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The promise and challenge of Narendra Modi

Despite his landslide victory, India’s new premier faces a divided electorate and sluggish economy

May 30, 2014 12:00AM ET

Earlier this month, in the world’s largest democratic election, more than 170 million Indian voters chose Narendra Modi as the country’s 15th prime minister. Modi, a three-time chief minister of the state of Gujarat, made much of his improbable rise from a train station tea seller to the highest level of Indian politics. Following his inauguration on May 26, Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will form a new government with a clear majority in the Legislature. His resounding victory offers reasons to hope his government will promote development and prosperity for all Indians. Legislating with a majority should facilitate bold economic reforms — reducing the role of the decrepit state sector and salvaging the country’s byzantine tax code in order to jump-start India’s markets.

Modi’s reputation as a business-friendly manager should encourage domestic and foreign investment to resume flowing into the country. Yet, for all its promise and potential, India faces real challenges, including a volatile geopolitical neighborhood, multiple domestic armed insurgencies, a precarious fiscal situation for its state governments and an extremely fragmented and diverse polity. If previous governments failed to deliver growth rates adequate to slake the country’s unquenchable thirst for further material improvements, it is not because they did not want to succeed. As such, it would be foolish to wish away India’s economic problems on the promise of one man’s leadership.

Higher expectations

For four decades after independence from British rule, India muddled along at what observers derisively termed the 2 percent annual Hindu rate of growth. A severe economic crisis and International Monetary Fund demands prompted radical economic reforms in 1991, leading to rapid growth in incomes over the past two decades. The fact that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the key architect of those far-reaching reforms, is now being lampooned as an ineffectual and indecisive leader is a pungent irony.

Similarly, the unceremonious loss of Modi’s incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) colleagues in the 2004 election, after a slick campaign for re-election on a platform of “India Shining,” should provide a lesson in the dangers of hubris. Even though the economy grew quickly during the BJP’s tenure, the Congress party–led coalition exploited popular discontent with growing national inequalities to win that election. Ten years later, the BJP is back at the helm with Modi as its undisputed leader.

Mounting backlash

Given his campaign rhetoric, Modi faces even higher expectations than his predecessor. While his BJP enjoys a parliamentary majority, the new premier will soon learn that being head of a national party organization is an entirely different challenge from being the chief minister of a state. Even before he took the oath of office, his allies in the Shiv Sena party in Maharashtra, India’s second most populous state, objected to the fact that the Pakistani premier was invited to the swearing-in ceremony. Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray has even suggested that Modi should consider using a nuclear weapon if Pakistan does not stop its support of “terrorism” against India. Similarly, political parties from the southeastern Tamil Nadu state, whose diaspora population in Sri Lanka fought a decades-long civil war, were united in their condemnation of Modi’s invitation to the Sri Lankan president. Modi’s invitations may portend a willingness to engage in diplomacy to solve difficult foreign policy problems, but the new premier’s failure to set a guest list for his inauguration without facing a public backlash from his allies bodes ill for future relations with state governments whose cooperation he will need to accomplish even a modicum of his ambitious agenda.

The prime minister might be first among equals in the national parliament, but he is still second fiddle to the powerful leaders who govern the states that make up India’s federal system. For many of them, riding Modi’s coattails might be convenient for now, but the electoral imperatives they face within their states have little sympathy for Delhi’s concerns. There, unlike nationally, parochial concerns of caste and language continue to dominate, and government welfare programs are a time-tested strategy for winning votes. Besides, unlike Modi, who famously led the BJP to three consecutive victories in Gujarat, his counterparts elsewhere bear battle scars inflicted by virulent anti-incumbency tendencies that roil India’s state elections. The urgent tasks of promoting economic growth through increased investment might demand otherwise, but state leaders are likely to opt for protecting their cronies and contributors, and preserving their bureaucratic privileges in their quest for re-election.

The new Indian government represents the fulfillment of the hopes of Modi’s supporters, but it is crucial to remember that 69 percent of the electorate did not vote for the BJP in this election.

Modi has promised to replicate his famed Gujarat model in battling an entrenched civil service bureaucracy for whom red tape and forms in triplicate are not simply a way of life but a raison d’être. He has also pledged to curb inflation while stimulating growth, and to ensure that a rising tide truly lifts all of India’s diverse and rickety boats. In Gujarat, Modi created a pro-business environment through an increasingly autocratic managerial style that brooked no opposition. However, his plan for achieving his ambitious national agenda is short on details, and many doubt whether the Gujarat model would work. His initial appointment of a Cabinet that is smaller than his predecessor’s is consistent with the promise of “minimum government, maximum governance.” It also lends credence to critics who worry that Modi will encourage centralization of authority and decision making, neither of which will play well in the states.

Given the BJP’s sordid track record of stoking anti-minority sentiments, both in Gujarat and nationally, Modi’s development-centered campaign is viewed skeptically by many observers who wonder about his sincerity. Many of the 31 percent of India’s electorate who voted for him did so because they value his ties to Hindu right-wing social organizations and celebrate his defiant response to criticisms over his government’s handling of the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Controlling supporters for whom his victory heralds the advent of Ram Rajya (the kingdom of the Hindu god Ram), and resisting the temptation to manipulate them cynically for electoral gain, will be the true test of Modi’s administration. The treatment of minorities in Gujarat under his government, and his fiery speeches on the campaign trail in which he invoked a divisive Hindu nationalism, raise genuine concerns of his desire to pass such a test.

The new Indian government represents the fulfillment of the hopes of its supporters, but it is crucial to remember that a large majority (69 percent) of the electorate — some 380 million individuals — did not vote for the BJP in this election. Its majority status in parliament owes more to the peculiarities of India’s electoral system than to a national support base. As they chart their path forward, it is imperative for Modi and his Cabinet to be mindful of that fact. Promoting peaceful relations with India’s neighbors is vital for creating a geopolitical situation conducive to economic growth, as is quelling the all-too-common occurrences of violent riots and insurgencies across India. If Modi succeeds in promoting widespread growth, he will romp to victory at the next election. But if he fails, he can expect to face a restive and disappointed electorate in five years.

Irfan Nooruddin is an associate professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He blogs at www.irfannooruddin.org.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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