The world’s democracies see India as a future economic and military power and a potential counterweight to an emerging China. India gets good press for its democratic credentials, tolerant pluralism, and cultural diversity. There is less concern over the dark side of India — for instance, the threats to minorities and erosion of democratic values under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
But the national and international exuberance that India’s superpower status is preordained and inevitable is exaggerated and premature. It has led to arrogance and chest-thumping by Hindu nationalist leaders to win elections and keep control. Setting aside the glitzy hype and buzz, India is far from reaching global superpower status. It cannot exercise economic and military strength and influence to further its interests across the globe — a yardstick for great power status. Like the US or the past Soviet Union, even a rising China. Not only that, India is yet to overcome the historical baggage of divisive religious and cultural conflicts.
Undoubtedly, India is slowly losing the tag of a big poverty-stricken country with much catching up to do. But for India, leaping from a developing to a developed nation is a tall order. The time frame for reaching the laudable goal of becoming a fully developed nation is difficult to predict. It needs an honest appraisal of capabilities and aspirations. And it depends upon the scale of social and economic change.
The firm commitment to education and the bold economic liberalization policies pursued for several decades in India has had considerable success in energizing the private sector and attracting foreign investment. It has sped up economic growth and pulled millions of people out of poverty. But uneven economic expansion has escalated the gap between rich and poor. The top 10% hold 57% of national income, with the bottom 50% holding just 13%, according to the 2021 World Inequality Report.
The BJP government’s economic record is solid but not stellar. It gets good marks for managing inflation and building foreign reserves, infrastructure, and welfare spending. However, GDP growth has been sluggish, and India is unlikely to reach the goal of becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2024-25. And improving conditions for the multi-millions still living in extreme poverty remains an enormous challenge for an economy hit-hard by soaring unemployment post-COVID-19.
To be sure, India’s succession of strong, visionary leaders (notably Nehru, Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh) has contributed to its success. They ruled a diverse country ridden by abject poverty, endemic corruption, caste injustice, and rabid communalism while keeping the armed forces and religious extremists in check — a worthy achievement for a new country and an example for other developing countries.
Modi rose to the top on a reputation of being an avowed and unapologetic Hindu nationalist who could deliver high growth and good governance. After 7-years at the helm, Modi’s ‘strongman’ governance style, dismissive of opposition criticism, appeals to Hindu voters across age groups and castes.
Moreover, Hindutva or Hindu nationalism continues to supersede lower caste interests. With more temple building and no caste census, the BJP strategy has worked to keep the upper caste domination intact so far. The upcoming UP state elections are a litmus test of BJP’s popularity. But the BJP should win despite the recent defection of a few of its legislators to the regional Samajwadi Party.
The fact is that the success of Modi and the BJP in centralizing Hindu nationalism has changed India. It is fast burying the burning ashes of Indian secularism and Gandhian non-violence. Modi has sped up the century-old project to build a Hindu Rashtra — a government and nation dominated by Hindus — underpinned by the electoral autocracy of the BJP.
As authoritarian Hindu Rashtra entrenches itself, we can expect increased calls for genocide and mob violence against Muslims and minorities, limits on judicial independence, and more big-business financing of BJP electoral autocracy.
It is doubtful that Modi and the BJP will change course from a risky yet winning strategy of blending religion with nationalism. While the world must take notice of the rise in the politics of hate and intolerance in India, it cannot influence the outcome in any meaningful way. We can only hope that New India’s “tryst with destiny” does not tear apart its society and people.