Opinion

Six things to expect if Modi comes back as PM

Narendra Modi At Rally

A Modi regime 2.0 could mean changes with far-reaching consequences for India

When the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) national general secretary Ram Madhav in a recent interview with Bloomberg News’ editor-in-chief said that his party would require the support of its allies to form a government, there was much elation among the BJP’s baiters and opponents. Madhav merely said that his party would be happy if it won 271 of India’s 543 parliamentary seats and he forecasted that with the support of its allies, the National Democratic Alliance (a coalition that the BJP leads) would get a comfortable majority in the House for which elections are ongoing.

Five of the seven phases of India’s national election have been completed, and after the remaining two are done, the results are expected to be announced on May 23. But when Madhav hinted that the BJP was unlikely to get a majority by itself (in 2014, it had won 282 seats), the opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party viewed it as some kind of admission of defeat. The thing is many observers, including journalists who have scoured the vast nation during the ongoing elections, have been reporting that although Mr Modi and the BJP have a distinct edge over their opponents, a voting wave of the sort that favoured them in 2014 is unlikely to be repeated. But the BJP and its allies could win the mandate to form the government again—with, presumably, Mr Modi as their Prime Minister for the second term.

Such predictions are fraught with the risk of being proved wrong—India’s elections have always been notoriously difficult to predict because of the country’s vastness and its complex diversities. Yet, many wonder what to expect if Mr Modi is back in power in New Delhi for another five years. His staunchest critics fear that it could unleash a regime of authoritarianism that could raise the insecurity that minorities, including the nation’s Muslims, who account for 14% of the population, face. Some believe the authority and autonomy of institutions such as the judiciary and fiscal regulators could get compromised by his government’s political interests.

A lot would depend on the margin of majority that the BJP (with or without its allies) are able to muster up in the ongoing election. If their margin of victory is not too slender, it could mean a strengthening of the Modi government 2.0’s ambit of power. Here are some of the ways in which such a phenomenon could manifest itself:

  1. More control over India’s media sector? In last year’s World Press Freedom Index rankings (compiled by the non-profit, Reporters Without Borders) of 180 countries, India was placed at a lowly 138 (China was 176 and North Korea 180). It is widely accepted that albeit its noisy, cacophonous, and crowded nature, India’s mainstream media is not exactly free. Media owners are compromised in many different ways and the content they publish is often compromised—either through self-censorship or fear of governmental retribution. The new wave of emerging digital publications are, however, still free; and many of them are vocal critics of Mr Modi and his government. If his regime returns to power, one could expect stricter controls for the digital media, and, of course, continued influence over older, mainstream media.
  2. Constitutional and other changes? As has been evident in the past five years, Mr Modi’s style of governance borders on the presidential style that is in vogue in many large nations—including the US. Mr Modi also wields considerable power, often unilateral, over his cabinet and council of ministers. For him to move toward a presidential form of democracy where people elect the president as the head of the executive (and not a titular position as exists now) may not come as a surprise. Mr Modi is an admirer of China’s President Xi Jinping; and of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both politicians that rule with an iron hand and overwhelming control. Of course, China’s isn’t a democratic government like India’s is but with a sort of presidential system in place, the top boss of the executive could get to wield considerably greater powers as an individual.
  3. Further weakening of institutions? India’s central bank; its state-owned banks; its higher educational institutions; and research centres already face noticeable degrees of government interference. Vice-chancellors and other key appointments at educational institutions are often politically decided. There are instances to show that syllabuses, grants, funding, and courses, including areas of research, are often influenced by the government through its education and other related ministries. Such a trend could intensify in a second Modi regime. As could the interference of government in monetary policy. During Mr Modi’s first tenure as Prime Minister, the central bank, RBI, witnessed the exit of a high-profile and globally reputed governor, Dr Raghuram Rajan, ostensibly because he refused to toe the line of Mr Modi’s finance ministry. Many fear that a return of his government could lead to even higher government control over monetary policy.
  4. Changes in the way the judiciary functions? India’s judiciary follows the collegium system, which is based on a principle of judicial independence. This means the appointment of judges can be decided only by the judiciary without any interference from the legislature or the executive. The government, during Mr Modi’s regime, attempted to change this by setting up the National Judicial Appointments Committee (NJAC) under an Act of Parliament. However, the act was quashed by the Supreme Court, which restored the collegium system. If Mr Modi’s regime returns, many believe the NJAC could be revived. If it does, the appointment of judges, in theory at least, could be subject to external influences, namely from the government.
  5. More strident discrimination against minorities? It is widely acknowledged that the minority communities in India have witnessed sharpened discrimination during the past five years. Violence and instances of lynching related to cow slaughter, besides other forms of discrimination, have increased against religious and other minorities. Many fear that the fringe elements in the majority community could get a further boost if a BJP-led government returns to power. The National Register of Citizens, which is a register of all “genuine” Indian citizens in Assam, or a form of it could also be introduced in other states, especially those that share a border with foreign countries.
  6. Impact on the future of Kashmir? The state of Kashmir is empowered with a special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. For all matters other than defence, foreign affairs, finance and communication, Parliament needs the state government’s concurrence to apply other laws. The state also decides on residents’ citizenship status; property rights; and fundamental rights. The BJP has been opposing this special status to the state. In the context of the continued dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, the return of the Modi regime could see revival of the move to abolish Article 370, which could lead to an upheaval in the state.
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