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Modi Likely to Win Third Term in India as Voters Urged to End Reign of ‘Dictator’ Amid Fears Country Will Become ‘Russia-Like Autocracy’

India is about to enter the final phase of its general election, amid cries to ‘save democracy’, with Modi expected to further tighten controls and silence opposition voices if he is re-elected

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are expected to have an easy win in India’s general election. Photo: Dinodia Photos/Alamy

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – with its allies, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – which has been in power since 2014, are expected to easily win a rare third term after the country went to the polls last month.

India, the world’s largest democracy with 1.4 billion people, entered its longest election – taking place over 46 days and seven phases – on 19 April, with results to be declared on 4 June.

It is a mammoth political exercise, with 969 million eligible voters and 2,600 registered parties for 543 seats. It is also one of the most expensive elections in the world, with an estimated cost of £12 billion.

While Modi remains a charismatic leader for most voters, the first phase of the election saw ground issues emerge, calling into question his personality sheen.

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The opposition’s loosely-stitched coalition – the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), led by the Congress Party – which seemed to be in disarray, is now gaining ground as voters voice their concerns around rising joblessness, saving India’s democracy, and religion.

Ahead of the final phase of voting getting underway this weekend, here is an overview of the issues shaping this election.


The Economy and Jobless Youth

According to political strategist Prashant Kishore, voters are now seeing that “brand Modi is not invincible”.

“It’s not like no one can challenge him,” he told Byline Times. “The people are giving him a challenge – whether a political party or a leader challenges him or not. In a country where more than 60 crore (6 million) people don’t earn more than Rs 100 (£0.94) per day, the opposition against the Government can never be weakened. Never make that mistake.”

Only 37% of youth are gainfully employed, making joblessness a major issue.

Dr Raghuram Rajan, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and a former head of the Reserve Bank of India, says that although India is the fastest growing economy among G20 countries, it is also the poorest.

“It’s a country that has the population dividend which means young people are coming into the labour force in massive numbers, he observes. “If we could employ them, India would grow much faster. The question is can India become rich before it grows old?”

In its manifesto, Congress has pledged to provide poor unemployed graduates with Rs 8,500 (£80) per month and facilitate a one-year apprenticeship in private and public sectors. It has also committed to paying one woman of a poor family Rs 8,500 per month. 

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While the economy is growing, the gulf between the rich and poor is widening. This is a focus for the opposition, which is trying to capitalise on ‘corrupt crony capitalism’, joblessness and inflation. There is also widespread anger amid farmers, a very strong voting bloc, on the issue of the Minimum Support Price scheme, designed to incentivise farmers to adopt technology.

The Congress manifesto also includes the implementation of a national caste census which it believes would reveal the true level of deprivation and participation in society of lower classes and minorities. 

The BJP, meanwhile, is advancing a big-picture vision of India in 2047, when it will mark 100 years of independence from the British Empire.


Religious Polarisation

During the past decade, the BJP Government and Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies have been reshaping the political and cultural landscape, taking the country away from its principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution towards becoming a Hindu nation.

BJP leaders have used religion as a stick to polarise voters in all elections. Earlier this year, the consecration of the Lord Rama temple in Ayodhya, which is still being built, was timed for the election. Pollsters noted that, after the first phase of the election commenced on 19 April, the BJP did not fare as well as it expected. The ‘temple card’ did not appear to be working.

But the tone of the BJP campaign swiftly returned to Hindutva – the political ideology of Hindu nationalism – and its tactics of polarisation.

In an inflammatory speech, Modi called Indian Muslims “infiltrators” who “produce more children”. He claimed that if the Congress-led INDIA alliance came to power, it would give all of the country’s wealth to Muslims. Such incendiary rhetoric can regularly be heard at BJP rallies, without any serious discussion on its policies or failures.

“[The issue of minorities] is a huge worry,” Dr Rajan told Byline Times. “No country has ever succeeded by treating a large part of its people as second-class citizens. You cannot reverse the environment of equality which India has enjoyed since independence and convert a whole population, which is close to 15% or 200 million people, into second-class citizens.”

Muslims offering namaz Mumbra Bombay Mumbai Maharashtra India. Photo: Dinodia Photos/Alamy

Historian Ramchandra Guha recently observed in The Telegraph India that, in the 10 years that Modi has been in power, religious minorities – particularly Muslims – have been “pushed ever further to the margins of Indian politics”.

“They face endemic discrimination in every day life, on the street, in the marketplace, in schools, hospitals, and offices, Guha wrote. “BJP MPs and ministers mock and taunt Indian Muslims on a regular basis, their message amplified on WhatsApp and YouTube by their supporters. Textbooks are rewritten to indoctrinate schoolchildren with hostility towards fellow citizens who are not Hindus.

“The stigmatisation of Muslims will continue, and perhaps even sharpen, if Narendra Modi and the BJP win a third term in office.”


Democracy

The sweeping victory of the BJP in 2019 boosted Modi’s popularity, and the concentration of power, against a severely weakened opposition. It made the 73-year-old seem invincible.

For economist and author Parakala Prabhakar, whose wife Nirmala Sitharaman is a senior leader in the BJP, “Modi is a dictator”. He told The Wire: “Our democracy is in crisis, our social fabric is torn, our economy is in peril and we are being dragged back to the dark ages… a return to power of the present Government would spell disaster for India.”

Between 1977 and 2014, no single party or coalition was in power in New Delhi for more than two terms – something Guha explained was “good for Indian democracy”.

“Freed from the fear of long-term domination by a single party, in those years, the press was more free, the civil services more independent, and the judiciary more assertive,” he observed. “A competitive polity, with no party in power all the time, was also very good for Indian federalism, with states having greater leeway to pursue their individual economic and social agendas.

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“Authoritarianism crushes the spirit; majoritarianism poisons the mind and the heart. The hate and bigotry that it engenders spread like a cancer through the body politic, robbing individuals and society of civility, decency, compassion, of humanity itself.

“That is why its rise must be checked, by such democratic means as are still available to us. That is why this is the most important general election since 1977.”

Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s controversial emergency era and policy choices led to her stunning defeat in 1977. This year’s election is indeed crucial, as history demonstrates.

The opposition’s cry to ‘save democracy’ appears to be resonating with some.

Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi has walked more than 4,000 km, from Kanyakumari in the south of India to Kashmir in the north. He carries the Constitution of India with him at rallies, urging crowds to save it.

Many believe that India’s democracy and Constitution are in danger. Media and human rights organisations, as well as global press watchdogs, have found the country to be deteriorating on several markers.

As Guha warns: “Another victory, especially if it comes with a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha, will embolden Modi and his party to further tighten the screws on the media, further undermine the independence of the civil services, the judiciary, and public regulatory institutions, further make Central universities, Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management centres of Hindutva propaganda, and further weaken the structure of Indian federalism.” 

As one of the world’s fastest growing economies, the outcome of the election will have an impact on a geopolitical level. India has become an increasingly important partner for countries such as the UK, the US and France, which have all recently signed deals and pursued closer relationships with Delhi, as a strategy to counterbalance the rise of China. 

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The arrests of elected chief ministers of two opposition-ruled states – without any registered charges against them – just before the election began has taken the country by shock. Congress’ financial accounts were suddenly frozen owing to some cases from more than a decade ago. 

Meanwhile, the erosion of the credibility of most mainstream media outlets, especially broadcast media, has been rapid. So much so that it is now called ‘Godi media’ (meaning ‘lapdog media’ ) and seen as a a PR wing of the Government. Some YouTube news channels that are critical of the Government have been blocked by it. 

The selection of the three election commissioners, just before the election, was also flawed, with concerns being raised about the action that can now be taken with regards to electoral irregularities, vote counts, electoral voting machines malfunctioning, or responding to serious complaints on breaking of the model code of conduct.

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Another major worry is the changing of the Constitution, with several BJP MPs claiming that such reforms would include removing the world ‘secular’ from the document.

With its democratic institutions having been compromised by Modi’s rule, India is being termed an ‘electoral autocracy’. The fear is that this beautiful, chaotic country will follow the footsteps of Vladimir Putin’s Russia following this year’s election.

Can India remain a ‘union of states’ and a federal secular democracy? That is the real question on the ballot paper. 


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