India, the largest democracy in the world, has been conducting its general elections, stretched over a month. Almost 900 million people will cast their ballot, deemed as the referendum over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five-year-rule. The election result might have serious implications not only for India but also for Nepal.
Although some call Modi as a divisive figure, I call him controversial, simply for the fact that party leaders are meant to be divisive in two-party and multiparty democracies. They represent one section or one ideology and endeavor to win the people on their side through their election manifestos and charisma.
More aptly, Modi is controversial personally and politically. Personally, he is married but does not live with his wife. He is robust to the point of being authoritarian. Politically, he has been tied to the massacre of Muslims when he was chief minister of Gujarat, open-armed welcome of Western capitalism, pro-Hindutva agenda, high unemployment rate, high-octane rhetoric against Pakistan, and demonetization of higher denomination of currency notes.
This election is more consequential than many in the past in India for political, economic, cultural and foreign policy reasons. Politically, if I am not mistaken, Modi is the second Bharatiya Janata Party leader who has become prime minister on the strength of his party’s majority in parliament. Before him, only A. B. Bajpayi had held the high post at the head of a coalition government. This election, if Modi wins, will establish BJP as the alternate to the Congress Party that has ruled India most of the time since its independence from Britain in 1947.
This election will have a gargantuan impact on Indian bureaucracy, the so-called permanent government, if Modi wins it. So far, even under the Modi government, the Indian bureaucracy has functioned as a bastion of the Congress Party. The repeat election of Modi’s party to power will shock the bureaucracy into making necessary adjustments to function an a-political mechanism.
Although Modi has made generous promises to farmers, who constitute about 60 percent of the Indian electorate, his focus, once elected, will continue to modernize India by infusing Western capital and technology, which is likely to give not only impressive growth but also augmented divide between the affluent and the indigent. Even though Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi, Narsimha Rao and Manmohan Singh have received credit for liberalizing the Indian economy, Modi has been more vocal and perhaps more dynamic in this realm than them.
Culturally, Modi has been the most vocal supporter of Hindutva, more than his BJP predecessor A. B. Bajpayee. While he himself has shown the alacrity for pilgrimage, he has enforced the laws regarding the protection of cows and Hindu religious shrines than his predecessors. These measures will be more strident in the future if Modi gets the second go in his office with a comfortable majority.
In terms of foreign policy, Modi has brought to bear a blend of strong-armed and soft-rhetoric approach. While he has been largely amiable to Donald Trump, the US president, and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, his approach to other countries has been rhetorically friendly and action-wise tough.
For instance, he imposed undeclared economic embargo when the Nepali leaders refused to accommodate his demand on behalf of Nepal’s Terai-based parties. Similarly, when terrorist killed several Indian army personnel in Kashmir, he ordered a limited air assault of Pakistan. He has been actively cooperating with Washington to keep China in its place in East and Southeast Asia. If Modi wins this election for his party, his foreign policy likely to be more robust with smaller countries.
And it will have far-reaching consequences for Nepal in different fronts. Politically, Modi may try to reinstate monarchy in Nepal and cut the communists down to size. Well, several astrologers and fortune tellers have been making such predictions more by reading the South Asian political climate than the crystal ball. Modi is also more likely to reach out to Nepal’s Province 2 and prevent Nepal from going closer to China in his second term than he did in his first term, and its impact could be more destabilizing than it has been thought so far.
Therefore, the current Indian general election is almost as important to Nepal as it is to India. While predictions vary from a clear majority for Modi’s party to an outright victory for the Congress Party, it is impossible to predict how the 900 million people are going to vote. But I will be surprised if Modi cannot retain his current post either as head of his majority party or of his coalition group, which means that Nepal, as much as India, will have to brace up for five more years of Modi rule.