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Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was sentenced to two years in prison on March 20, which rid Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of his primary rival in the lead-up to the upcoming elections. The Prime Minister's concern regarding his position in power is justified, as polls indicate that the government's public support, particularly among young people, is diminishing. Modi initially presented himself as a competent manager during his early years in office, but his economic policies have encountered questionable outcomes, and he is compensating for his lack of popularity by implementing more authoritarian measures. For the first time in decades, international organizations such as Freedom House have excluded India from the category of free countries.

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  • Modi's Formula for Success

  • Reforms of questionable effectiveness

  • A Small War and a Second Term

  • Media censorship and arrests

  • Strong economy, weak democracy

  • Criticism of Modi and the mopping up of the opposition

Modi's Formula for Success

Gujarat, located in western India, is recognized as a pioneer of Indian reform and is often showcased to foreign businessmen as an exemplar of transformational success. The region houses the headquarters of India's most prominent companies and enterprises and serves as one of the country's financial hubs. Additionally, Gujarat boasts the second-largest stock exchange in India, located in its largest city, Ahmedabad. The state has sustained exceptional economic growth, maintaining a rate of at least 10% annually for several years, positioning it as a leader in terms of investment. The Adani Group, a prominent conglomerate that operates seaports, airports, power plants, and data centers, among other enterprises, is also based in Gujarat. The group's founder, Gautam Adani, ranks among the wealthiest people in the world.

Gujarat is also the birthplace of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was born into the family of a tea merchant in Vadnagar. He graduated from high school there and later earned a degree in political science from Gujarat University. At an early age, Modi became interested in politics and joined the radical nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Union of Voluntary Servants of the Motherland). The group's activists gave up their family life to “serve India.”

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi

In the past, “servants” were involved in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, believing that he was too lenient towards Muslims. During the state of emergency from 1975 to 1977, the RSS was banned, and Indira Gandhi carried out a coup d'état out of fear of losing power. Her actions resulted in the outlawing of all her opponents, including radical nationalists, and the imprisonment of many dissenters. In response, “servants” participated in mass protests, in which Narendra Modi also took an active role. Despite the eventual suppression of these demonstrations, discontent with Gandhi's policies remained prevalent. However, the prime minister held a different perspective, believing that the state of emergency had stabilized the country and subsequently called for elections. Political prisoners were released from jails, and freedom of the press was restored. Nevertheless, the results were a resounding victory for the opposition, with Gandhi experiencing a significant defeat, leading to the transfer of power to the opposition.

In the mid-1980s Modi joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party, BJP). The basic ideology of this political organization is Hindutva, that is, Hindu nationalism. A decade later, Modi led the nationalists' election campaign in Gujarat and in 2001 was elected BJP chief minister of the region.

Under the leadership of the Indian National Congress (INC), India had already undergone more than a decade of economic reforms. The INC, India's oldest political party, played a significant role in India's independence in 1947. However, the party's newer leaders lacked the same authority as their predecessors, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, and Narasimha Rao. Despite the general success of the reforms, which included privatization, liberalization of foreign trade, and the removal of obstacles to small and medium-sized businesses, bureaucracy, nepotism, corruption, and persistent widespread poverty discredited the old political elite. Despite becoming a global leader in economic growth, a large section of the country's population continued to suffer from poverty.

But bureaucracy, nepotism, and corruption discredited the old political elite

Narendra Modi differed from the leaders of the INC at that time in that he did not come from a political dynasty. This was seen as an advantage compared to the National Congress, which was dominated by the Gandhi family. As the leader of Gujarat, Modi demonstrated his ability to be a dynamic and pragmatic leader.

Religious clashes broke out in Gujarat in 2002, resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 people, predominantly Muslims. Although there was no direct evidence linking the chief minister to the riots, Modi was accused by critics of not taking appropriate action to prevent the violence. The U.S. and the EU held Modi responsible for the atmosphere of impunity that contributed to the widespread riots and imposed sanctions on him. These sanctions were lifted only after Modi assumed the position of prime minister of India.

The 2002 pogroms did not negatively affect the politician's popularity; instead, they contributed to an increase in his approval rating. With more than 100 million Muslims in India and an ambivalent attitude towards Islam among the Hindu majority, Modi's declaration of being a “Hindu nationalist” is a source of pride for him.

The BJP's combination of anti-Muslim rhetoric and a pledge for economic liberties proved to be a winning formula, as evidenced by their overwhelming triumph in the 2014 general elections, led by the chief minister of Gujarat. The Nationalists secured a parliamentary majority and formed a government comprised solely of their party. The newly elected prime minister was expected to introduce swift and drastic reforms that would elevate India into a prominent global power.

Reforms of questionable effectiveness

Upon taking over as prime minister, Modi began to push for important changes. First, he announced the Clean India Program. The plan was to clean up the country's streets in five years. The prime minister's critics point out that India's cities and villages have not become cleaner, although more public toilets have been installed.

The year 2016 saw the implementation of “demonetization” by the prime minister, which involved abolition of the widely-used 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes. The rationale behind the reform was to combat bribery and counterfeiters while promoting the use of bank cards. However, this move resulted in long queues at banks and the downfall of small traders who lacked cash. On top of these negative outcomes, corruption remained rampant and the public lost faith in the national currency.

In 2017, Modi initiated another reform: he introduced a flat tax on goods and services. The goal of the change was to create a unified tax law, which had previously been different in each state. However, due to poor preparation, the fiscal “special operation” led to the collapse of the tax system and caused protests across the country.

Protests after tax reform, 2017
Protests after tax reform, 2017

A Small War and a Second Term

Narendra Modi's foreign policy has been characterized by its firm stance. In 2016, it was reported that the Indian military had carried out a cross-border raid on terrorist camps in the part of disputed Kashmir controlled by Islamabad. In 2017, Indian and Chinese troops had a face-off at the junction of the Indian, PRC, and Bhutanese borders. While the military eventually disengaged, India claimed victory in the conflict.

In early 2019, on the eve of the general election, Modi orchestrated a “small victorious war.” In February of that year, a suicide bomber targeted an Indian police convoy in Jammu and Kashmir, resulting in the deaths of several dozen people. In response, the prime minister authorized an air strike on a militant encampment inside Pakistan. The following day, Pakistani pilots attempted to attack Indian military installations, leading to an air battle that resulted in an Indian aircraft being shot down. Although the actual winner of the conflict remains unknown, India claimed victory, sparking an unprecedented wave of patriotism across the country. Riding this wave, the BJP easily won the parliamentary election, securing Modi's second term as prime minister.

Media censorship and arrests

Independent media outlets and human rights groups that spoke out against the government's human rights violations, specifically the oppression of religious minorities, were labeled as enemies of the state. Some publications were shut down, journalists and activists were imprisoned and even killed, and NGOs were stripped of funding and had their bank accounts frozen under flimsy pretexts. The government claimed that these journalists and activists were working in the interest of corrupt clans and the Muslim minority, who supposedly had undue advantages under the previous INC government and were oppressing the native population.

During the summer of 2022, Mohammed Zubair, a co-founder of Alt News, a well-known fact-checking website in India, was arrested on the grounds of having allegedly insulted believers in his tweets from 2018. However, many human rights activists believe that the true reason for his arrest was retaliation for posting a video on his website of BJP Speaker Nupur Sharma's careless remarks, where she implied that Mohammed was a pedophile due to his age difference with his younger wife during a televised debate.

The Financial Times reports that freedom of speech in India is currently in jeopardy. Journalists are increasingly shying away from controversial topics, as such reporting can result in loss of liberty or even death. Moreover, independent media in India are becoming scarce. NDTV, the last major media outlet to express dissenting views, was recently purchased by Gautam Adani, an oligarch with close ties to Narendra Modi. Consequently, numerous senior journalists have resigned from the company.

Journalists are increasingly shying away from controversial topics, as such reporting can result in loss of liberty or even death

India's ranking in the press freedom index of the international organization Reporters Without Borders fell by 8 positions within a year, and by the end of 2022, it ranked 150th out of 180 countries. In 2021, Freedom House downgraded India to the status of “partly free,” whereas the previous year it was classified as a free country. In 2021, experts at the influential Swedish V-dem Institute also concluded that India no longer qualified as a democracy and should now be classified as an “electoral autocracy.”

Strong economy, weak democracy

In 2022, India moved up to the fifth position in the global GDP rankings, surpassing the United Kingdom. Additionally, in 2023, India has become the world's most populous country with almost 1.5 billion inhabitants. Although the pandemic slowed down economic growth, it has since recovered to 7% per annum, and the government aims to push it up to 10%, which was also a goal before Modi came to power. India is among the leading nations in terms of IT development, and investment in the economy is increasing.

Modi benefits from a challenging international situation as contradictions between the U.S. and China drive American businesses to shift their focus towards India. Meanwhile, Chinese entrepreneurs are also establishing production facilities within India's borders. Despite pushback from Washington, India has increased its purchase of Russian oil. Narendra Modi's government openly aims to make India the world's primary production center, though it has yet to attain its goal of 25% industrial production as a percentage of GDP. Nonetheless, the “Work in India!” campaign initiated in 2014 after the BJP's initial victory in the general elections has started to yield positive results, with increasing investments and job opportunities in the country.

Narendra Modi's government openly aims to make India the world's primary production center

India's richest businessman, Gautam Adani, promises that India will be one of the most powerful economic powers by 2030. Analysts say this is likely. But will it be the “world's largest democracy” by then, as it has been called for the past 70 years?

Critics of Modi argue that his leadership endangers the fundamental principles of Indian society, such as the pluralism of opinions and the secular nature of the state. They believe that his intolerance towards other religions, restriction of freedom of expression, and the focus on creating both external and internal enemies may hinder reforms and discourage investors and entrepreneurs. If this continues, it may force India to abandon its ambition of becoming a global power and leader of the “global south”.

Criticism of Modi and the mopping up of the opposition

The Indian National Congress is the only political party that can rival the nationalists. However, their leader Rahul Gandhi was recently sentenced to two years in prison for a comment he made about the Prime Minister's name. In a political rally in Gujarat in 2019, Gandhi said, “ How come all thieves have Modi in their surnames? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi.” Although he has been released on bail for 30 days, the Congress party has announced plans to stage protests.

The Indian National Congress, which was once the dominant political party in the country, is currently facing its deepest crisis. The party only holds 10% of the seats in India's lower house of parliament and controls three out of 28 states, while the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has more than half the seats in parliament and control of 16 states. Despite this, Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv Gandhi, the grandson of Indira Gandhi, and the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, is determined to revive the party's popularity. The next parliamentary elections in India are scheduled for as early as 2024, and Gandhi and his associates have a significant amount of work to do in order to win back the support of the population.

Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi

The Economist suggests that Gandhi may have an opportunity to appeal to voters, particularly among younger members of the middle class who are growing tired of the nationalist rhetoric of the ruling elite, according to opinion polls. It seems that this is the demographic that Gandhi has chosen to target in his political campaign. He has recently embarked on an “election yatra,” a pilgrimage through various Indian states, much like Mahatma Gandhi did, in order to share his philosophy with the people. Hundreds of thousands of people have come to listen to the INC leader, and his approval ratings are slowly but steadily increasing. Rather than promising to build an “India for Indians,” Gandhi is advocating for an open and democratic country that can hold its own on the global stage.

The Indian National Congress suspects that Modi is attempting to eliminate his opponents, but as the primary opposition party, it is unlikely to be easily ousted. However, the party's chances of success in the 2024 election hinge on its ability to unify all opposition forces in the country and whether it has viable candidates to replace Gandhi should he be disqualified.

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