Making India Great Again?

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacts as he speaks to members of the Australian-Indian community during a reception at the Allphones Arena located at Sydney Olympic Park in western Sydney November 17, 2014. Modi is on a three-day offcial visit to Australia following the G20 leaders summit which was held in Brisbane over the weekend. REUTERS/Rick Stevens​

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is merely the champion of a larger movement that seeks to push India in a more nationalist direction.

January-February 2018

The BJP also faces a range of powerful regional political parties, reflecting India’s political and cultural diversity, that have gained prominence in recent decades. The sharp reaction in Tamil Nadu to Modi’s directive that Hindi should be used for official communication shows that the state will resist the BJP’s cultural program, precisely because it embodies the centralization and uniformity they reject. And because these parties have strong regional roots, the BJP will find that they are formidable opponents and, indeed, that it cannot govern effectively without their cooperation.

HINDU NATIONALISM can only do so much for Modi and the BJP. Their staying power will depend on whether they can deliver on the bread-and-butter issues that matter most to Indians. In the run-up to the 2014 election, Modi touted the “Gujarat miracle” and promised to do for the country what he had done for the state. It was not an empty boast: India’s economic growth averaged an impressive 7.5 percent from 2014 through 2017, and foreign investment increased substantially. But economic growth slowed to 5.7 percent in the second quarter of 2017 (from a peak of 9.5 percent in 2015). While most countries would envy even this lower rate, India’s economy must grow more quickly, because twelve million people enter its job market each year. Even if the economic slowdown proves to be a blip, a revival must produce substantial increases in job creation. Modi’s record on this front has not matched his rhetoric, and the outlook is not promising.

That’s not the only problem: economic reform has stalled. Indian national banks have $180 billion in bad debts on their books. The country’s infrastructure remains decrepit. Most notably, the BJP’s sudden move in 2017 to stanch corruption by suddenly invalidating five-hundred- and thousand-rupee notes (roughly 86 percent of the total in circulation) proved to be a blunder; shops refused to accept them, people swarmed banks to exchange the suddenly useless notes and employers were unable to pay workers. Slogans about a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Polity) won’t count for much if the BJP cannot meet the expectations created by Modi’s economic promises.

The BJP’s threat to Indian secularism, though serious, may not prove fatal. India’s cultural and political diversity, the robustness of its press and civil society, the continuing strength of its judiciary, and its strong regional opposition parties and plethora of civic groups serve as counterweights. Much has been written about the ways in which India’s size and unwieldiness hamper thoroughgoing reform and efficient governance. Thankfully, they also provide a powerful defense against chiliastic schemes of homogenization and centralization such as Hindutva.

Sumit Ganguly is professor of political science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington. Columbia University Press will publish his next book, on the evolution of India’s defense policies. Rajan Menon holds the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair in International Relations at the City College of New York/CUNY and is a senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His most recent book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, was published in 2016 by Oxford University Press.

Image: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacts as he speaks to members of the Australian-Indian community during a reception at the Allphones Arena located at Sydney Olympic Park in western Sydney November 17, 2014. Modi is on a three-day offcial visit to Australia following the G20 leaders summit which was held in Brisbane over the weekend. REUTERS/Rick Stevens​

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