What Will India Look Like If Modi Returns to Power?

Sunday's exit polls suggest the prime minister will get a second term. But while that may hurt India's liberal traditions, a further slide toward authoritarianism isn't likely.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at a public rally in Kolkata, India, on April 3. (Atul Loke/Getty Images)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at a public rally in Kolkata, India, on April 3. (Atul Loke/Getty Images) Atul Loke/Getty Images

Indian liberals fear that a second term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi might prompt a decisive turn against the country’s secular traditions, much as the American left fears that Donald Trump’s return would irreparably harm U.S. democratic institutions. This Modi-as-strongman thesis places India squarely within a global autocratic resurgence, featuring a familiar tableau of leaders from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

Yet India’s post-election scene is likely to be more complicated, given the probable outcome—as forecast in Sunday’s exit polls—is a second Modi government, but not necessarily a stronger one. Such a verdict would carry many risks for India’s future. But liberals need not panic quite yet, given Modi himself becoming an ever more dominant strongman-style political figure is not the most likely outcome.

The global democratic stakes when results are declared on May 23 are undoubtedly high, given the creeping worldwide rise of what Robert Kagan dubs “non-liberal” states. India has never fitted neatly into conventional Western liberal models, partly because of the haphazard way its state has protected constitutional rights enshrined by the nation’s founders after independence in 1947. Nonetheless, for those hoping the march of the strongmen can be halted, it would be a grave setback were India’s future to be one in which Modi seized progressively more power for himself.

There are legitimate reasons to worry about this, given the direction of Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since taking power in 2014. Back then, Modi styled himself as a charismatic but honest vikas purush, or “development man,” who had mostly left behind the zeal of his younger days as a radical proselytizer for Hindutva, or the theory that India is rightly a Hindu, not a multicultural, nation.

His 2019 campaign for reelection, by contrast, has been light on development and heavy on ethno-religious dog whistles. In a notably nasty campaign, Modi and his acolytes have riled up their Hindu base, giving fiery speeches on the dangers posed militarily by Muslim-majority Pakistan and socially by Muslim migrants illegally creeping across the border from Bangladesh—a group one powerful BJP politician described as alien “termites.”

For strongman alarmists, Modi’s record offers warnings, too. He has shown populist leanings, attacking a corrupt elite that his supporters imagine as a small but powerful clique of English-speaking leftist intellectuals. Important institutions have been degraded, notably the central bank and supreme court. When Modi took power, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked India as the world’s 27th healthiest democracy, taking into account measures such as fair elections and civil liberties. This year it slipped to 41st.

Such a record incites dire comparisons. Gyan Prakash, a left-wing Princeton University historian, wrote recently that Modi reminded him of Indira Gandhi, modern India’s most authoritarian leader. Although she led the leftist and secular Indian National Congress—now an enfeebled opposition party to Modi’s rule—Gandhi suspended constitutional freedoms during a period known as “the Emergency,” which ran from 1975 to 1977, giving India’s it’s only true brush with dictatorship.

It is this prospect that most alarms the current prime minister’s critics. Many fear that a victorious, emboldened Modi would seek far-reaching changes to India’s constitutional order, partly to increase his own authority and partly to affirm Hinduism as a de facto state religion. This then invites global comparisons to other notorious strongmen, many of whom began with the same moderate technocratic platforms that Modi offered in 2014, only to grow more autocratic in power.

Viktor Orban, feted in Washington by U.S. President Donald Trump in early May, fits this model well. When he first became Hungarian prime minister in 1998, he was only experimenting with the nationalist themes that became far more marked later in his rule. Turkey’s Erdogan made the same progression, morphing from a pragmatic reformist in the early 2000s to his modern guise as a strident populist pressing changes to Turkey’s constitution to cement his own power base.

It is understandable therefore why so many fear Modi might take India on a similar path—understandable but far from certain.

Start with the electoral mathematics. Most polls suggest that Modi will return as prime minister but with fewer seats in India’s lower house of Parliament than he had after his 2014 triumph. Sunday’s exit polls look good for Modi, with most predicting the BJP and its allies will have enough for a majority on their own—although such polls have been wrong before. It remains possible Modi might need the support of other political parties to form a coalition government. By the standards of recent Indian political history, even this would still be a creditable result, but were he to lead a minority government it would be perceived as an electoral knock-back.

Any putative coalition, or even a narrow majority for Modi and his allies, would still place limitations on his legislative ambitions. It would likely force Modi to tone down his party’s more incendiary rhetoric, too, to avoid irking coalition partners, few of whom have much time for the chauvinistic tone of the BJP’s most extreme representatives. This in turn would make it harder to deliver totemic communal promises, including building a new temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of a demolished mosque in the holy city of Ayodhya and the introduction of a new civil code designed to prohibit sharia, or Islamic law.

Modi’s position would also be far from clear in front of his Hindu nationalist base—and in particular the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a powerful national Hindu religious organization that acts as the BJP’s parent and which has increasingly placed its cadres into positions in India’s public administration. This movement will continue to be potent, but it is also likely to be divided about its future direction.

Modi himself is not a man given to introspection. Were he either to win a narrow victory or to return to power only with a coalition, it seems unlikely he would abandon the kind of rhetoric that has left so many Indian minorities fearful (and in particular Muslims). Boasting fewer economic sources of legitimacy, he might well continue periodically to pump communal tensions, in search of what the academic Ashutosh Varshney calls “Hindu consolidation,” or an attempt to unite Hindus from the country’s many disparate caste groups, largely by pitting them against other religions.

Yet even this would hardly constitute a sudden and decisive step toward strongman leadership. India remains a federal nation, in which prime ministers in New Delhi face many constraints on their power, not least from other state governments. Modi’s first term record was one of piecemeal rather than radical change, and there are few indications his second would be different. Rather, the risk India faces is more of the same: a gradual continuation of the erosion of liberties and institutions and occasional religious thuggery seen in Modi’s first term. The most likely post-election outcome is still reversion to the mean, with a return to the messy, slow-moving kind of politics common for most of the last three decades, prior to Modi’s forceful but unusual victory five years ago.

All this could well be bad news economically, given Modi shows no signs of wanting to use a renewed mandate to force through decisive structural reforms (which he in any case mostly avoided during his first term). Indeed, it is striking how uninspiring India’s post-election outlook appears in this regard, with the giddy hopes for economic transformation and near double digit growth that Modi admirers talked of in 2014 now all but extinguished.

The likely results may be less bad socially than many fear, with plenty of limitations on the BJP’s worst instincts. Whichever way you look at it, Modi’s return to New Delhi is not going to be good for India’s liberal traditions. At least for now, however, it won’t be the end of them.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the author of The Billionaire Raj. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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