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India’s Modi unlikely to change in new coalition government

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NEW DELHI — In 2016, Narendra Modi faced his first crisis as Indian prime minister.

After he made a snap decision to remove large currency notes from circulation — a move aimed at reducing graft — India’s economy went into shock. Poor patients couldn’t pay doctors. Truck drivers, unable to pay tolls, clogged highways. Indians died while queuing outside banks, desperate to exchange bills.

His opponents called for a public apology. Modi doubled down and hit back at them instead.

“They may not spare me. They may ruin me because their loot of 70 years is in trouble, but it does not bother me,” Modi said in a national speech in which he attacked his critics as corrupt. “I promise, I will give you the India of your dreams.”

Eight years on, Modi is again on the back foot after a humbling election result June 4 forced him to form a coalition government for the first time in his career. But Modi’s imperious and unapologetic leadership style — the hallmark of one of the most powerful prime ministers in Indian history — will probably persist, those who have observed him say.

Shortly after he was sworn in for a third term last Sunday, “Modi reasserted his authority,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an author who interviewed the then-Gujarat state leader for a 2013 biography. “He is not somebody who expresses regret or says I’m sorry. It is in a situation of complete control when he is most happy.”

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How Modi governs will profoundly affect both policymaking and politics in India. Over the past decade, he has centralized power in the prime minister’s office, often bypassed parliamentary debates and abruptly announced economic and military changes reforms — such as the 2016 demonetization plan — that surprised experts and angered swaths of Indian society.

In the political arena, he has hamstrung opposition leaders, tamed the media and even sidelined competing voices among the Indian right as he burnished his image as a beloved leader whose actions are inspired by God.

Last week, Modi unveiled a new government that signaled continuity, not change. He included newcomers from his coalition partners, but the key portfolios of defense, finance and foreign affairs were all retained by loyalists from his Bharatiya Janata Party. He did not include a Muslim, a minority he has long demonized, in a 71-member council of ministers that was otherwise diverse in geographic origin and caste.

He also retained Amit Shah, a close confidant and the BJP’s political strategist, to continue overseeing domestic agencies, including the investigative apparatus that opposition leaders and independent news outlets say has been wielded against them.

In Parliament, Modi will continue to exercise significant power, even though he will govern alongside two coalition partners, Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar, the respective leaders of Andhra Pradesh and Bihar states. While both Naidu and Kumar clashed with Modi in the past — Kumar famously compared Modi to Hitler during a falling-out in 2013 — neither has the ambition to challenge Modi in national politics today.

Analysts say the Modi-led government would probably collapse only if Naidu and Kumar left simultaneously, and Modi could offer incentives, such as increased federal spending for poor northern Bihar or foreign supply chain contracts and investment for coastal Andhra, to keep them on.

One area that could see potential change is the politics of religious polarization: Naidu and Kumar, who rule states with large Muslim populations, have both defended affirmative action programs for Muslims, which Modi has criticized, and their presence in the government may slow Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda. But if the Indian opposition believes the two state leaders will check Modi’s power, they may be mistaken, analysts say.

“If you can’t pull the government down, what can you do?” said Ruchi Gupta, a founder of the Future of India Foundation who has been affiliated with the opposition Congress party. “You will then bargain for whatever you can get at your own state level.”

There have been some differences since the results were announced. In speeches since the election, Modi has made adjustments in tone, if not in substance. He has made fewer references to himself or to religiously charged issues, but he has still emphasized that Indian voters delivered a clear mandate for him to continue.

He has also sharpened a familiar line of attack, calling the opposition alliance venal and vowing to crack down on corruption more forcefully.

Outside the halls of government, however, the atmosphere in New Delhi has begun to shift, with mild criticism of Modi beginning to emerge from quarters that usually praise him.

“Men who were treated like Gods … were eventually found to have feet of clay,” Aroon Purie, the media magnate who owns the India Today TV channel and magazine, two outlets that rarely stray from the official line, wrote in a widely read column last week.

Days later, officials from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the powerful Hindu nationalist volunteer organization where Modi began his career, obliquely chided the “arrogance” of top BJP leaders. The comments seemed to confirm widespread reports of rifts between the RSS and its ideological partner, the BJP, that had emerged during the long and divisive election.

“The election campaign was devoid of dignity,” Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, said in a speech in which he reiterated the importance of respecting the opposition in a democracy. Bhagwat did not name any politicians, but his remarks sparked lively discussions of Modi’s leadership style on television networks that once avoided criticism of the prime minister.

Ratan Sharda, an author and prominent RSS member, said Bhagwat was directing his comments at political leaders from all parties, not only Modi. In the third term, Sharda said, RSS members will continue to voice their views on what the Modi administration should do while giving the BJP the space to set priorities and govern, but he said he was confident that Modi was open to taking outside inputs into consideration.

Sharda dismissed the notion that Modi would struggle with a coalition government or with building consensus.

“He has his ears on the ground,” Sharda said. “If Modi-ji can manage world leaders, how can he not know how to negotiate with alliance partners?”

The debates over Modi’s governing style point to a fundamental question facing India. As the election ramped up this year, some commentators argued that more centralized power for Modi — something like the China model — would lead to higher economic growth. Only Modi’s firm hand, the thinking went, could unravel socialist-era labor and land policies, privatize stagnant public enterprises, boost the country’s image and attract foreign investment.

The business sector seemed to agree and on the day the election results were announced showing Modi had lost his parliamentary majority, the stock market tumbled.

But Arvind Subramanian, a former chief economic adviser to Modi, argued that if the prime minister softened his style, his government might actually prove more effective.

In 2017, less than a year after the chaos of his demonetization announcement, Modi introduced another controversial economic policy, a goods and services tax. Before its introduction, however, the tax was primed by extensive consultations with the various Indian states, and while it drew complaints, it succeeded, Subramanian said.

But several years later, Modi abruptly unveiled another plan — agricultural revision bills — this time with little consultation. The bills met with massive resistance from farmers and extensive protests. BJP leaders lashed out, accusing the protesting farmers of being backed by Pakistan and a Sikh separatist movement, exacerbating grievances and ultimately resulting in violent protests. Modi eventually backed down and issued a rare apology.

“The notion that you need someone tough to ram things through isn’t borne out,” Subramanian said. “When you’re inclusive, when you allay concerns and get buy-in, you make things easier to do.”

Anant Gupta contributed to this report.

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