member of the league of great nations, much remains to be done at home

Shahid Javed Burki June 17, 2024
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


Will the elections of 2024 held over a period of almost seven weeks in which about a billion people cast their votes and the results of which were announced by the Indian Election Commission on June 4, usher in a new India? The simple answer is no. Prime Minister Narendra Modi won the third term for the office he has held for a decade when he was first elected in 2014 and will now govern until 2029 but the size of his victory was much smaller than what he had hoped for and what he had expected. He had hoped that his political organisation, the Bharatiya Janata Party, over which he has long presided would come in with 400 sets in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, which would mean an absolute majority. Had the elections produced that result, he would have been able to usher a “new India”, by changing the Constitution which has survived without much tinkering since it was adopted in 1949.

Even without the changes in the Constitution, the India that went to the polls in March 2024 was much different from the one Modi had inherited when he moved from Gujarat where he had ruled as the Chief Minister to New Delhi, the Indian capital. That happened in 2014 when he and the BJP won the majority in the Lok Sabha without the need for forming a coalition which had been done by several governments that preceded the one that he led after the first electoral victory. That feat was repeated in 2019 when the BJP once again came in with a majority.

What was achieved during this period? The most telling answer is that in this time India ceased to be the poster child of democratic rule. In early 2024 it had become the world’s most populous country by surpassing China. While Beijing under the rule of Xi Jinping, who held a number of positions that gave him almost total power, China had turned towards authoritarianism, India had remained a democracy. However, it was considerably eroded by the way Modi had ruled. To understand what India had become in the ten years while Modi lived in New Delhi’s Prime Minister’s House, I will quote from an assessment provided by Lydia Polgreen, a columnist for The New York Times. In a column published by the newspaper in its issue of June 9, 2024 under the title “India keeps its glorious messy tradition alive”, she paints a grim picture of how Modi has governed and how his governance has changed the country. Narendra Modi’s government “has taken aim at just about every form of freedom,” she writes. “He has attacked and grievously weakened India’s once boisterous press. He has jailed critics and political opponents. He has sharpened religious animosity, referring during this campaign, to Muslims who make up 14 percent of India’s population, as ‘infiltrators’ who seek to steal wealth and power from the Hindu majority. It’s an Indian edition of the nationalist, populist playing out around the world.”

India was not alone in seeing the gradual demise of fully representative democracy even in the countries that had practised it for years. The most telling example of this was the US that had for centuries followed the template given to it by its founding fathers in its Constitution. Then what was devised would be described in today’s language as fully representative and inclusive system of governance. However, under four years of stewardship by Doanld Trump who served as president for four years from 2017 to 2021 but was narrowly defeated in 2020 by Joe Biden the Democrat, the American system has weakened to the point where several informed observers have begun to suggest that their country may be headed towards authoritarianism. The Republican Trump refused to accept the defeat in the elections, calling it massively rigged. Acceptance of election results is one of the requirements of a functioning, representative democracy. However, Trump added the slogan “the great steal” to his “make America great again” or MAGA he had come up with after taking the presidency in 2017.

How different will India be in the third term of Narendra Modi as prime minister? If “difference” means improving the state of governance and making it more representative and inclusive, the answer at this point is that if there is to be a change it will be a move in the wrong direction. One indication of this is the appointments Modi had made to his cabinet. There is no change in the top positions. He has kept Amit Shah as the Home Minister, which effectively puts him in charge of domestic intelligence and law-enforcing agencies. Shah is regarded as the second most powerful person in the Indian political system after Modi. He is widely regarded as the successor to Modi if the latter for some reason leaves his position. The Ministry of External Affairs has once again gone to S Jaishankar who is credited with bringing his country into a close contact with the US while retaining ties with President Putin’s Russia. He is no friend of China or Pakistan, two of India’s six neighbours. The defence portfolio remains with Rajnath Singh who is committed to modernising the country’s armed forces by obtaining as well as manufacturing modern equipment needed by all three parts of the defence force – the army, the air force and the navy. Not only will the Americans add to the production facilities they already have in the country, but Israel will also become an important supplier and manufacturer. It is interesting that despite the effort to develop close economic, financial and political relations with the Arab world, India has chosen to get close to Israel in the defence field. The finance portfolio has once again been assigned to Nirmala Sitharaman who played an important role in accelerating the rate of economic growth to the point at which the country is now the fastest growing major economy in the world. However, this impressive performance has come at the cost of an increase in income inequality. India now has some of the world’s richest people while also dealing with extreme poverty in which close to a billion people live. Most of the poor lack access to basic needs that include both food and clean water.

The conclusion of all this is obvious. While India has become a member of the league of great nations – the Italian prime minister invited it to attend the meeting of the G7 nations that was held in her country – much remains to be done at home.


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