The 2014 mandate that catapulted Narendra Modi into the prime ministership of the world’s largest democracy was essentially due to three factors – Modi’s personal charisma, united grassroot efforts of the party and Sangh Parivaar cadre and the failures of the previous UPA II government. When the elections took place five years later in 2019, the third factor was no longer there. Yet, the mandate that Modi secured in 2019 General Elections was even bigger than the 2014 mandate. Modi’s charisma continued to be a factor. In fact, defying conventional political wisdom about incumbency, Modi’s personal popularity with the masses has increased with each passing year and was at all-time high when he faced the electorate in April 2019. Under Amit Shah’s leadership, the party organization has also grown in strength and expanse.
But the most important factor that was responsible for the favorable mandate in 2019 was the 5-year performance track record of the Modi government. In fact, Modi went before the people with his progress card and secured massive endorsement from them. Two qualities that distinguished Modi’s government in its first term were ‘decisive’ and ‘hands on’. Unlike his predecessors who largely stayed dormant, Modi led from the front. He not only demonstrated courage in taking strong actions, like demonetization, Land Border Agreement with Bangladesh and withdrawal from the J&K government of BJP & PDP, he also clearly showed that he was the one handling the matters. He sat through the entire night monitoring surgical strikes against Pakistan after Uri attack in 2016 and the Balakot air strikes after the Pulwama attack in early 2019.
As he began his second term after the landslide in 2019, the decisive and hands on approach continued. It became clear from some of the significant legislative decisions taken by the Modi government within months of the coming back to power that Modi was confident about victory and had already chalked out plans for his second term in office. Several major decisions taken in the first 100 days clearly indicate that the government was preparing for them before the elections itself. Merger of 10 public sector banks into 4 big ones and announcement of major incentives like pension to farmers were announced by the Finance Minister within a month after the new cabinet was sworn in on May 30, 2019. The bill for abrogation of triple talaq was introduced and passed in July. And in early August came the historic abrogation of Articles 35 A and 370 of the Indian Constitution affecting a major change in the constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir. Towards the end of the year another big step was taken by passing the Citizenship Amendment Act – CAA.
Speaking on the completion of first 100 days of his Modi 2.0 government, Prime Minister said that development, trust and big changes mark the performance during the period. Trust and big changes certainly. That people have trusted Prime Minister massively is beyond dispute. But people also included the core supporters of the party and Parivaar. They always trusted him. Modi decided to pay them back in the first few months through big changes and the result was the passing of triple talaq, Article 370 and CAA bills. In November same year, the Supreme Court had delivered its final verdict on Ram Janma Bhoomi dispute allowing for the construction of a temple on the site under question. Modi did not waste time in constituting a trust led by people not only dedicated to the cause but also involved in the temple movement for decades.
The country has overwhelmingly supported Modi on almost all of these issues. In the eyes of his core supporters, Modi acquired the stature of a supreme leader. Perhaps, Modi wanted these contentious issues to be addressed as soon as possible so that he could focus on the third issue of development in the remaining duration of his government. In that sense, Modi 2.0 opened with a big bang.
Decisions like neutralization of Article 370 and annulment of Triple Talaq were not easy. They needed determined effort to pass in the parliament and also secure popular support. In his characteristic style, Modi went ahead and got the bills passed in both Houses. He seemed to have quietly worked on the draft bills for months with the help of a couple of trusted officials. Large sections of the political establishment came to know about them only on the day of their presentation before the parliament. Modi had elaborate plans ready to tackle the fallout of such momentous decisions like Article 370 too. The result was the all-round applause and support he got for those historic decisions.
However, there are four areas in which the government faced challenges. They are – pandemic, economy, security and foreign policy, and perception.
At a time when the government was preparing to embark on a major developmental drive with $ 5 Trillion GDP as the target, the country, and the world were hit by the Corona pandemic. Unlike many other countries including the US, Modi government acted swiftly by imposing restrictions on foreign passengers in early March 2020. It finally went for full lockdown for close to two months during March-May that year. These strict measures together with Prime Minister’s continuous monitoring and engagement with masses have helped in India successfully overcoming the deadly impact of the first wave of Covid.
India also led in the manufacture of vaccines and their supply to many countries. Two Indian made vaccines have come into the market by the end of 2020 while more were added subsequently. India also helped neighbors and many other countries through what it described as ‘Vaccine Maitri’.
However, the deadly attack of the pandemic in its second wave has caught the country off guard. It turned out to be much more virulent than the first wave leading to total suffocation of the healthcare establishment. The government’s handling has come under severe criticism among the netizens primarily because of the high expectations they had from Prime Minister Modi in view of the experience from last year. The government should take this criticism in right spirit and address the challenge.
One important lesson that the healthcare crisis has taught was the need for empowering grassroots institutions. Decentralization and popular activism should be the way forward for a country of India’s size and diversity. One of the hallmarks of Modi’s government has been to make people the stakeholders in its programs. He also repeatedly asserted his commitment to minimum government and maximum governance. In the Constituent Assembly, when members insisted on a strong center, Ambedkar explained the need for decentralization of power structure to cater to the aspirations of diverse sections of the society. That was how a union with federal structure was created as a compromise. The way forward is not hyper-centralization, but ‘cooperative federalism’.
In the first five years, Modi focused on setting the economic basics of the country right. They included eradication of corruption, addressing the perils of parallel economy and black money, restructuring banking system and integrating the last mile citizens into the economic network. As the government entered the second term, it moved fast on the reforms front. New and broad-based reforms in agriculture and banking sectors, together with the push to dispense with public sector bulge indicate government’s bold commitment to further liberalize the economy. Modi understands the need for encouraging private capital both from within and without to stimulate economic growth in the country. Bogged down by basic weakness of Indian economy and political imperatives in the first term, Modi boldly decided to move ahead in his second term with much needed opening up.
Bold push for encouraging market forces to take lead in the agriculture sector has led to some resistance from a section of the farmers. Vested interests have joined them to put pressure on the government to withdraw the reforms. On an earlier occasion at the beginning of the first term, Modi had to succumb to political pressures and walk back on important land reforms. But this time, the government seemed determined to push ahead ignoring the ill-motivated protests. For the long-term benefit of India’s agriculture sector these reforms are going to be a turning point for the farmers of the country.
At a time when the Indian economy was all set to take off with improvement in ease of doing business indicators and investor-friendly policies, the pandemic struck. Pandemic has significantly crippled Indian economy. Despite intensive rehabilitation measures taken by the government, it still seems limping. The second wave is going to further delay the recovery. However, the determination shown by Modi 2.0 to forge ahead with right policies for greater liberalization can certainly help in the process of economic recovery.
India’s economic future depends on how successful its Atma Nirbhar programs and start up and innovation initiatives would be. The real aim of Atma Nirbhar is to make citizen-investors less dependent on government and more integrated with global supply chain economy. Similarly, the start up and innovation sector needs greater attention and focus. So far, despite best efforts of the Prime Minister, these sectors remained low key. The critical component for its success is the infusion of capital. For want of the capital, innovation in India has so far remained limited to secondary and tertiary applications. India seriously lags behind in deep-tech innovations and research.
Climate change is another area that has the potential to impact India’s economy. Prime Minister Modi has championed the cause of climate change in a big way since the Paris Climate Summit of 2016. The Indian government has taken many proactive and progressive measures to meet global climate change challenges. It has successfully upgraded its targets in renewable energy generation while simultaneously imposing heavy additional duties on fossil fuel based energy generation. Modi government has set generation of 450 G Wt of renewable energy by 2030 as the target. It is also under pressure from the Western powers to commit for Net-Zero emissions deadline. As a developing nation with high targets for its domestic development and recovery, India needs to tread the climate path rather cautiously. Endlessly invoking arguments like historic responsibility and per capita emissions may be a political winner, but India cannot ignore the lead taken by Prime Minister Modi in the matter. It has to take a more balanced, yet constructive approach on climate issues thus not giving up on the leadership role Modi acquired for himself. It was after all Modi’s initiative that has brought International Solar Alliance into existence and its headquarters to Gurugram in India, the first ever UN headquarters in the country.
Security and Foreign Policy:
One important area where Modi 1.0 came out in flying colours was security and foreign policy. Its handling of Doklam crisis in 2017 and its befitting reply to Pakistan in 2016 after the Uri incident and again in 2019 after Pulwama attack have won laurels domestically and internationally for Modi. He emerged as a strong leader when it comes to India’s security imperatives. On the foreign policy front too, the first 3 years of Modi 1.0 had been a runaway success for the country with Modi’s and India’s stature going up and up in the world. Almost every important leader of the world had made it a point to engage with Modi on bilateral level. Modi built exceptional personal equations with a number of world leaders.
However, Modi 2.0 began with mounting security and foreign policy challenges. It is important to understand that national security does no longer mean military security alone. It involves economic, technological and political aspects also. For example energy security, cyber security, communications security and health security are also important aspects of a nation’s overall security. Political stability in the extended neighbourhood is also an important element of the national security. Hence, globally, national security is understood more as a diplomatic endeavour than a military one.
While Modi government has a strong and stable military security apparatus in place and is able to counter its recalcitrant neighbours like Pakistan and China effectively, its diplomatic endeavours need further sharpening. Indian diplomacy, right from the time of its first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, has had two undeclared priority commitments. They are – Asian pre-eminence, and non-alliance. In the last seven decades, successive leaders have adhered to these two commitments although using their own formulations and vocabulary. Neighbourhood first policy of the previous governments or strategic autonomy policy of the Modi government are an extension of those commitments only.
Indian diplomacy needs to pursue these twin commitments vigorously. Perception of its over-dependence on one Western power may hinder its larger security strategy. While India’s relations with America have improved substantially under Modi government, it is imperative for India to pursue a policy of frontline state in its Asian neighbourhood. Prime Minister’s inclusive approach to Indo-Pacific region is an important indicator of India’s distinct vision for the region. While Quad is an important minilateral for India, it also needs to pursue other relationships in the region like the BIMSTEC, East Asia Summit and the Indian Ocean groupings like IORA.
Also important are its relations with the immediate neighbourhood. Modi 1.0 saw great enthusiasm among the neighbours. Almost all the top leaders of the SAARC neighbourhood were present at his oath-taking in 2014. Modi emerged as a cynosure of all eyes in the neighbouring countries also. But over the last few years, the neighbourhood relations are slipping due to intense pressure from the other big neighbour – China. India has to quickly reorient its strategy towards the important neighbours like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar.
The greatest challenge that Modi 2.0 faces is the perception challenge. Modi 1.0 saw Modi himself aggressively pushing for a major image makeover for India through various initiatives. His initiatives at the UN, bilateral engagements with senior world leaders and hosting of BIMSTEC and African Leaders Summit have all helped in creating a positive perception about Modi. His proactive engagement with multilateral forums like G-20, Paris Climate Summit, East Asia Summit etc has also helped in further enhancing his prestige as an important world leader. He constantly interacted with world leaders in politics, industry, academe and civil society. There was a time when he was projected by many international magazines as an important global statesman.
However, in the last couple of years, the perception related challenge has certainly become serious for the Indian leadership. The negative perception that was sought to be created globally was based on fictitious and biased conjectures. Certain interest groups like the radical Left-Liberal cabal, are in the forefront in the misinformation campaign. These groups have no support base in India, but have their tentacles spread across the NGO, media and think tank circuits globally. They provide fodder for the neutral liberals in the Western countries, thus influencing many right thinking individuals and institutions also adversely. These mischievous attempts have resulted in India ranking poorly on several indices presented by various think tanks and other institutions.
Critics have succeeded in damaging India’s reputation misrepresenting some of the progressive measures like the agricultural reforms or constitutionally sound measures like the Citizenship Amendment Act and abrogation of Article 370. Indian response varied from ‘who-cares’ smugness to innuendo-filled angry outbursts. Neither would help India address this perception challenge. The fact that several Indian interest groups were also actively conniving with others globally in spreading canards about India should make Indian response much more coherent and comprehensive. India should step up its efforts to engage with global public and civilian institutions in a more proactive and constructive manner so as to be able to address this perception challenge.
Despite these challenges Prime Minister Modi continues to be popular with the masses primarily because of his direct connect with them and also because they see in him a leader genuinely and selflessly committed to the welfare and well-being of the country. The utter disarray in the opposition ranks also helps strengthen Modi’s position as the only hope for the country. In the political arena though, Modi is expected to carry every election on his shoulders using his popularity. Yet, in the elections to state legislatures, the BJP is securing mixed results only. Of the nine Assembly elections held in the two years of Modi 2.0, the BJP could win in only three states – Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar. In the current round of elections that took place in April 2021 to five assemblies, the party was able to retain Assam while the big win expected in the prestigious election in West Bengal eluded it once again. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala too the performance of the party has been dismal. That leaves half the states outside the NDA and in the hands of various opposition parties.
In order to overcome the four important challenges that the country is facing, Modi 2.0 needs to put greater focus on decentralism and cooperative federalism domestically and proactive engagement globally.
(The article was originally published in the May-June 2021 issue of India Foundation Journal on May 2, 2021. Views expressed are personal.)