India going back to the future?


In the coming two months, 900 million Indians, by far the world’s largest democratic electorate, will be deciding on a new government. The choice will not be easy. Though at the last election in 2014, there were around 140 different parties fielding candidates, the contest boiled down to the Congress party, which had dominated Indian politics since 1947 independence, and the aggressively Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi.

The BJP won five years ago mainly because of voter weariness with Congress party rule overseen by successive members of the Gandhi family. Corruption had become endemic. Congress governance, though ushering in key reforms that saw the economy begin to take off, appeared to be failing. Trust in the party’s ability to bring real change had ebbed away. People wanted something different.

Modi presented himself as the new man with exciting, thrustful policies that would boost India, not least in terms of its geopolitical rival China. However, in the event, the BJP has failed to deliver. Much of the blame for this rests with Modi himself, who is very much the face of the party in the same way that the Gandhi family has represented the Congress party. Only three of Congress’s prime ministers have not been part of the clan. Manmohan Singh the last Congress premier, was heavily influenced by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born wife of Rajiv Gandhi, the assassinated premier who had taken over after his own mother, Indira Gandhi, was murdered by her bodyguards.

Modi’s problem is that he has been willingly riding the tiger of Hindu fanatics within the Sangh Parivar who hold considerable sway inside the BJP and were the moving force behind the destruction of the historic Ayodhya mosque. Last month the Supreme Court delayed a final ruling on the ownership of the Ayodhya site because one of its judges was ill. This has infuriated Modi’s government which was hoping to use a favorable verdict to boost its election chances.

Moreover, Pakistan premier Imran Khan’s wise tension-defusing decision to return an Indian air force pilot downed in an airstrike on Pakistani territory, has served to rob Modi of a saber-rattling opportunity to wrap himself in the national flag and divert the electorate’s attention from his administration’s lackluster economic record.

The all-important rural constituencies are angry. Incomes have stagnated if not declined because of falling commodity prices. Farmers in particular are struggling to repay large bank debts. Modi’s much-heralded re-monetization program, supposedly to catch out tax cheats, caused financial hardship especially among lower income families. Unemployment has risen, it is suspected far more seriously than government figures admit. And state-owned banks continue to be in big trouble thanks to substantial non-performing loans, incompetent management and corruption. Modi ousted two Reserve Bank of India governors in quick succession because, as central bankers responsible for the health of the financial system, they refused his demand to go softly on the state bank sector.

Voters, therefore, have a choice between a struggling Modi and the BJP or going back to the future with the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi, the latest member of India’s political clan and his charismatic sister, Priyanka, recently persuaded to enter politics. In the end the pick will be between Modi’s divisive sectional policies and the traditional non-sectarian All-India (Sarvodaya) outlook of Congress.