In the first year of his second term in office, Narendra Modi has seen tremendous political and ideological success. But this period has also led to questions about the robustness of institutions; social harmony; and economic management. It has also made it clear that Modi’s legacy will be determined by how he handles the gravest crisis independent India has seen in decades — the coronavirus pandemic.
First, this year has been a success for him, both on the political and ideological front. It has also been a year of ideological success. Ever since the BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, was formed, “integrating” Kashmir with the rest of India, by removing Article 370, has been a foundational pillar of the worldview of the party and its ideological affiliates. On August 5, the Modi government did precisely this by effectively nullifying the special status enjoyed by Jammu and Kashmir, and dividing the state into two Union territories.
But this has also been a year which has, arguably, left India with a set of deeper defects and challenges.
This democracy deficit extends to the rest of the country in other forms. There are regular crackdown on dissidents and critics of the government through draconian legislation and use of investigative agencies; it has also manifested itself in the weakness of other institutions — be it the Election Commission or the Supreme Court — to assert their own space in the face of a strong executive. None of this is unique to the functioning of the current government, but that is little consolation.
The second deficit is of social harmony. When Modi spoke in Parliament after his second victory, he extended his motto of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas to include Sabka Vishwas. He reached out to the minorities, which was a promise of a fresh beginning, given the trust deficit that exists between the BJP and Muslims in particular. But as the party pushed forward its ideological agenda, this trust deficit only grew. The protests against CAA and a possible National Register of Citizens (which the government later claimed was not on the agenda) symbolized the deep mistrust and anger that Muslims in particular have for the current political dispensation.
The government defended its decisions and even made a strong case about how the legislation will not impact the rights of Muslims — but the fact is it was seen by minorities as changing the fundamental secular character of the Constitution. This has resulted in the worsening of Hindu-Muslim relations over the past year. Given India’s diversity, this is worrying and can have adverse consequences on the political framework, inter-community ties on the ground, and internal security.
The third big weakness was in the realm of economic management. Growth rate in 2019-2020, as last Friday’s figures revealed, was 4.2%. In every quarter of the year, growth has decelerated. Core industrial activity has dropped. Consumption has dipped. And unemployment has risen.
But if these were the contours of the first year in office, it is now clear that the Modi legacy will be defined almost singularly by how he manages to steer India through the pandemic.
On the economic front, the Indian economy is set to contract, which will leave many businesses unviable, and deepen poverty. And on the humanitarian front, as the migrant worker crisis revealed, India’s poorest will have to face the worst consequences of the crisis.
How Narendra Modi migrates these challenges and helps India revive is the key question for 2024.