India Faces a Looming Disaster
Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is an election-winning machine. But its ideology is sharply at odds with economic or social common sense.
Last May, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has long espoused a form of muscular Hindu nationalism, returned to power for a second term after winning 303 out of 543 parliamentary seats in India’s 17th general election. From winning a measly two seats in 1984, the first year it contested in a national election, the BJP achieved a rare political dominance this year, superseding even the most bullish expectations to match its 2014 performance. And in the wake of its latest electoral victory, the party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands poised to consolidate its power still further as it seeks to attract disgruntled opposition politicians and build a majority in the upper house of Parliament as well. The near-complete absence of any meaningful opposition gives the BJP a free rein to carry out its political programs. The Indian National Congress, an organization that had spearheaded India’s freedom struggle and remained the largest national party for nearly six decades after the country’s independence in 1947, has now seen its share of seats in Parliament reduced to just 10 percent in two consecutive general elections.
The BJP enjoys clear tailwinds: It not only has the strongest mandate of any Indian government in more than three decades, with a feeble opposition; it also faces a largely pliant media. But set against those favorable conditions are considerable headwinds of the party’s own making. In fact, the very underpinning of the BJP’s ideology—that of India becoming a Hindu nation, bolstered by supposedly business-friendly policies—could become the reason for increased social discord, crony capitalism, and ultimately slowing growth.
At the core of Modi’s winning rhetoric lies an old promise of India’s greatness, presented anew. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organization of which the BJP is a part, has since its inception in 1925 articulated a vision that promotes a homogenous Hindu nation—as opposed to the idea of a country based on universalistic, liberal, and democratic values. Not unlike the Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, the RSS believed strongly in a two-nation theory and supported the creation of Pakistan as a separate nation for Muslims and India for Hindus. At the center of this cognitive scheme sits the promise of a return to India’s past greatness: spiritual, material, and territorial (akhand bharat, or an “undivided India” that includes all lands from Iran to Myanmar and from Tibet to Sri Lanka). These tenets, the theory goes, would lead to India’s rightful prominence and prestige on the global stage.
To the RSS and its followers, the road to greatness lies through powerful (read: authoritarian) leadership and decision-making, ultra-nationalistic pride, and a nation-building project that adheres to what they deem to be the country’s authentic civilizational roots. According to the RSS, India is imagined as a primarily Hindu society with all non-Hindus—except Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists—seen as suspect foreigners. Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and Jews are considered outsiders who can stay in India only if they are suitably and unrecognizably Hinduized and display appropriate deference to the majority. Special suspicion is reserved for Muslims, as they are the largest minority and the most prominently different from Hindus.
The question then is what this transition means for India’s citizens and what it holds for the country’s aspirations of becoming a great power.
Realist scholars believe that a great power can influence global events in more than a single region to its advantage even in the face of opposition from others. This worldview, which the RSS shares, emphasizes the significance of material power and highlights a state’s capacity to ward off both internal and external threats to its sovereignty. Simultaneously, a great power must be able to deploy other elements of state capacity—namely the ability to extract resources—and redistribute them to its citizens. From that standpoint, India’s ability to tax the powerful and the well-heeled is still quite anemic. For example, India’s tax-to-GDP ratio, which stands at around 17 percent, is at the lower end among emerging economies, such as South Africa (27 percent), Chile (28 percent), and Nepal (21 percent).
Worse still, India has seen a phenomenal rise in unemployment in the last decade, from around 2 percent in 2011-2012 to 6 percent in 2017-2018, the highest in more than four decades. Its capacity to generate formal employment, create access to quality primary education, or provide basic services such as health care, housing, or access to clean drinking water is decades behind several poorer and smaller nations, such as Sri Lanka or even Libya. The principal challenge that any government in India will confront is that of tackling these public policy shortfalls. If the last five years of BJP rule are any indication, the country has barely begun to make a dent in coping with these hurdles.
India’s military capabilities, though seemingly robust, remain riddled with problems. Its defense acquisition process is all but broken, equipment is outdated, and even ammunition stocks are inadequate for a possible two-front war. Despite much fanfare, the Modi government made little or no headway in tackling these endemic issues. Even though India is a nuclear state with proven space launch capabilities, it falls dangerously short on its progress on both defense research and development and manufacturing. For example, the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft project, which was initiated in the early 1980s, remains in its infancy and is mostly reliant on foreign components. To add to that, military spending remains low at 2.4 percent of the GDP.
Even as the new BJP government remains sandbagged with these structural shortcomings, its ideology and policies are only likely to exacerbate these existing infirmities. Instead of harnessing its parliamentary majority to forthrightly tackle these persistent problems, it is more than likely—if one is to follow its last campaign manifesto—to devote its energies to socio-cultural questions in its quest to turn India into a homogeneous nation. For example, its emphasis on the use of Hindi, its obsession with Hinduism, and its vision of Hindustan (the land of the Hindus) are bound to create a rift among India’s non-Hindi literary traditions and speakers of these languages, who constitute about 58 percent of the population. More to the point, its Hindu nationalist agenda celebrates an archaic and deeply patriarchal conception of caste and gender that typecasts women in specific, family-oriented roles. (There are, obviously, striking exceptions: India’s finance minister is a woman who previously held the title of defense minister.)
At another level, the RSS’s idea of the nation and Hindu society leaves very little opportunity to finally address the fraught question of caste in Indian society. And as routine acts of violence and terror are visited on India’s vast Dalit, or lower caste, community, the government has proved to be a mute spectator to these atrocities.
Matters are considerably worse when it comes to the plight of India’s 200 million Muslims, representing nearly 15 percent of the country’s population. They are now facing regular attacks in virtually every sphere of their lives. Mob lynchings in the name of cow protection—cows are holy to Hindus, whereas Muslims eat beef—are now commonplace, and the victims rarely get any redress. Quite unsurprisingly, these attacks have all but completely alienated members of the Muslim electorate. While the BJP has garnered the votes of large swaths of the country, including in India’s more secular northeastern and southern states, and across a range of social segments, India’s Muslims have stayed away from its Hindu majoritarian politics. If this growing Hindu-Muslim rift widens, the possibility of social discord and indeed violence across the land may be inevitable.
To compound matters, voices of dissent have faced sustained attacks. Civil rights activists, intellectuals, media professionals, and ideological rivals have all been at the receiving end of a slew of legal and social intimidation tactics by the BJP and its mass of supporters. In August 2018, for example, Sudha Bharadwaj, a noted grassroots lawyer and lifelong civil liberties activist, was arrested along with four other activists on clearly tenuous grounds. Bharadwaj had lately been fighting against large-scale mining activities to save thousands of India’s poorest from losing their lands and livelihoods in the state of Chhattisgarh. The arrests were, without a doubt, politically motivated.
The systematic erosion of institutions is another dangerous trend. Since 2015, the appointment of RSS members and ideological allies has become a common occurrence in publicly funded educational bodies, cultural organizations, film censor boards, the judiciary, regulatory institutions, and general bureaucracy. The appointment of the lifelong RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy as a member of the board of directors of the country’s central bank is just one among scores of such appointments made to further ideological interests of the Hindu supremacists. In January 2018, four Supreme Court judges called a public press conference to raise serious concerns about bias and interference in case allocations by the then-Chief Justice Deepak Misra. Similarly, in the 2019 elections, the Election Commission, long held to be a neutral regulatory institution, was widely criticized for its apparent bias toward the ruling party.
Nor do the economic policies of the BJP offer much comfort. A fundamental flaw in the configuration of its economic policies involves the inherent tension between the cultural projects of the RSS family and the critical need for boosting economic reforms. Despite its rhetoric to the contrary, arbitrary and nontransparent moves characterized the economic reforms of Modi’s first term. In November 2016, in a largely failed bid to tackle corruption, the government demonetized nearly 90 percent of Indian currency notes circulating in its enormous informal economy. This flawed decision had massive adverse consequences for both growth and employment as hundreds of thousands of small and microenterprises in agriculture, trade, and manufacturing saw their capital dry up. Not surprisingly, GDP growth dropped to 6.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2016-2017 from nearly 7 percent in the previous quarter. Separately, RSS-affiliated organizations regularly protested against meaningful economic reforms such as the implementation of a national goods and services tax and disinvestment from state-owned firms. In 2017, the noted economist Arvind Panagariya, who had been heading Niti Aayog, the country’s powerful economic research and analysis unit, left his position because of disagreements over issues of trade negotiations and foreign investment. The RSS has a deep distrust of internationally trained economists and has constantly rooted for the political control of India’s central bank. Not surprisingly, the highly regarded economist Raghuram Rajan, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund who was appointed to lead the central bank by the previous Congress-led government, chose not to seek a second term. His able successor, Urjit Patel, in turn, was also removed as he refused to accede to the government’s demands to slash interest rates. Currently, the central bank is headed by a pliable career bureaucrat, Shaktikanta Das, who is not a trained economist. India’s economic reform program has, no doubt, been slow and incremental. However, this gradualist agenda was reflective of competing demands and interests in a democratic polity. The BJP government—beholden to the RSS—is now giving into the latter’s dubious economic whims and placing both institutions and policies at risk.
India is now facing a simultaneous attack on its institutions and values. The Modi government is dismantling some of the key entities that have been a source of institutional ballast regardless of which party was in power. It is also flinging open a door to the furies of ethnocultural nationalism. This combination, if unchecked, will fundamentally undermine India’s democratic institutions, damage its social fabric, stall economic growth, and throw into disarray any hopes of India’s rise as a great power.
Sumit Ganguly is a Foreign Policy columnist. He is also a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.