By Desmond Molloy
Midway through its third year in power, the Bharatiya Janata Political Party’s sectarian character has overtaken its early commitment to economic reform in India.
At a macroeconomic level, India never experienced the miracle years that swept over its richest and most powerful Asian counterparts. In the early 1990s, New Delhi reformed its state-controlled industries, leading to temporary hopes of a South Asian economic revolution. But a quarter century later, those hopes are little more than a distant dream. China, which initiated its own long march to economic liberalism around the same time, is a middle-income country today, with more than twice India’s per capita GDP.
In large part, this was because of the two countries’ wildly divergent political systems. Throughout the 20th century, both New Delhi and Beijing were one-party capitals, controlled by the Gandhi family’s Congress Party and Mao Zedong’s Communist Party, respectively. Nevertheless, their paths diverged near the end of the Cold War. While Deng Xiaoping chose to purge the Mao family’s influence from the Chinese Politburo, he offered his citizens a bargain—economic growth in exchange for an authoritarian system—the Congress Party stuck with a kind of “goulash democracy”, combining electoral democracy with the lubricating effects of corruption to retain its grip on power without needing to resort to violence. India paid the price for this decision; between the beginning of liberalization and the Great Recession, foreign direct investment lagged that in China, depriving India of the cash it needed to upgrade its infrastructure and improve the quality of life.
It was against this backdrop that the Congress Party fell from grace in 2014, displaced by the Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Their ascension to power was greeted with trepidation worldwide; the BJP’s charismatic leader, Narendra Modi, had previously been accused of standing aside during sectarian killings of Muslims during his tenure as head of the state of Gujarat. Indeed, several countries had to lift travel bans against him upon his election. Nor was he unusual within his party; many BJP MPs (Modi included) also belong or once belonged to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary Hindu organization dedicated to protecting Indian identity from what they see as a Muslim menace. Nevertheless, Modi inspired hope for those who believed in a stronger India. This was because of his commitment to reforms; the new prime minister had run a tight ship as state premier in Gujarat. Because of the drag of corruption on economic growth, such policies at the national level could have unchained a great deal of the country’s latent economic potential. Modi even seemed committed to addressing the country’s endemic poverty; himself the son of a poor tea seller, the Gujarati populist vowed to improve sanitation, ending open defecation by October 2019.
Early in Modi’s term, it seemed like the answer would be a resounding “yes”
The early optimism is gone. Three and a half years into the Modi era, India has changed relatively little. A government that had promised 9% annual growth has barely managed 7%. A controversial scheme to spontaneously withdraw most of the country’s currency in the hopes of flushing out the black market produced chaos. Even Modi’s toilet scheme has languished; more than 60% of the latrines built under his Swachh Bharat Abhiyan initiative are without running water, making them little more than porcelain works of modern art.
Worse yet, the BJP’s governance has been marred by exactly the kind of sectarian policymaking that its opponents feared. In the early summer of 2017, the Ministry of Environment announced a ban of the sale of cattle, sacred in Hinduism, for slaughter (Times of India). Subsequently, Hindu mobs killed several Muslims suspected of slaughtering cattle. Outside official policies, individual BJP officials often take an even harder line. In 2017 alone, individual MPs have suggested that the minority Jain sect should not be compared to the “very violent” Muslim community, accused Muslims of straining the country’s natural resources by having too many children, and warned that terrorism will plague the country as long as it has a Muslim population. This week, popular culture was dragged into the mess. Ahead of the release of the Bollywood epic Padmavati, a BJP MP called for the lead actress to be maimed in reprisal for a love scene with a Muslim character. Warning that it offended religious sentiment, Modi’s home state of Gujarat banned the film altogether. The state has become a microcosm of the BJP’s rule as a whole. Despite endemic violence against Muslims, Gujarat had received praise for its good governance and growing economy. Now, it has sunk into sectarianism once more. Whether the BJP will break this pattern and turn back to development in the year and a half left before India’s next general election remains an open question. If they fail to do so, the economic gap with China is unlikely to narrow in the foreseeable future.