Author: Lin Minwang, columnist of China News Weekly and professor in China University of Foreign Affairs
On November 8th of 2015, the result of Bihar Legislative Assembly election was announced. JDU (Janata Dal United), a local regional party, won 179 out of the total 243 seats together with its alliances, ensuring the decisive victory. On the other hand, BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), the ruling party led by Prime Minister Modi, only won 59 seats together with its alliances.
As the state with the third largest population (which exceeds 100 million), Bihar is seen as the “ticket bunker” in prior elections. Therefore, the result of Bihar Legislative Assembly election in 2015 was interpreted by analysts as the “wind indicator” of Indian politics in the near future. For Modi, the election served as an important test 17 months after he swore in as Indian Prime Minister, and the result was of more strategic significance. But the fact is – we can only be amazed with the dangling amplitude of the electoral politics in India, compared with the general election Modi won in 2014. The documentaries advertising tourism in India like to use a common title – “The Incredible India”; yes, India is incredible, in the political sense.
BJP was trying it best to ensure such a significant victory in Bihar. Before the election, Modi attended up to 30 campaigns in Bihar, so as to win the popularity among local voters. In these campaigns, Modi generously promised the voters in Bihar of a “big package” that amounted to 1.2 trillion rupees, all used for the development of the state. However, things didn’t go the way Modi expected; and it is only BJP that felt extremely embarrassed at the result, but also Modi himself. Shekhar Gupta, a famous political commentator of India, says that people can draw a conclusion out of the result of Bihar Legislative Assembly election – “Modi is totally defeatable”.
Let’s look back into the general election in May of 2014. In my opinion, the Indian people were actually voting for Modi, rather than for BJP. The campaign team Modi, in the process of election, designed the exquisite label of “Modi Wave”. After Modi inaugurated as the Prime Minister, the Indian media even claimed that a “Modi’s era” was arriving. As China and India does share a lot of common traits in their basic national conditions, and Modi used to give very high praise for China’s “reform and open-up” policy, some even dubbed him as “an Indian version of Deng Xiaoping”.
But everyone knows that it is not an easy job to start his own era in India, and the chance is also dim for Modi to become “the Indian version of Deng Xiaoping”. Modi could already learn a great lesson from the Delhi Legislative Assembly election in February of 2015. It was the first major defeat “Modi Wave” suffered. The result was upsetting, as BJP only won 3 out of the total 70 seats, and AAP (Aam Aadmi Party), founded in 2012, won another 67 seats.
成绩单 Report Card
Electoral politics demand that the politicians be skillful with their public speeches, and at least they are supposed to “think how the people think, and need what the people need”. To be more specific, they need to be aware of the hopes of the common people for a better life. “Modi Wave” functioned in the general election of 2014 thanks to the outstanding speech skills of Modi. Rajeev Shukla, then spokesperson of the Indian National Congress, said after the general election of 2014: “We do accept the defeat. Modi promised the Indian people of starts and moon, and the people choose to trust that ‘dream’.”
Actually, Modi promised to the voters of India on May 16th of 2014: “I hope to build the 21st century as ‘a century for India’. I’ll take us 10 years – not very long time.” And Arun Jaitley, the incumbent Minister of Finance of India, was seen as a close ally of Modi at that time, and was described as “very skillful with debate”. He said in an interview with Financial Times that India would not be satisfied only by matching the growth rate of Chinese economy. Actually, India would strive for an annual growth rate of at least 8% – he said. Anyone can see that it was much of an exaggeration. But the Indian people chose to put their trust in Modi at that moment, because his performance as the Chief Minister of Gujarat was extraordinary indeed. In another word, Modi is a “doer” who knows how to build a favorable image for himself. This is perhaps the first reason why “Modi Wave” functioned in the general election of 2014.
There’s another reason: in 2014, Modi was competing against Rahul Gandhi (who was too young as a politician) and the old-fashioned Indian National Congress. During the election, Modi jokingly dubbed Rahul as “a prince born with a silver spoon”, and claimed that Rahul was “growing up in the serene back garden of Indira Gandhi, his grandmother”. Rahul is a typical princeling, and belongs to “the rich second nation” with degrees of Cambridge and Harvard; while Modi was already feeding himself by selling tea since his childhood. Besides, Mod was also known for defying the arranged marriage, and completing a spiritual journey to the Himalaya Mountains. Well, it’s a touching story about a young man of low birth, who was constantly driven by his dreams and pursuits. And after then, Modi continued to achieve tremendous success with his own efforts, and the story cannot be more encouraging for the younger generation, who were born in a country with the lowest average age among all major economies. On contrary, Rahul was described as too reserved, and even shy in his election campaign, and the passionate speech of Modi not only won the hearts of most Indians, but also set him as a perfect example for the younger generation.
The birth of “Modi Wave” is also attributed to the fact that the Indian National Congress, led by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had served as the ruling part for ten years, and the Indian people had accumulated enough resentments in the decade. It is not to say that the Indian National Congress was not doing a good job – as a matter of fact, they tended to give priority to the unprivileged population. People were not specifically complaining about the sluggish economic development, or the corruption problem – which was frequently raised by the opposition parties; the rotation of ruling parties is quite normal in a developing country with electoral politics. In the eyes of the Indian people, Manmohan Singh was too old to lead the country, and Sonia Gandhi intended to “hold court from behind a screen” – tired of the “Gandhi Dynasty”, the voters had their own reasons to choose Modi.
As a result, BJP won the most votes in the general election of last 3 decades. Before that, Indian politics were characterized as “decentralized” and “regional”. When such a strong party like BJP, and such an assertive leader like Modi started to rule, the expectations for them were raised by the international communities.
Modi has travelled extensively after he inaugurated as Indian Prime Minister less than 2 years ago, and is indeed bringing “Modi Wave” onto the international stage. As a result, India has notably improved her relationship with neighboring countries and other superpowers. It is understandable as Modi is in the prime of his time compared with Manmohan Singh, who is already in his eighties. On another hand, Modi is putting into practice his philosophy of “doing something positive”.
Talking about his foreign policies, Modi has taken more active measures to handle the diplomatic relationship with neighboring countries, with Modi’s philosophy of “Neighbor First”. By doing that, Modi intends to accelerate the integration process of South Asia. Modi is also skillful in dealing with global superpowers, demonstrating his shrewdness and pragmatism. Not only did he manage to elevate the defense cooperation level between Indian, US and Japan, he is also very vocal about India’s standpoint in various international issues – much different from the “nice guy” image built by Singh government.
On one hand, Modi is a firm supporter of US’s strategy of “Asia-Pacific Rebalance”, and backs up US in a series of issues concerning South China Sea. On the other hand, he also strengthens India’s relationship with China and Russia. Not only are they joining hands within the framework of BRICS, India was also given full membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (with China and Russia as the cores), and is applying to join The Eurasian Economic Union, an organization led by Russia. In view of the intense situation between global superpowers, Modi managed to steer India – as a more detached party – to travel around them skillfully, and to gain the most profits possible.
Speaking of domestic policies, the effect of “Modi Wave” would arouse many controversies. To be frank, Modi did improve the efficiencies of government apparatus in India, reduce monetary inflation, slowly raise economic growth rate, and expand the scope of industries that are open for foreign direct investment – and even with a larger proportion of share, as FDI already accounts for 100% of the share in some fields. However, Modi met with giant setbacks in a series of reform plans concerning taxation, land acquisition and labor regulations. Not only did his bills fail to be passed in the Rajya Sabha, they also aroused large-scale protest demonstrations in various states of India.
In the end of August, 2015, the Patel Family organized protests in the State of Gujarat – Modi’s hometown – demanding that the government add them into the list of people who are entitled to various social welfares and favorable policies. In early September of 2015, several workers’ strikes broke out in various cities of India, in protest of the economic reform plan of Modi’s government. As a result, the Prime Minister was not in mood of celebrating his own birthday (on September 17th).
Actually, Modi’s reform plans were constantly obstructed in the Rajya Sabha, where the Indian National Congress has the most seats. Moreover, the opposition parties continued to criticize BJP for “being too close to the rich people and to business”, and Indian peasants are obviously unhappy about BJP’s stand. Modi is also receiving several accusations as the right-wing Hindu forces started to gain ground after BJP started to rule, and the religious tolerance is vanishing in India. As a result, the tension between Hindus and Muslims in Indian is becoming even worse, and BJP gives very high priority to Hinduism in regional election campaigns, and the rifts with Indian Muslims are becoming even more conspicuous.
气势不再 No more “Modi Wave”?
So let’s get down to the primary question – how long can “Modi Wave” last after all? Obviously, the shameful defeat in Bihar Legislative Assembly election makes it even more difficult for BJP to take control of the Rajya Sabha. BJP is also facing election campaigns in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, and the situations there are by no means optimistic. The charm of Modi is fading, which is growing into a lasting, universal phenomenon, rather than some temporary difficulties.
Since the general election in May of 2014, BJP has had 5 legislative assembly elections in 5 states of India, including Maharashtra and Delhi. Apart from the narrow wins in Maharashtra and Haryana, BJP suffered defeats in other 3 states. In the election of Haryana, the percentage of votes BJP received dropped from 34.70% to 33.20%; things were better for BJP in Maharashtra, as the percentage of votes it received neither dropped nor climbed.
The winter session of Indian parliament is schedule to be held on November 26th, 2015. Obviously, the Rajya Sabha will continue to block the laws of bankruptcy, land acquisition, and taxation reforms. But no one can stop Modi from pushing forward his reform plans, and I believe he will continue to bring several measures of marketization – only with slower paces. After all, BJP has most seats in Lok Sabha. All being said, it is like an impossible mission for Modi to build “a century of India”, even if he is kindly given 10 years’ time. Not to mention his prior promise of “making sure all towns and villages in India are connected with roads, water and electricity”.
The effect of “Modi Wave” is becoming weaker than ever. There is an inveterate “socialist” development thought in India, while electoral politics is building an institutional platform for populism. As a long standing observer of Indian politics, my instinct,is that the “Modi Wave” will continue to blow, but the Prime Minister cannot expect the invincible momentum of the wave to last long.