Analysis: India’s Modi has been a bellwether for global populism

Election staff members sort ballot papers before counting them inside a vote counting center in Ahmedabad, May 23. Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave

India’s election has been a gargantuan test for democracy. There are roughly 900 million Indian voters, which not only makes the country the largest democracy in the world – it means that almost 1 in 8 of the world’s adult population is able to vote.

The practicalities of polling India’s diverse, geographically scattered populace are immense. Voting in India’s election was staggered, beginning on April 11 and finishing on Sunday. Counting will end Thursday, with the election results to be revealed the same day.

As huge as this election was, it ultimately boiled down to one simple question: Should the divisive Narendra Modi be prime minister for five more years?

That’s a question with international implications. The brand of right-wing, religiously-tinged populism that led Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to a historic electoral win in 2014 soon turned out to be echoed in other anti-establishment votes in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. As the New York Times noted, many in India describe Modi as “our Trump,” with pride or scorn.

“Of the great democracies to fall to populism, India was the first,” novelist and journalist Aatish Taseer wrote for Time Magazine earlier this month.

Despite widespread criticism from liberals around the world, there is little sign that this global culture war is over. Just this week, the surprise win of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, defying the conventional wisdom, combined with the likely-to-be growing power of anti-establishment parties in European elections, suggest these forces may still be ascendant.

Modi’s time in office since 2014 hardly represents a positive model. His critics identify two major problems with his leadership that will be difficult for future Indian governments to reverse. First, though he ran on a campaign that bragged of economic ideas, his attempts to make the country more appealing to businesses has failed significantly.

And secondly, that his government leaned heavily on a divisive ideology of Hindu nationalism that rejects the secular principle on which India was founded.

Modi, like many populists, branded himself internationally as an economic reformer. As State Minister of Gujarat, Modi pledged in 2012 to create an atmosphere that “minimizes red tape-ism and encourages business.” The following year, he suggested India needed “modernization, not westernization,” pointing toward the example of South Korea’s economic boom.

These remarks led some Indian intellectuals, as well as those outside the country, who wanted more laissez-faire economics to offer tentative support. After decades of Indian politics being dominated by Congress with allegations of decadence and corruption, the humble-background and hard-working ethos of Modi seemed to represent something different.

This economic promise allowed the darker parts of Modi’s history to be overlooked. He had been barred from entering the United States in 2005 on religious freedom grounds due to allegations that he tacitly supported Hindu extremists during riots in Gujarat in 2002 that ultimately left 1,000 dead, most of whom were Muslims.

The Obama administration quickly sidestepped that issue, inviting the incoming prime minister to the White House after he won election in 2014. Two years later, Modi became the fifth Indian prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress.

But Modi’s attempts at reinventing the Indian economy have not produced the results many desired. India’s unemployment rate hit a 45 year high of 6.1 percent in 2018, with young people in particular failing to find stable jobs. Agricultural workers in particular remain in distress: tens of thousands of farmers die by suicide over the past decade.

His radical move to invalidate most of India’s bank notes as part of an anti-corruption “demonetization” policy hurt economic activity. “He’s no economic reformer,” Yashwant Sinha, a former finance minister who quit Modi’s party last year, recently told The Washington Post.

Experts say he not only missed an opportunity to improve India’s economic situation, but that his inaction on key issues may have made it worse.

“No matter who emerges the winner on 23 May, the nation that wakes up to a new government the next day will be one whose economy and political institutions are in significantly worse shape than the state of affairs Modi inherited five years earlier,” Vivek Dehejia wrote in a LiveMint column this week.

India’s economic woes may ultimately prove to be only one part of broader societal problems exacerbated during Modi’s first term. Without a good economic story to tell ahead of the 2019 election, Modi’s support has centered on the Hindu nationalism that his critics so fear.

A terrorist attack in Pulwama, the disputed region of Kashmir, in February led Modi to send fighter jets to conduct strikes within Pakistan, prompting a standoff between the two neighbors and rivals. Though India was embarrassed when a fighter pilot was shot down and captured by Pakistan, Modi’s tough rhetoric appeared to have had a rally-around-the-flag effect – and stood in stark contrast to his main rival, the soft-spoken Rahul Gandhi.

“To survive in this world, you need a powerful leader. See, nobody messes with the United States or Russia,” Chandra Bhal Singh, a retired army officer, told The Washington Post ahead of the election.

Amid this atmosphere, domestic tensions also run alarmingly high. Nearly 200 million Muslims live in India and there have been increased reports of violence, including lynchings, by Hindu extremists against Muslims in recent years. Modi denounced this violence, but critics note it took him two years to do so.

In the election, Modi has done little to reject extremists. One BJP candidate is accused of terrorism charges related to a 2008 bombing that killed six Muslims. Others have made boldly anti-Muslim comments. Writing in the Nation, Ruchira Gupta said Modi had “shifted his rhetoric from fighting corruption to generating hate.”

Modi was a trendsetter in global politics, but the lessons he imparts to the world have been worrying. Rana Ayyub wrote for The Washington Post that in Modi’s India, a “new language of hate” was undermining India’s democratic ideals. “If the world’s most populous democracy goes under, ripples will be felt across the world,” Ayyub wrote.



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