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‘Modi Coming Back to Power Bodes Very Badly for India’

Rashme Sehgal |
Noted political scientist Sumit Ganguly says the Opposition must develop a programme to counter what the ruling party offers the public.
Prof Sumit Ganguly

Prof Sumit Ganguly

Prof Sumit Ganguly is a professor of political science at Indiana University, where he holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations. A specialist in South Asian affairs, he has written over a dozen books on the region, including Fearful Symmetry: India and Pakistan Under the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons, co-authored with Devin T Hagerty, and, as lead editor, The State of India’s Democracy. He is also the founding editor of the journals, “India Review” and “Asian Security”. In this interview with Rashme Sehgal, he expresses strong apprehensions about the erosion of Indian democracy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and what another term for it would mean to Indian society. Edited excerpts:

Rashme Sehgal: general election is on the anvil in India in mid-2024. Do you believe Indian Opposition parties will present a united front against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Sumit Ganguly: The Opposition has already forged an agreement. The question that remains is whether or not they can set aside differences in personalities, ideologies and parochial interests. It could end up being like the Janata [Party] coalition against the Congress party after the Emergency. Soon after assuming office, it fell apart. I do not see the coalition coming up with a viable policy platform to offer to the electorate. If, by some miracle, it does win, I fear that the sum of their differences is likely to undermine effective governance.

RS: If BJP and Prime Minister Modi get a third term, many see a strong possibility of India becoming an authoritarian Hindu Rashtra. The future would look bleak for Indians, especially for the minority communities and tribal populations who are already marginalised. Do you foresee significant unrest in response?

SG: Modi coming back to power bodes very badly for the country, though millions of Indians who voted for him and are likely to vote for him again would probably disagree with me. I personally believe that social divisions would worsen, economic inequality would increase, and the quality of India’s democracy would suffer.

The BJP, I am convinced, believes that it can cow minorities into a submissive state and expects them to remain quiescent. In my judgment, this is a very dubious proposition and a recipe for long-term social unrest. More to the point, it is an ethically questionable strategy that ill-behoves a democratic State.

RS: Will India end up ruled by a clique which does not hesitate to tighten its grip on the levers of power and with its media, judiciary and bureaucracy further weakened and ineffective?

SG: These are precisely my fears. The policies the BJP government is pursuing threaten to rend the very fabric of India’s democracy and are profoundly inimical to the functioning of a democratic state. Unless these policies are checked or reversed, the future of India’s democracy stands imperilled.

RS: How will increased authoritarianism be seen by Western democracies? Modi just returned from a successful official visit to the United States and France, where he entered into high-profile defence deals expected to enhance military-technology cooperation between India and these nations.

SG: Sadly, when their interests have been at stake, Western democracies have long accommodated themselves to any number of squalid regimes. This happened routinely during the Cold War and continues thereafter. Aligning themselves with India is hardly their most egregious choice; they have worked with far worse governments before and will do so in the future. Western democracies remain keen on selling weaponry, obtaining access to the Indian market and expanding trade with India. Given the stakes involved, they are more than willing to overlook all manner of shortcomings of the Modi government.

RS: Within India, there is apprehension that a large percentage of government money is being spent on arms purchases. India is now the largest arms importer, and many fear it is at the cost of education and health care for society. Do you agree?

SG: India’s defence spending, though substantial, is not coming at the cost of social welfare. World Bank studies have shown a substantial reduction in poverty in India. That said, inequality has increased dramatically in India but not poverty. The decision not to adequately fund the MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] is mostly a political choice and not a function of financial scarcity.

The Modi government’s failure to invest in health and education is terrible. However, this lack of investment has been going on for decades. These were choices made by preceding governments. If the government so chose, it could allocate greater shares of the GDP to health care, education and poverty alleviation.

RS: Despite the government’s claims that the situation in Kashmir has stabilised and improved after the revocation of Article 370, Kashmir watchers believe this has not been the case. What are your views?

SG: The revocation of Article 370 had been on BJP’s platform for a long time. The Modi government, in its second-term incarnation, decided to finally cross the Rubicon. The revocation came as a shock for the general population of Kashmir as well as the political leadership of Kashmir. All the provisions included in Article 370 have been abrogated. This technically allows non-Kashmiris to buy land in Kashmir though one does not see a rush of people keen to acquire property there. The fear of this outcome nevertheless remains. Most importantly, the political representation of Kashmiris has been completely altered following the delimitation process.

I share the view of a number of observers of Kashmir’s politics that the situation in Kashmir is far from stable. What India faces in Kashmir is a sullen, hostile and alienated population.

RS: The Supreme Court will start hearing petitions regarding the revocation of Article 370 in August. Is there any likelihood, to your mind, of this revocation being struck down?

SG: Most unlikely. I am sure that it will find some suitable justification.

RS: The BJP government led by Modi has succeeded in polarising India like no other post-Independence leader. Why cannot the Indian public see through this façade, given the economic problems, including mass unemployment and job losses?

SG: The electorate has not been able to see through his act of smoke and mirrors for a number of compelling reasons. The first, of course, is the ideological, programmatic and organisational disarray of the Congress party. What, if anything, did Rahul Gandhi’s pointless “Bharat Jodo Yatra” achieve? Is there a single policy idea he proffered other than hostility towards BJP? The Congress party needs to overhaul itself, allow new leadership to emerge and spell out novel policy prescriptions.

Second, BJP has deftly scapegoated others for its policy failures. Third, much of the Indian press, which used to be both lively and feisty, has chosen not to confront Modi and BJP. Fourth, members of the permanent bureaucracy, for the most part, have also decided not to stick their necks out for fear of what could befall them. A combination of these factors, in considerable measure, explains the present government’s success.

(Rashme Sehgal is an independent journalist.)

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