Professor Lawrence Sáez spoke at the PIIA on 25 November 2014. His talk was reported in Dawn: see BJP appeasing non-Hindutva voters to broaden support base. The talk is summarised below.
The 2014 general election in India is historically important because it provided the winning Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a convincing parliamentary majority in India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha. The mandate given to prime minister Narendra Modi will enable his administration to govern unencumbered by fickle coalition coalition partners. The BJP victory raises some concerns about possible policy hardening by Mr Modi, a controversial and polirising figure in Indian politics. Narendra Modi’s dictatorial style of governance and his inaction at controlling riots against Muslims in Gujarat have tarnished his state’s economic success as chief minister of Gujarat.
An analysis of the 2014 general election shows that Narendra Modi’s appeal may extend beyond a core nucleus of extreme Hindu nationalists and cosmopolitan business groups. Since last leading a government ten years ago, the BJP has learnt how to broaden its appeal. For instance, the BJP’s 42-page electoral manifesto was overwhelmingly devoted to domestic policy proposals that were no different from those of the Congress Party. The key difference is that the BJP promised to be more effective in governance style. Whatever his faults as a politician, Narendra Modi’s electoral image resonated well with the voters and the BJP was able to capture votes from unlikely vote banks.
For instance, the two most prominent caste-based parties in Uttar Pradesh (the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party) only obtained 5 parliamentary seats. The Congress Party only won 2 parliamentary seats in that state (one seat was won by Sonia Gandhi, the Congress Party president; the other seat was narrowly won by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party’s proposed prime ministerial candidate). These three parties collectively lost 57 parliamentary seats compared to their performance in the previous general election. Who was the surprising big winner in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state? The BJP. This party obtained 71 parliamentary seats, a gain of 61 seats from the previous election.
The success of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh exemplifies the capacity of the BJP to garner support across a wide-range of voters. This strategy clearly paid off in 2014 and it is likely that it will make the BJP a more moderate force as it tries to maintain the support from a wider range of voters. The attention paid to domestic issues sidelined the BJP’s focus on foreign policy, an issue to which the BJP manifesto only devoted one single page. Most of the discussion of the BJP’s foreign policy highlighted calls for greater regional cooperation. It emphasized India’s soft power potential and focused its foreign policy objectives around five issue areas (or five Ts): Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology. There was no direct mention about any country. So compared to previous BJP electoral manifestoes, the BJP has appeared to moved towards a much more moderate foreign policy outlook.
An optimistic outlook of the BJP’s electoral promises relating to foreign policy would suggest that India is prepared to play a leadership role which should help promote effective regional cooperation. So far, India has shown greater eagerness to engage with regional institutions, such as the proposed membership of India in APEC. India has also looked eastwards and engaged more directly with Vietnam and Myanmar. The 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu, though, will be India’s first real test case of its commitment to regional cooperation. Long-standing historical rivalries between India and Pakistan could derail any likely cooperation between South Asian countries under the aegis of SAARC. If India and Pakistan are able to cooperate, then the expected gains from cooperation would benefit the countries involve, particularly in terms of increases in the volume of intraregional trade and investment. If Narendra Modi succeeds in implementing a plan for easing the restrictive visa regime that hampers travel between South Asian nations, then we should anticipate a sharp increase in tourism, particularly between India and Pakistan.
Once coalition troops pull out of Afghanistan, it is quite likely that the internal security situation will unravel. A collapse of the government in Afghanistan would likely spillover to Pakistan, thus adding further pressure to regional cooperation in South Asia. Any terrorist action that would take place in India on account of overall instability in Afghanistan or Pakistan would have very damaging effects on India-Pakistan relations. Unlike previous incidents of this type (e.g., the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai), Narendra Modi is likely to react to any perceived provocation of this type in a much more aggressive manner than previous administrations. Having a decisive political leader in India who enjoys a comfortable parliamentary majority to govern can spell great things for regional cooperation, on the other hand, it could lead to greater conflict if India is challenged or threatened.