4 more years? 
The Saffron Flag Wavers

Our News Editor is not convinced that Modi's popularity will stay the course

A year on from victory in a general election which shattered the opposition, the Bharatiya Jana Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi has a lot to boast about.  Coal corruption – a hallmark of Congress rule – appears to have been ended, with considerable benefits for state governments. The Prime Minister’s tours around the globe has seen successes, most notably with the US – a country which not so long ago had denied him an entry visa. Even the failure to get to talks with Pakistan could be seen as a sign of strength, considering the continued deaths of civilians through shellfire and the evident sympathy for Pakistan and even ISIS by dissidents in Kashmir. Yet in India, it’s reputation is fraught – why is its popularity abroad not echoed at home?

The answer lies in part with the Congress Party, despite a humiliating loss of power – or, in fact, because of it. The party which ruled India for most of the past six decades has succeeded in reinventing itself as the ‘people’s party’. Its prime ministerial candidate, Rahul Gandhi (who attended Cambridge) has become a man of the working people. Under the tutelage of his mother, veteran Congress president Sonia Gandhi, he has championed the fight against the land acquisition bill, a piece of legislation widely disliked by farmers. This in turn has seen Congress at least nominally supported by a number of regionalist parties – though  it seems no coincidence that many suffered heavily at recent elections won by the BJP, and are still struggling to regain their political stature. The BJP has failed to land a convincing blow on the grand old party of Indian politics, and in turn given the Gandhi dynasty yet another shot at regaining power.

It’s unfair to blame the BJP’s woes entirely on the opposition. One of the most notable promises in its own manifesto, OROP (One Rank, One Pension), is still in the process of being implemented – a delay which led to widely-covered agitation from ex-servicemen on Independence Day. The policy, which allocates pensions based on rank rather than date of retirement, was a flagship promise, but bloated and inefficient state bureaucracy has delayed its implementation.

Equally problematic was the government’s complacency in Delhi. The Aam Admi Party (AAP), a protest party, formed a coalition government there in 2014, ruling with Congress. They resigned the same year in protest at the failure of the other parties to enact legislation for cleaner government. This left Delhi under ‘President’s Rule’, and de facto under the BJP’s governance. Rather than capitalising on this victory, they ignored Delhi until just before the 2015 legislative elections, then parachuted in celebrity candidates. The AAP won 67 out of 70 seats: even with dissension in their ranks, their popularity as an anti-Congress, anti-BJP protest party mars Modi’s government’s triumph.

And then there are the perennial problems which affect every Indian government, albeit to varying degrees: religion, caste, ethnic conflict, and lower-level corruption. In an astonishing and horrifying series of events which could only have ever happened in India, public outrage has been stirred by the murder of a 50-year old Muslim man caused by rumours that he had beef in his fridge. This follows an outright ban on the slaughter of cattle and the possession of beef in a number of states, threatening to further polarise Hindu-Muslim relations. Equally troubling for Modi will be agitations in his home state of Gujarat by the Patel community. They have protested vigorously at the reservation system, designed to provide affirmative action for traditionally underprivileged groups, but often criticised for failing to account for inequality within other castes: at some points, this has spilled over into riots. For Modi, who has long touted Gujarat’s stability and economic strength as an exemplar for India – and evidence of his leadership skills – this has been a somewhat embarrassing problem (a number of Patels also came out in protest before his visit to the UN). Persistent failures to deal with mistreatment of women, or to shake off accusations of support for far-right Hindutva groups continue to hamper the BJP’s attempts to convert foreign success into domestic credibility.

The BJP has four more years to win over the Indian public. It is hardly a given at this stage that they will make it, between the return of regional parties and the Congress Party’s incredible ability to adopt the role of the underdog. The Indian electorate has often proven itself fickle, with voters ‘bought’ with gifts varying from food, to alcohol, to tablets for students: it is not a political system which favours or rewards honesty. A strong foreign policy track record, except with Pakistan, may not be enough if Congress continues to win the PR war. Still, if Modi and his government can make India a more attractive place for investors, secure a seat at the Security Council, and deliver material benefits for Indians, the long game could well play off.