Consensus or division? How Modi will manage Indian coalition government

consensus or division? how modi will manage indian coalition government

In decades of political leadership at the state and national level, Narendra Modi has never had to engage in consensus politics. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

As Narendra Modi traversed the country during recent months, campaigning for a third term in power, he repeated the same refrain. The past decade “was just a trailer”, the prime minister told crowds, adding: “There is plenty more to come.”

The expectation, among his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and most analysts and pollsters, was that India’s election would easily return him to power with the same – if not stronger – supermajority that he has enjoyed over the past decade.

Yet instead, this month’s results dealt a sobering blow. While the BJP won the most seats, the party lost its parliamentary majority for the first time under Modi. In order to return to power, he is suddenly beholden to coalition partners – an assortment of regional parties with very differing ideologies.

All eyes are now on how Modi will govern, after decades of political leadership at the state, and then, national level, where he has never had to engage in consensus politics.

Coalition restraints

Since the shock election result, Modi’s public messages have emphasised the theme of consensus, and that the prime minister’s office should be “the people’s not Modi’s”. Yet this narrative has been belied by his cabinet appointments, where the BJP successfully refused to relinquish any powerful seats. All remain occupied by the prime minister’s closest allies, including Amit Shah as home minister, while crucial coalition parties got little more than heavy industries and food processing.

There continues to be not a single Muslim in the cabinet and – for the first time in India’s history – no Muslims appointed as ministers anywhere in the country.

Just how this coalition arrangement impacts Modi’s ability to implement his agenda for a third term remains to be seen. Some have argued that it could provide a necessary restraint; others fear he will double down on divisive, oppressive methods and policies.

“Rather than go mild, he may actually go more aggressive on some things,” said Yogendra Yadav, a well-known leftwing politician and activist.

Ashley J Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, emphasised the scale of Modi’s ambitions, with the prime minister likely to be viewing this as “his legacy term”.

“Modi sees himself as a great transformer,” said Tellis. “He wants his legacy to be making India a genuine great power and a developed country by 2047. But another, equal part of the agenda is making India a majoritarian Hindu state – doing what he sees as necessary for the ‘authentic’ India to appear.”

Economic reform

Analysts said that as he entered his third term, Modi was likely to initially prioritise economic reforms that have eluded him so far. The chronic issue of unemployment and a lack of quality jobs was a significant reason for the BJP’s losses in the election, and is widely seen as a pressing problem.

“Creating jobs is the single most important issue for the country,” said Ashok Malik, chair of the India Practice at the Asia Group. “If India is to move ahead as a country and as an economy, you have to get more and more people from rural India working in the cities. But they’re only going to come back if urban jobs are available and urban incomes rise.”

Malik said there was a lot of hope and foreign interest in India’s economy but “all of this has to lead to something”. He said that over his next term, Modi would push for a manufacturing boost, as a means to encourage quality job creation which has been severely lacking in India.

Less than 3% of global manufacturing takes place in India. Modi’s goal is for it to go up to 10% by 2047. He has made it a priority for India to become a player in emerging technologies such as electric vehicles, as well as to make India a more appealing and competitive environment for foreign investors.

Far-reaching reforms within India’s ailing agriculture sector are also likely to be a priority, though whether he will be able to reattempt major reform in a coalition government is less certain. During his second term, one of Modi’s few defeats came at the hands of farmers who protested for months against new laws they said threatened their income, and he was eventually forced to backtrack. One of Modi’s first actions in government last week was to release millions in financial assistance for farmers.

“The fact is, India’s trying to take off, but it hasn’t taken off yet,” said Malik. “The next five years will define whether it does – and could set the pace for the next 30-40 years.”

Hindu nationalist policies

The BJP’s cultural and social Hindu-first agenda may prove trickier for Modi to get past his coalition partners, as well as facing a larger, more empowered opposition that campaigned under the banner of preserving India’s secular constitution.

On Modi’s watch, Hindu nationalism became the dominant political force in the country. Minorities such as Muslims, who number more than 200 million, have faced increased persecution and discrimination at the hands of society and the state.

Yet several of the BJP’s key coalition partners are overtly secular and several enjoy considerable support from Muslim voters. Leaders in the Telugu Desam party, one of the BJP’s alliance partners, have already asserted that decisions on the BJP’s more contentious policies would “not be taken unilaterally”.

This includes the BJP’s intention to introduce a uniform civil code, a single law in place of various cultural customs and laws that are currently followed by different groups and religions across India. There are longstanding concerns this legal uniformity will be used as another instrument of marginalisation against minorities.

The BJP could also face obstructions in implementing other flagship policies such as a much-feared national register of citizens, where people will have to prove their citizenship with paperwork – a project opponents say is designed to cast Indian Muslims as illegal aliens on a national scale.

Modi is also likely to face pushback in parliament against one of his favoured manifesto promises of “one nation, one election”, where all of India’s 28 state elections and general election will be reorganised to take place at the same time, rather than being staggered as they are now. It has been seen by many as another attempt by the BJP to impose uniformity on India’s diverse states and is likely to be resisted by the regional parties in his alliance.

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