Q&A: How will Modi change India?

Al Jazeera talks to senior Indian journalist Bharat Bhushan on the significance of the BJP’s sweeping election victory.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory in parliamentary elections has ended an era of shaky coalition governments in India. Bharat Bhushan, founding editor of Delhi’s Mail Today newspaper and a well-known commentator on Indian politics, discusses the significance of the power shift and what the world can expect from a Modi-led government.

Al Jazeera: Are you surprised by the scale of the BJP’s election victory?

Bharat Bhushan: I most certainly am. I had expected that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance would be the single largest formation, followed by the Congress. In the event, the BJP got 282 seats – well past the half-way mark – on its own while the Congress got so badly mauled – with 44 seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) – it has lost its claim to the official opposition party. It needed 10 percent of the total strength of the Lower House of 543 and it could not even manage 54 seats.

What was even more shocking was that in the northern Uttar Pradesh state alone, the BJP won more seats than what the Congress won in the entire country!

What did the party do right to deserve this mandate?

Bhushan: Hindsight is always 20/20, so who can say what they did wrong? The BJP campaigners would say that they did everything right. I think besides running a presidential-style campaign centred around Narendra Modi and his claims of good governance, the BJP made ample use of communalism and, for good measure, also underwrote it with caste.

I cannot say that making use of the religious polarisation caused by the religious riots in western Uttar Pradesh was the right thing to do. But that is what the BJP did to divide the electorate on religious lines.

The fielding of Modi from the Hindu holy city of Varanasi was aimed at religious polarisation which helped the party in eastern Uttar Pradesh and the adjoining areas of Bihar. Describing the predominantly Muslim town of Azamgarh as a “den of terrorists” by BJP’s main campaign manager for Uttar Pradesh also served the same purpose. The BJP also played the caste factor in Uttar Pradesh.

In short, the BJP used a complex set of campaign strategies, taking religion, caste and other local factors into account.

AJ: What did the Congress and allies do wrong to deserve such a drubbing?

Bhushan: The Congress party had done very well in its first tenure in government. At that time its alliance had the social anchoring of the left parties as well a powerful National Advisory Council which had a number of civil society and non-government organisation activists.

A number of good social-sector interventions and pro-poor policies were followed. In its second tenure, an overconfident Congress left all the pro-poor policies – like the Food Security Bill – to the fag end of its tenure. It lost its moral compass vis-a-vis the poor. It also lost the support of the “aspirational” middle classes as the world economy went in to a recession and growth in India flagged.

The leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was lacklustre at best. And the party projected no alternative to him. The scion of the ruling Congress family, Rahul Gandhi, wasted the 10 years he was in parliament through lack of participation in debates or taking clear positions on policy issues. He was anointed the successor to his mother but not as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

He sidelined the older and experienced leaders of the party and was advised by a bunch of MBAs with little understanding of the working of Indian politics. His refusal to join the government and trying to convert the party into an Indian version of a Western democratic party with primaries to elect candidates for legislatures, has not worked.

Anti-incumbency, an uninspiring leadership, weak government and corruption scandals such as the telecom scam, the Commonwealth Games scam, the discretionary distribution of coal mines to cronies, and a housing scam where accommodation meant for defence personnel was grabbed by politicians and powerful bureaucrats, worked against the Congress.

AJ: Given the massive majority that the BJP and its allies will command in parliament, should India’s minorities, especially Muslims, be afraid?

Bhushan: The minorities are bound to be apprehensive of the huge mandate received by the Hindu nationalists. It is for the new government to reassure them of their safety and their access to justice as citizens of India who are not unequal to anyone. Any kind of triumphalism by the supporters of the BJP and other Hindu nationalists would increase the insecurity of the minorities.

AJ: Is there a risk of Narendra Modi being unwilling or unable to control the Hindu nationalist fringe of his party? He has no dearth of factional rivals.

Bhushan: A country as complex as India cannot be run through sheer majoritarian ideology. The sooner Narendra Modi realises it – if he hasn’t already – the better it would be for him and his longevity as the new leader of India. Except for Sushma Swaraj, the last leader of the opposition in the Lower House of parliament, there is no one in the BJP who does not suffer from majoritarianism. She distanced herself from Modi after the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat and has not endorsed his leadership qualities.

AJ: Will Modi try to implement his party’s long-standing position on abolishing Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status?

Bhushan: I don’t think he can do that in the near future, and it should not be on top of his agenda. To abolish the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370 of the Indian constitution would have to be abrogated. Any amendment to the constitution requires two-thirds majority in parliament.

Modi does not have that luxury in either house of parliament. The BJP-led coalition is particularly badly placed in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha): it has only 64 seats in a house of 240. There are currently five vacancies and 12 more will arise this year. Even if the BJP and its allies were to win all these seats, they would still be short by a long shot of the half-way mark.

AJ: Should police officers and bureaucrats who investigated the Modi government’s role in the 2002 killings of Muslims in Gujarat worry about retribution?

Bhushan: Yes. Modi is unforgiving of his critics. He has already punished and marginalised some of them. More misfortune could come their way.

AJ: Foreign and domestic investors have wagered heavily on a pro-business agenda under a Modi-led government. Can he reorient India’s economic policy quickly?

Bhushan: Modi faces stupendous challenges on the economic front. Along with high investor expectations, he has favourable tailwind in terms of a recovering world economy, a rise in the stock-market indices and a strengthening rupee.

Investors would want him to decontrol diesel and gas prices, continue with economic reforms, privatise state-run firms, address the question of subsidies on basic commodities, reform labour laws, increase the cap on foreign direct investment in the insurance sector from the current 26 per cent to 49 per cent, and address the issue of bad loans of banks which form 10 per cent of their total lending at present.

The buoyant market sentiment would allow more Indian companies to tap into the domestic and international market with new equity issues.

The renewed buying by foreign institutional investors (FIIs) in the Indian equity market has strengthened the rupee, which has both positive and negative consequences. Positive, because it will make imports cheaper and reduce the pressure on government finances due to the high cost of oil subsidies. And negative, because exporters will be up in arms as their earnings go down.

We will get definite indications of the direction of the Modi government’s economic thinking when he presents a budget in late June or early July.

AJ: Can the so-called Gujarat model of efficient and investor-friendly administration be replicated across the country, as many voters seem to desire?

Bhushan: I don’t think that this would be easy to do although the corporate houses who backed him would expect him to do so. They would be eyeing easy access to state-owned public resources – land, water, forests and mines – coming their way. Investors are bullish about him and not about the current state of the economy.

They will all be betting on the future of the economy. Modi has promised “single-window clearances” for investors and he may move in that direction somewhat. One major issue has been environmental clearances for big projects. There, he may run into the courts and people’s movements.

The so-called Gujarat model focuses on growth and not on social-sector investments. Many of the latter are in the ambit of state governments and the BJP does not control all of them. States like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh have done very well in terms of human-development indicators – that is, growth that goes hand in hand with the well-being of all. They will continue with these measures.

AJ: What can neighbours such as Pakistan and Bangladesh expect from a Modi government?

Bhushan: I do not expect any constructive engagement with Pakistan – certainly not in the near future – unless it meets India’s concerns about terrorism emanating from territory under its control. If anything, Modi’s Pakistan policy would be more muscular and aggressive.

Water-sharing through the Teesta River accord, exchange of enclaves, rationalisation of the international border and the question of illegal immigration may continue to mar relations with Bangladesh. Modi has been pretty aggressive on the issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

On the Teesta River accord, he would need the co-operation of the government of West Bengal state, which may not be an easy task. His own party has opposed the rationalisation of the international border with Bangladesh as it involves some transfer of land from India to Bangladesh and vice-versa.

AJ: Is Modi someone the US, Europe and wider Islamic world can do business with?

Bhushan: Yes. They would have no choice. The US has already made overture towards him, although it was late to make up with him compared to the UK and Canada.

With the West Asian countries, he would have an inherent “image” disadvantage. However, as this region is, and will continue to, remain a major source of energy for India, Modi would want good relations with them.

It is important to understand that Indian foreign policy is not going to be about “big bang” ideas. It has been more about continuity ever since the nuclear tests of 1998 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, till the signing of the India-US nuclear deal under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 and beyond.One would expect that to continue.

In the ultimate analysis, India’s foreign policy is not determined by the ideology of the government of the day or the personality of the prime minister. You cannot say that they have no impact at all either, but it cannot change the nature of India’s permanent interests.

AJ: Do you foresee any domestic troubles in multi-religious India even if Modi delivers on his promise of growth and change and wins re-elections?

Bhushan: Not any more than the normal tensions that occasionally flare up as far as religious strife is concerned. The bigger problem is of inequality of access to social and economic opportunities, resources and justice.

They will continue to get reflected in social strife unless aggressive corrective measures are taken. The Maoist insurgency would continue to threaten the country unless the needs of tribal communities are taken on board and governance in insurgency-affected and insurgency-prone areas is improved.

Follow Arnab Neil Sengupta on Twitter @arnabnsg

Source: Al Jazeera