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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 5 February 3, 2024

India’s 2024 elections may bring a new political epoch | Robin Jeffrey

Saturday 3 February 2024


21 January 2024

For Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its mentors in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu supremacist civil society organisation, 2024 could be an epoch-making year.

People and supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrate the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft’s landing on the moon at an event organised near India Gate in New Delhi, India, 23 August 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis).

As 2023 ended, they had much to feel pleased about. Preparation for national elections due by May 2024 had gone on carefully. The BJP received a boost of confidence in early December after landslides in three Hindi-speaking northern states.

The extent of the victory was surprising. The Indian National Congress had been in power in both Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and was thought to have a chance at re-election. In Madhya Pradesh, the diverse state in the centre of India, Congress had formed a short-lived government in 2018 before a number of its members defected to the BJP. This time, it had counted on winning. Instead, the incumbent BJP government was returned [1] with 49 per cent of the votes and 70 per cent of the seats.

State-level success doesn’t necessarily translate into national victories. But the common ingredient in the BJP’s state campaigns will loom even larger in the national elections in May. That ingredient is Narendra Modi. He campaigned hard for six weeks, dropping into small towns in all three states to dazzle local voters and energise BJP organisers and workers.

State elections aside, the stage is already elaborately set for 2024. Domestically, the world sat up when India’s GDP growth in 2023 came close to eight per cent. Big, visible infrastructure was built — highways, airports and a vast new parliament transforming the centre of New Delhi. The government claims that more than US$40 billion [2] of investment was committed in memoranda of understanding in 2024. Foodgrain production reached an all-time high of 330 million tonnes [3].

Internationally, India hosted the G20 [4] in New Delhi in September 2023 and produced a joint statement faster than expected. Coinciding with the summit, India landed a probe on the moon, joining the United States, Russia and China as moon explorers.

When the Canadian government accused [5] India of being involved in the murder of Canadian Sikh Hardeep Singh Nijjar, associated with the Sikh separatist movement, it had little consequence in Indian politics. It even played well [6] with some BJP supporters who saw it as a sign that India had entered the big-time alongside the United States and Russia.

A few weeks later, the United States announced it was pursuing an Indian national over a plot to murder a US Sikh. US authorities moved cautiously, not wanting to disrupt the development of the Quad, an association comprising the United States, Japan, Australia and India intended to present a united front [7] against Chinese aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

Against this backdrop, the Prime Minister and his party are on a tireless mission to build momentum for the national elections that will take place over several weeks in April–May 2024. A thumping BJP majority would make it possible for Modi to amend the constitution during its third five-year term in office. Major amendments require approval of two-thirds of members present in each house of parliament, followed by endorsement in some instances of at least half of the 28 state legislatures.

Constitutional changes the BJP and its predecessors have discussed in the past have included renaming India after its Sanskrit name, Bharat, mandating simultaneous elections for both parliament and state legislatures and nationalising a ban on cow slaughter that is now in effect in some states.

From a young age, Modi has been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu-supremacist organisation with roots in some of India’s fascist movements of the 1920s. The social and cultural goals of the RSS call for the creation of a state in which the strong central rule of a Hindu supremacist party and its leader bring about the rebirth of a golden Hindu civilisation.

It is unlikely a BJP government will try to convert India into a presidential system to further this end, but it will seek to make the states thoroughly dependent on instructions from the central government.

A third term for the BJP is unlikely to bring major economic change. Electorally, it is difficult to alter agricultural structures [8]. Farmers like the certainty of minimum support prices for foodgrains they have grown, in spite of the country’s nutritional need for fruit and vegetables, which might be more profitable but would require more effective supply chains.

The great gap economists identify in India is a lack of manufacturing — the creation of products that the world wants — and the jobs that go with them. The standard of education in some states is low and a significant proportion of under-employed young people lack basic skills. At the other end of the economy, India’s big corporations are generally content that a tangle of permits, labour laws and unpredictable tax changes deter foreign competitors.

The most prominent items of the BJP’s third-term agenda will be cultural. India will become a religious state, imbued with the BJP–RSS version of what it is to be a Hindu. The future will not be easy for Muslims, Christians and ‘anti-nationals’ — the catch-all term for those who value a plural state in which a person’s religion is immaterial and citizens are not expected to be cheerleaders for their government.

(Author: Robin Jeffrey is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and La Trobe University. He is also an honorary fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore)

[This article from East Asia Forum is reproduced here under a Creative Commons License)

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