As India enters the third phase of the general election in 2024, Modi’s third consecutive term seems a done deal even though the low election turnout is worrisome for the BJP camp. Modi’s re-election will certainly put India’s democratic credentials at stake along with the secular, multicultural and multi-ethnic soul of India.

It is also evident that the outcome of these elections will have a significant impact on Indian politics, governance, socio-economic development and its foreign relations particularly with its neighbours.

The changes in Indian attitude with respect to governance and state ideology during the last ten years of Modi’s populism have put the very fabric of Indian society and federalism in jeopardy. Hardline Hindutva rhetoric, persecution of minorities, curtailment of civil liberties, Safronization of Indian media, shutting the independent journalists through intimidation and the tendency for a powerful centralized government have raised questions about government accountability.

These negative trends have also challenged the federal character of India, compromised the judiciary, and eroded academic freedom and institutional autonomy, with pressure to restrict work deemed “politically sensitive” by the government.

Modi’s uninterrupted rule with ten years of parliamentary majority enhanced the government’s capacity to push through its policy agenda, overruling the opposition and rendering the parliament ineffective in the face of bullish and destructive BJP legislative initiatives. Modi’s blatant misuse of important government agencies to scare and shut critical voices and its increasing assertion of authority over state governments have harmed India’s federal structure. While the Modi government has banked on the rhetoric of “good governance” to justify its proclivity for centralization of political power, this has contributed to the trust deficit between the centre and non-BJP government-led states. The central government’s interference in state affairs demonstrated a “regional bias” in the devolution of funds for states and appointing governors viewed as being pro-BJP in states led by non-BJP governments

The centralization of executive power maintained by the personality cult around Modi will only worsen in BJP’s third consecutive term. However the margin of majority for the BJP in these national elections could conclusively determine the power of the legislature to offset the executive. A victory with a substantial lead will only strengthen these negative trends propagated by the BJP. If the opposition parties, particularly the Indian National Congress, manage to post substantial improvement in these elections, they may be in a position to mount a meaningful opposition and stem the downward spiral of populism and extremism enveloping Indian polity.

An unchallenged BJP at the centre of power will have disastrous consequences for centre-state relations, making it extremely difficult for any future dispensation to reverse these trends without risking the implosion of India along provincial, religious, cultural and ethnic fault lines and fissures.

The erosion of democracy and secular values under Modi has played havoc with the minorities in India and let them lose the jinni of fundamentalism and theorization; on the other hand, it has also caused deep concern abroad, both in the West and among regional states.

Although India’s Western allies have fundamental and growing economic, environmental, and strategic interests in strong ties with India, independent of its democratic record, India’s growing Hindutva-inspired nationalism may become problematic for Indian allies to navigate.

Concerns are common in global politics, but the Indian polity appears to hold broadly a belief that India is better than most other countries. India’s Minister of External Affairs has since 2022 popularized the idea that India will go “the India way.” However, the risks involved in dealing with a country with rapidly eroding democratic credentials may become increasingly problematic for its Western allies, particularly the European allies for whom democracy and human rights are the two fundamental principles. Whether India can maintain its attraction as a strategic partner in the international arena in the middle of mounting majoritarianism domestically remains to be seen.

At the regional level, conscious of growing Chinese investments, India has extended numerous credit lines and other incentives to smaller neighbouring countries. Yet, fundamental disagreements remain unresolved, from unresolved border issues and sharing of river water to migration and numerous other irritants. As regards Pakistan, under Modi, there have been no meaningful attempts to resolve tensions with Pakistan. In fact, relations have gone from bad to worse, particularly after the unilateral abrogation of the special status of Illegally Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IIOJK) against all international rules. A looming conflict pertains to water-sharing following Indian plans for new hydropower projects on its western borders. Similarly, Modi has made the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) practically defunct by not agreeing to the long overdue SAARC Summit. Anti-Indian sentiment, therefore, persists across South Asia, with its neighbours forging closer ties with Beijing to hedge against Indian predominance.

The Indian government is aware of its military and economic limitations compared to China’s growing defence and technological strength.

Early attempts at leader-level diplomacy did not produce any positive results, leading to the escalation of tensions across the border. Prospects for a breakthrough in relations remain wishful thinking, as illustrated by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence from the G20 su11.

With mounting tensions between China and the U.S.A. and rising geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic competition in the Asia Pacific, India will try to engage with smaller regional states and a broad array of partners from the West and the Global South. However, a subtle weariness of India’s hegemonistic designs and Hindu extremism is rising in these states. The expulsion of Indian troops from Maldives is a case in point. How India will manage to sustain growth in the face of geo-economic shocks, effects of climate change and geopolitical tensions will depend largely on the result of this crucial election and the international reaction to it.

Looking at it from an Indian perspective, it is evident that Modi has preserved India’s strategic autonomy, shying away from binding alliances. India has deepened its trade relations with Russia while continuing to improve ties with the US. With highly visible state visits and vital defence agreements, India–US relations today are on more solid footing than ever. Partnerships with France and Japan, especially on infrastructure and defence, have strengthened manifold with lucrative defence and commercial deals.

Modi has also succeeded in intensifying relations with states in the Middle East and North Africa, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding its traditional concerns with Israel on the Palestinian issue, India has become an important partner of Israel in defence procurement and other sectors. A move that is not supported by the majority in India.

This has also questioned Indian claims to leadership of the Global South, a key message Modi sought to convey throughout its G20 presidency in 2023.

It is also true that with increasing signs of the emergence of a multipolar world, the international environment may be more conducive to India’s ascendancy now than ever before. Its internal market and growing population make it an attractive investment destination for Western businesses keen to diversify risk amid China’s increasing confidence. Intensifying the United States–China rivalry has also markedly raised India’s importance as a security partner for the West. There is no doubt that Modi and his key foreign policy personnel have leveraged this comfortable strategic position of India to their advantage.

The outcome of the forthcoming elections will have important consequences not only on India and its global standing but also on the international community at large. India, under the current regime, has been part of a global trend of democratic backsliding. The increasing nationalistic rhetoric that aggravates religious and ethnic fault lines has aided the BJP’s rise to power, and these trends are likely to persist.

What are the prospects and options for normalization or improvement in Pakistan-India relations in the possible third term of Modi will be discussed in part two of this article.


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