India's Next Government: Interview with Sadanand Dhume
Image Credit: American Enterprise Institute

India's Next Government: Interview with Sadanand Dhume


The Diplomat‘s Justin McDonnell spoke with the American Enterprise Institute’s Sadanand Dhume about India’s elections, the country’s likely next government, and the consequences of a victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The largest democratic exercise in history. 6 weeks long. 815 million eligible voters. 100 million of them voting for the first time. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.  What’s at stake?

In many ways this is India’s most historic election since democracy was restored after a 21-month hiatus in 1977, and voters responded by handing the then ruling Congress Party its first ever defeat in a national election.

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This time it’s not democracy itself that’s at stake, but the quality of India’s democracy. If the ruling Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance returns to power after 10-years of rule marked by economic mismanagement and the biggest corruption scandals in Indian history, it will signal that something fundamental is broken in Indian democracy—the ability of voters to punish a bad government. On the other hand if, as is widely expected, the UPA is defeated it will show that the Indian voter has choices, and that poor governance carries an electoral cost.

Modi is likely to emerge as winner of these elections. Given the public’s contempt for politicians in India, what is it about his personality and delivery, as well as his vision that has allowed him to win the support of large numbers of Indian voters? How might his government differ from the current administration?   

Narendra Modi, the 63-year-old, business-friendly chief minister of Gujarat state, is the most important political figure to emerge in India in a generation. He resonates with voters for many reasons.

For starters, Modi, who started his life helping an uncle sell tea on a railway platform in his hometown in Gujarat, is a self-made politician in a system where many leaders inherit power from their parents. (Modi’s main rival, Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi, is the son, grandson and great grandson of prime ministers.)

Modi is also seen as business-friendly and openly welcoming toward investment, both foreign and domestic. This contrasts with politicians who still hew to India’s old socialist political culture—where being seen as close to business is regarded as unseemly. Under Modi, Gujarat has clocked double-digit growth rates for over a decade. The state also stands out for cutting red tape and building some of India’s best infrastructure.

While it’s too early to say whether a Modi government will be able to deliver, investors are betting on his reputation for decisiveness and no-nonsense administration to kickstart India’s economy. The benchmark Bombay Stock Exchange index is up 15% since January.

In terms of foreign and defense policy, Modi is expected to hew to a more muscular, nationalistic line. Several commentators have likened him to Japan’s Shinzo Abe in this regard.

If ruling Congress leader Rahul Gandhi loses, I think people will be asking why Priyanka did not lead the front. What does the future hold for the Gandhi family?

The Gandhi family is at the crossroads after what is likely to be the Congress Party’s worst ever defeat. (Counting hadn’t begun when this interview was conducted.) There’s a question mark over Rahul Gandhi’s political future. Critics ask if he’s simply too detached from the hurly-burly of Indian political life to compete with Modi? The jury is still out on whether Congress can recover from this defeat, but party supporters point out that Congress, which has ruled India for all but 13 years since independence in 1947 has come back before. It had been written off in 1977, 1989 and 1999, but each time proved that it was too early to pen the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s political obituary.

Those critical of Narendra Modi say he is a divisive figure, and point to the sectarian violence in 2002 when he served as chief minister in Gujarat. Is the BJP taking a risk of alienating the Muslim population? 

The BJP, with its roots in the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has never attracted substantial Muslim support. But Modi is particularly controversial among Muslims for failing to stop riots in his state in 2002 after a Muslim mob attacked a train carrying Hindu pilgrims and killed 59 people. More than 1,000 people died in the riots, three-fourths of them Muslim. And though a Supreme Court-ordered investigation said Mr. Modi wasn’t legally culpable for the violence, for many Indians the political fault lines they created have not disappeared. Surveys indicate that only about 1 in 8 Muslims support BJP.

How will the result of these elections influence India’s relationship with its South Asian neighbor, Pakistan?  

It’s hard to say. As long as Pakistan reins in terrorism emanating from its territory, there’s a fairly good chance that Modi will extend a hand of friendship in a “Nixon to China” manner. Expanded trade ties with Pakistan would dovetail nicely with Modi’s top priority—to boost India’s economy. It would also help gain him greater international acceptability.

However, Modi is also expected to be tough on national security, so the odds of business as usual with Pakistan in the event of a terrorist attack on India are slim. That many Pakistanis see Modi primarily through the prism of the 2002 riots does little to add to goodwill between the Indian and Pakistani people.

Does the current U.S. administration favor one candidate over another? 

No. The US government has been uncomfortable with the rise of Modi, who was stripped of his US visa in 2005 on account of the 2002 riots. But with a Supreme Court-ordered investigation finding no grounds to prosecute Modi for the riots, and with Modi’s rise becoming a reality, the administration has belatedly come to terms with the fact that it will have to deal with Modi as the likely next leader of India.

Will India’s state of the economy rebound? Will Modi bode well for the country?

It’s too early to say, but for now Modi represents the best option available to India to get its economic house back in order. If Modi succeeds in restoring India’s economic luster he will indeed bode well for the country. If instead he gets sidetracked by controversial issues of identity politics he may well prove those who fear his coming to power right.

Editor’s Note: Sadanand Dhume also has a video segment up, courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute, on India’s elections and its likely next leader (see below).

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