India began the world’s biggest democratic election in global history Monday with more than 800 million people gearing up to vote in a process that will take at least six weeks to select a new prime minister. Polls suggest that the right-wing, nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi will win the election, ending 10 years of rule by the dynastic center-left Congress Party.
The BJP, which espouses a pro-Hindu nationalist message, will likely have to compromise its rhetoric in the face of global political and economic realities.
Modi’s apparent triumph is predicated, of course, on BJP and its allies gaining a majority of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. It is widely expected that this can only happen if Modi can swing deals with smaller regional parties to form a coalition government.
Modi is already a highly controversial figure due largely to events that took place in his native state of Gujarat in 2002. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was widely blamed for standing idly by while communal violence between Hindus and Muslims reached such a frenzy that more than 1,200 people (mostly Muslims) died in rioting. Modi’s opponents view him as a bigot and a reactionary. However, Modi’s supporters counter that he offers a vision of prosperity for India, given that he engineered a remarkable economic renaissance in Gujarat, a program that included billions of dollars in investment by foreign companies and economic growth that exceeded the national rate. Modi, it is believed by his admirers, can put an end to the years of corruption, scandals, food inflation, weakening currency and economic sluggishness that has characterized the decade of Congress-led rule under outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Here are some policies that a BJP-Modi government in New Delhi are likely to pursue:
India’s Sluggish Economy
Indian economic growth has slowed down to less than a 5 percent annual expansion (about half of the pace from less than a decade ago), while consumer inflation is nearing the 10 percent level and foreign investments in the country has been falling. Modi has made a economic rebound the central theme of his campaign, but any policy measures he pursues would be likely be compromised by the demands of his coalition partners. Regardless, Ankit Panda, an expert on Indian politics and associate editor of The Diplomat magazine, predicted that Modi will push for more foreign investment-friendly policies and will also encourage individual Indian states to pursue their own foreign investment deals.
However, some of the major populist economic schemes that Congress established -- like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), a work program for unskilled rural laborers; and the National Food Security Bill, a program to subsidize food and grains for some 800 million people – are simply too popular for the BJP to scrap. “For political reasons, the BJP will have to carry on a lot of what the Congress established as populist schemes,” Panda said. “I am not optimistic for overnight economic change in India as a result.”
India desperately needs infrastructure upgrades for its roads, bridges, highways, seaports and airports, all of which will cost untold billions of dollars, from both domestic and foreign investors. This is a subject that most mainstream Indian politicians – regardless of party or ideology -- agree is crucial to the country’s economic future and survival. Modi will likely encourage further expenditures on such much-needed improvements. “Congress had this [infrastructure spending] on its agenda but [it] largely got bogged down with scams and corruption,” Panda said. “I think what Modi's real challenge in this area will be is [fighting] corruption.”
Internal Security Threats
India faces a number of internal security threats, including the Maoist Naxalites in the northeastern and eastern parts of the country, as well as Islamic Mujahedeen terror groups. Given Modi’s no-surrender stance against terrorist organizations and extremists, he will likely have no interest in negotiating with such groups, which is similar to Singh's policy. Michael Kugelman, Ph.D., a South Asia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, Modi will likely take a “pro-development stance” with the Naxalites, that is, he will advocate for economic improvements in the impoverished rural regions where the Maoists operate, in line with his pro-investment positions.
Over the decades millions of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh have poured into the northeastern states of India, largely fleeing extreme poverty and placing tremendous burdens on the Indian provinces that border Bangladesh. Modi has called for the expulsion of illegal Muslim immigrants, while embracing Hindu Bangladeshis. Such sentiments play well among conservative Hindu voters who feel besieged by what they view as an “invasion” by Muslims, but this policy would be highly impractical. “This would be a disastrous policy path for Modi to pursue should he become prime minister,” Panda said.
Kugelman said that illegal immigration is a no-win affair for any politician, including Modi. “Such a policy [of expelling Muslims and keeping Hindus] would anger many people, from those who support India's emphasis on secular values to those conservative voices that want no immigration at all to India,” he said. “It's not a realistic policy, and I don't see how it could be implemented without a huge backlash.”
Womens Rights/Rape Laws
Ever since the horrific gang-rape (and subsequent death) of a female medical student in New Delhi in December 2012, India’s poor treatment of women has become a national issue and a global embarrassment. Modi has claimed he wants to protect women's rights and safety, however, a number of BJP and other conservative politicians have already outraged feminists by claiming that rapes and sexual assaults are the inevitable results of urbanization, westernization and the decline of moral standards in India. As such, Panda does not see the would-be new prime minister taking a proactive role on these issues.
“[Modi] will likely give lip service to the notion of women's rights, but I think we'll see very [little] in the way of deliverables,” Panda said. “What will be interesting to watch will be his attempts to moderate statements being made by BJP members that are hostile to the notion of women's rights. If the BJP is to remain popular, it will have to take a view of women's rights that is compatible with democratic ideas and at the same time not incompatible with India's cultural heritage. Right now, it seems to me that a majority of BJP members espouse views that are hostile to the liberal notion of gender equality.”
India has a rising gay rights movement, supporters of which were outraged recently by the Supreme Court’s decision to essentially re-criminalize homosexual acts. While many Congress party members expressed their support of gay rights, India remains an extremely conservative society – an attitude that the BJP adheres to. “Modi has pursued a policy of silence on this issue and I expect that to continue,” Panda said. “This could be one issue that many of his non-religious, middle-class followers might find divisive.”
How Modi deals with India’s Muslim community, who represent about 13 percent of the total population, will be closely watched by observers in India and abroad. Jonah Blank, Ph.D., a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va., and an expert on South Asian affairs, noted that Modi has to reach some kind of understanding with Indian Muslims, some of whom view him with hostility, or at least, extreme skepticism. “[Modi] will have to be the leader of all Indian citizens; he can't just write off more than the 130 million citizens who are Muslim,” Blank said. “He can win without their votes, but he can't alienate them without damaging his legitimacy. At a minimum, he'll have to offer some sort of accountability for the [Gujarati] riots of 2002."
But Kugelman posits that Modi’s unpopularity with Muslims may be exaggerated. “Recent polling shows that Indian Muslims want to vote for the candidate who can best deliver economic success. And on this front, few can compete with Modi,” he said.
Panda noted in an interview that Modi has not really discussed his foreign policy goals in any detail during the campaign. “I think he lacks vision on foreign policy and recognizes that a broad continuation of India's No. 1 foreign policy objective [i.e, economic growth] will be what he ends up doing,” he said. Kugelman suggested that Modi has largely kept quiet about his foreign policy goals in order to maintain a façade of moderation during the campaign so as not to inflame anyone who might be alarmed by what are believed to be his hawkish views. Still, analysts agree that Modi cannot sharply deviate from Congress’ pragmatic approach to foreign policy – that is, enjoy good trade relations with major world powers, without offending any such parties.
East Asia-China Relations
Modi has already entertained high profile visits from South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leading some analysts to speculate that the presumptive next Indian prime minister will seek to form closer trade and military ties with these North Asian powers to form a bulwark against the rising threat of China. During a campaign appearance, Modi blasted Beijing for its territorial claims upon the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, asserting that India will never relinquish an inch of its land.
However, Panda believes that China’s economic dominance trumps concerns about territorial disputes in small, remote Indian provinces, even for Modi. “[Modi] sees China as an important economic partner,” Panda stated. “Maintaining good relations with China is somewhat of a necessity for India if it hopes to keep its own economy healthy. Modi will prioritize the economy over any attempts to dramatically re-posture India vis-a-vis China.” Kugelman also noted that Modi prizes China as an economic partner… up to a point. “[Modi] will certainly take measures to make India stronger against what he likely considers troubling behavior by China in India's sphere of influence,” he said.
Middle East Relations
India remains heavily dependent upon both Saudi Arabia and Iran for oil imports, placing a burden on New Delhi officials to balance India’s economic needs with a desire to maintain good relations with other nations that are hostile to each other. The U.S. has long criticized India for its close ties to Iran due to the latter’s nascent nuclear power program, although the new nuclear deal between Tehran and the west alleviates matters for India somewhat. (Saudi Arabia and Iran are also bitter enemies). Further complicating matters are India’s tense relations with Pakistan, a Muslim-dominated nation that also has close ties with most Middle Eastern states.
Tridivesh Singh Maini, a New Delhi-based analyst at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, said that a Modi-BJP regime in India would maintain an accelerated pace of trade and economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia, but that he will have to maintain an eagle eye on the turbulent nature of Mideast politics. “India can no longer afford to ignore Iran or Saudi Arabia [nor] allow ties to be driven by a fixation on Pakistan,” Maini wrote. “With the Saudi government flagging radicalism as a major threat, Saudi Arabia may emerge as an important partner for India. But while the Middle East offers real opportunities for India, managing the relationship will require the next government in New Delhi to exhibit considerable dexterity.”
Another issue is, of course, the perception that Modi is hostile to Muslims, not only in India but around the world. One has to wonder how senior officials in Teheran, Riyadh and Ankara will view the new man in charge in Delhi. “I think leaders [in Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Mideast states] will find Modi distasteful, but business is business,” Panda commented. “India's relations with these states will likely remain solid.”
India and Pakistan have fought over the northern region of Kashmir ever since partition and continue to station tens of thousands of troops in the disputed province. Modi and the BJP have stated that Jammu and Kashmir (the Indian-administered portion of the state) must be fully integrated into India and its legislative semi-autonomy scrapped, now that the area has enjoyed a few years of relative peace and stability following decades of a deadly insurgency that has killed thousands. This view will only antagonize not only Pakistan, but also Kashmir itself, since the Muslim-dominated state cherishes its semi-autonomy.
In a broader context, Pakistan (a nuclear nation) remains India’s No. 1 foreign policy headache, but it remains to be seen if Modi’s hawkish rhetoric will translate into greater shows of military might against Islamabad. Indeed, Modi knows that any military conflict with Pakistan would endanger an already fragile economy and trigger widespread hostility and perhaps sanctions from western powers. But he must also appease his conservative base by brooking no provocations from Pakistan.
“This will be a polarizing issue, even among Modi's supporters,” Panda said. “A pro-business [economic policy would call for a reduction in tensions] with Pakistan. On the other hand, Modi's Hindu nationalist supporters will expect to see a stalwart defense of the homeland and no flinching on the issue of Kashmir. There is no telling how Modi will handle this issue.”
Moreover, as Pakistan’s current arsenal of nuclear warheads exceeds that of India, Modi is very likely to increase India’s military spending and further build up the country’s nuclear capability, a move that would anger the United States. Kugelman described Modi’s views on Pakistan as the biggest “wildcard” on his foreign policy plate. “Because of [Modi’s] pro-business bona fides, we can assume he'll want to complete the ‘Most Favored Nation’ process with Pakistan so that the trade relationship is normalized,” Kugelman said. “At the same time, it seems very likely that Modi would not be as restrained as [former Indian] PM Singh in terms of responding to provocations from Pakistan. If there is [another] terror strike in India that is traced back to Pakistan-based militants, then there could be some major fireworks. In effect, so long as the Line of Control [border] is quiet, we can expect relatively cordial relations, as it will allow trade and economic cooperation to move forward. However, the Line of Control certainly will not remain quiet for long.”
Another problem is that the BJP's new manifesto hints at the possibility of renouncing the no-first-use clause for nuclear weapons. “While Pakistan publicly claims this is no cause for concern, we can be sure Pakistan is not pleased, and in fact quite worried,” Kugelman said. But Blank indicated that Modi's harsh rhetoric against Pakistan will not necessarily translate into a more confrontational posture towards Islamabad, nor a renewal of tensions in Kashmir. “Observers made similar predictions about [the last] BJP Prime Minister [Atal Behari] Vajpayee, and his policy towards Pakistan and Kashmir was largely in line with that of his [Congress] predecessors," Blank said. Indeed, Vajpayee talked peace with Pakistan and even made a historic trip to the country in 1999 in connection with the Lahore Declaration peace treaty, which established safeguards to prevent nuclear war.
Modi has openly cultivated closer ties with Israel and the BJP has embraced Israeli trade, diplomatic and cultural connections. Indeed, in recent years Israel has even become one of India’s top military exporters. However, in light of India’s energy dependence on Muslim powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran, Modi will have to continue the Indian practice of playing a careful balancing game in its foreign policy with Israel and Arab/Muslim states. “Modi getting too close to Israel would be a slip-up that could have ramifications on India's ties with the Arab states [and Iran],” Panda cautioned. “I think he will be realistic enough to continue India's previous policies but could work at forging closer ties with Israel behind-the-scenes.”
India has been quiet about Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, following a long policy of kowtowing to Moscow. Even Modi, no fan of Communism himself, will likely want to maintain close and friendly ties with the Kremlin. “No Indian leader can afford to get on Moscow's bad side considering India imports 75 percent of its military equipment from Russia,” Panda commented.
Modi will also have to play ball with the world’s No. 1 superpower, the United States, a country that once actually banned him from entry due to the fallout from the 2002 Gujarati riots. Washington, under the Obama Administration, and whoever occupies the White House in 2016 will no doubt urge Modi to make peace with Pakistan. However, it is unclear how Modi will respond to the Americans’ entreaties. “Modi views the U.S. as an important economic and strategic partner, but remains skeptical of its intentions for India,” Panda said. “I think he will pursue a positive sum policy of forging better ties with East Asian states as well as the U.S.”
Kugelman indicated that Modi will court U.S. investment, though he certainly will turn to other, less complicated interlocutors, such as the Japanese. India-U.S. relations were strained over the saga of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian female diplomat who was arrested and detained in New York last year for alleged visa violations. She has since returned to India but is reportedly under the threat of re-arrest should see again seek to enter the U.S.
Blank does not think the Khobragade affair will lead to any serious problems between New Delhi and Washington under Modi, given the far more urgent issues facing South Asia, like economic stagnation, terrorism, poverty and overpopulation. Indeed, for Washington, the relationship with India is too important for it to get undercut by past visa issues.