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The rising power paradigm and India’s 2024 general elections

India, the world’s largest democracy, is holding its national elections over a six-week period starting 19 April. The elections to the 543-member lower house of the parliament (Lok Sabha) with an electorate, numbering 968 million eligible voters, assumes critical importance as India is going through both internal and external changes that are heavily linked to its rising power aspirations and achievements. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been campaigning on the claim that under his leadership, India’s global status has improved substantially and that he is determined to make India a great power and developed country by 2047, the centenary year of independence. The growing Hindu middle class seems to agree. According to a February 2023 Pew survey, Modi had a 79% favorable approval rating. More interestingly, some 85% of Indians surveyed by Pew think a strong authoritarian leader or military rule is preferable to multi-party electoral democracy, the highest for any country surveyed.

Since its economic liberalization in 1991, in terms of comprehensive national power, including both hard and soft power markers, India has made substantial progress—in some areas more than in others—even though it still lags behind China in many indicators of material power and social welfare. The critical factor is the steady economic growth rate ranging from 6 to 8% over the past three decades. The $4 trillion economy, which recently overtook previous colonial ruler Britain to reach the fifth position in the world, is poised to become number three by 2030. The tactical and strategic advantages India has made under somewhat favorable geopolitical circumstances are many, but these could easily erode if its soft power foundations, especially democracy, secularism, and federalism, decline even further.

The $4 trillion economy, which recently overtook previous colonial ruler Britain to reach the fifth position in the world, is poised to become number three by 2030.

The implications of the elections to India’s rise as an inclusive democratic state is potentially far reaching. If the BJP wins a two-thirds majority, concerns are heightened that it would amend the Indian constitution, altering its core principles of liberal democracy and secularism and declare India a majoritarian Hindu state. India’s status advancement in recent years has benefitted the ruling establishment. Modi’s achievements are built on the foundations laid by the previous Congress Party-led governments of Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. India’s 2005 rapprochement with the US and its opening to the world, especially to East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, occurred during that period. It was Rao and his Finance Minister Singh who opened the Indian economy to the world through their wide-ranging economic reforms in 1991. The economic growth was also very robust during much of Singh’s tenure. Many of the social programs were started during that period, but Modi has improved on their delivery by introducing direct transfer and also adding new welfare programs guaranteeing the poor subsided rations and cooking gas. Some 300 million Indians were lifted out of extreme poverty during Singh’s term in office alone, and a similar number may have come out during BJP rule. Yet India still hosts some 12% of its 1.4 billion population below the poverty line (considered as $2 a day) while 84% have an income less than $7 a day.  

If the BJP wins a two-thirds majority, concerns are heightened that it would amend the Indian constitution, altering its core principles of liberal democracy and secularism and declare India a majoritarian Hindu state.

The previous Congress regime’s inability to cash in on their achievements for electoral gains is in direct contrast to Modi’s success in presenting a different image to the public on India’s economic and military achievements and general international status advancement. Skillful propaganda, especially using social media, has enabled this. India’s swing power role in the Indo-Pacific, in terms of balancing China’s rise and aggressive behavior, has helped India’s geopolitical prominence and Modi has astutely used it for his own electoral successes. He has used contentious religious nationalism, including the building of a temple in Ayodhya over a destroyed Muslim mosque, repealing the Article 370 of the Constitution which gave Jammu and Kashmir special autonomous status, and adding programs to allow citizenship to displaced minorities (excluding Muslims) from neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, to solidify his support among ardent Hindu-nationalist groups. The 18 million-strong Indian diaspora contains many pro-Hindu groups that have helped Modi’s efforts by offering financial and moral support.

Although the rising power claim may have helped Modi’s possible third term re-election, there is another side to this story. Some of the BJP government’s internal policies may, in the long-run, undercut the status achievement by putting its legitimacy and sustainability in question. The number one challenge is the democratic backslide that has been happening under the BJP rule. Today India is ranked at 66 as a ‘partly free country’ by Freedom House, and the rating agency V-Dem recently demoted India as an ‘electoral autocracy.’ A number of measures curtailing freedom of expression and other essential democratic rights have occurred under Modi, denting India’s democratic credentials, one of its key soft power assets. Similarly, secularism, another soft power marker of India since independence, has been reduced as there is a direct effort to assert the Hindu majoritarianism as visualized by the BJP and its militant ideological arm, the Rastriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS).

The democratic backsliding presages considerable difficulties to legitimizing India’s status as a liberal democratic rising power. The major challenges to freedom of expression, the party’s increasing ideological control of India’s judiciary, and the attacks on minority rights, as well as harassment an arrest of opposition leaders using governmental agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate, all portend the emergence of an illiberal state even when elections are held periodically. While Hindutva (Hindu-ness) aimed at the hegemony of Hinduism over all other religious groups has increasing sympathy among the Hindu electorate and sections of the diaspora, it is still to obtain any international traction as an attractive ideology or model for political order. It is yet to offer a coherent and convincing agenda for the emerging world order.

The father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, used Hindu and Buddhist religious ideas such as Ahimsa (non-violence), among others, to develop his model of non-violent struggle. Can Modi in his third term make a conscious effort to develop India as an inclusive, democratic state, and bring peaceful and tolerant aspects of Hinduism to the fore? Or will Indian democratic exceptionalism evolve into an entrenched populist majoritarian system with all its attendant challenges for democratic freedoms, even while India makes substantial material progress? The simultaneous democratic backsliding in many countries, including the US and Europe, does not help India’s prospects in this regard. India may still receive a higher geopolitical position (in the context of China’s rise) and the steady economic growth that would allow it to emerge as a key destination for trade and foreign investment, and a source of technically qualified workforce and migrants for the next two decades or more. India’s greater inclusion in global governance is needed for reasons of equity, efforts at solving many collective action problems, and greater effectiveness of international institutions. The peaceful accommodation of India will alter the historical patterns of rise and fall of great powers through war. Whether it will be a peaceful process internally is yet to be determined. The forthcoming elections will establish India’s trajectory in a colossal way both for its domestic politics and foreign relations.

Feature image by Graphic Gears on Unsplash, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. vir

    As you are an Indian origin intellectual, I appeal to you: do not let the West use you as a stooge to drive their agenda.
    There’s no decline in democracy, secularism, or federalism.
    You’re just touting the agenda you have been paid to promote.

  2. Krishna Kumar Verma

    The article does a good job of explaining India’s upcoming elections and its ambitions for global recognition. It talks positively about India’s economic growth and its increasing influence in international affairs. However, it also points out concerns like the decline in democratic values and the rise of Hindu majoritarianism under the current government. It’s noted that while India has made progress in lifting people out of poverty, there’s still a long way to go in ensuring equal rights for all citizens. The article suggests that India’s reputation as a democratic country might be at risk due to these issues. Overall, it gives a balanced view of India’s achievements and challenges, prompting readers to think about the implications of the election results on both domestic and international fronts.

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