India's Prime Minister Faces Opposition Within His Own Party

8 MINS READDec 21, 2014 | 13:57 GMT
India's Prime Minister Faces Opposition Within His Own Party
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a campaign speech during a rally in India's Jharkhand state on Dec. 9.
(STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

India's political establishment has been swept up in a far-reaching controversy over remarks made by members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government regarding the Hindu nature of the Indian state. India has officially been a secular democracy since gaining independence in 1947. Freedom of religion in the country, guaranteed by the 1950 constitution, has been instrumental in maintaining relations between Hindus and India's significant Muslim population — one of the world's largest — and a diverse group of religious minorities. However, many of Modi's Cabinet members and closest supporters — and even Modi himself — are affiliated with the Sangh Parivar, a loose collection of right-wing organizations supporting the concept of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. The Modi administration's reliance on its core base of Hindutva supporters will limit how far the prime minister can go in reining in these elements of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), even at the risk of instigating communal violence and galvanizing political opposition.

However, the biggest risks posed by the ruling party's split in focus over pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda are not necessarily communal violence (which remains a possibility), but complications for Modi's ambitious economic agenda. Six months after landmark parliamentary elections swept Modi into office, challenges to his reform campaigns are coming not from traditional opposition parties but from within his own support base. BJP's majority in parliament is so large, and the views expressed so diverse, that the prime minister must first work to unify his own party before grappling with opposition groups and India's powerful state governments. This work will delay the implementation of any meaningful reforms. 

In elections earlier this year, Modi and BJP rode a national surge of anti-incumbent sentiment driven by voters' frustrations with slowing economic growth, rampant corruption and a slow pace of social and political change. Modi's carefully cultivated public persona is one of a no-nonsense technocrat and humble political outsider who rose to prominence in Gujarat and transformed the state from one of India's poorest to an example of pro-business policies and economic dynamism. But there is another side to Modi — one known better to political cadres and the political machinery that helped the prime minister and his party come to power: Modi as a pracharak, or "soldier," of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), one of the largest Hindutva organizations within the Sangh Parivar.

Of course, Modi's personal beliefs are not a secret; his deep faith led him to fast during his visit to the United States (even at a state dinner with U.S. President Barack Obama), and his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat was marred by accusations of complacency during communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. Though India's courts declared Modi free of any wrongdoing, his campaign worked diligently to combat constant accusations from the opposition All Indian National Congress Party, which depends heavily on minority voters, especially Muslims. This politicking by Modi's center-left opponents did little to dampen voter enthusiasm. Modi and his party won the national parliamentary elections in May handily, and in the months since then BJP has gained control of more state governments as well, wresting even the traditional strongholds of Haryana and Maharashtra away from the Congress Party.

Modi's Careful Response to Disruptive Rhetoric

Indian voters — especially the business communities and the burgeoning middle class — cast votes in support of Modi's reformist and pro-business policies, not his charismatic Hindutva persona. Comments from senior BJP leaders in recent weeks are giving pause to many of Modi's more moderate supporters — an especially troubling development for Modi, given how quickly social opposition can stifle India's reform initiatives. The controversy over comments made by members of the Modi government has created the impression that Modi is having difficulty keeping his party in line.

December has been a particularly difficult month. Education Minister Smriti Irani allegedly sent a notice to schools earlier in December attempting to cancel students' Christmas vacations. Irani's credentials and management style have also been called into question; she was a fashion model and soap opera star before being appointed to oversee the country's school system. Another government figure, Minister of State for Food Processing Industries Niranjan Jyoti, sparked heated debate in parliament when she allegedly said that all Indians, including Christians and Muslims, are "sons of Ram" — a Hindu deity also known as Rama. Addressing a rally, Jyoti told attendees they had to decide between a government of "Ramzaadon," followers of Ram, or those who are "haramzaadon," meaning illegitimate. Another BJP parliamentarian and RSS stalwart, Sakshi Maharaj, came under criticism for referring to Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi's assassin, as a patriot.

Although Maharaj and Jyoti apologized for their comments, these incidents came as parliament introduced a contentious bill against mass conversions, ostensibly of Hindus to Christianity or Islam. The media storm and outcry in parliament surrounding these incidents have contributed to an effective halt in debate during the legislature's winter session, despite the ruling party's commanding majority. Modi's delayed response to these incidents has been to instruct parliamentarians and government members to avoid making such comments in public unless they are condemning the remarks. Modi's inability to harshly criticize the Hindutva ambitions of his party reflects the competition for leadership of the BJP between Modi and the Sangh Parivar movement that supports the party — and especially the RSS.

This upheaval is strongly challenging Modi's image, founded on his management of the Gujarat state government and effective leadership style, on the national stage. Such challenges are to be expected; the transition from state to national leader is not an easy one, especially in a country as large and diverse as India. The size and diversity of BJP's presence in parliament is creating a new management challenge for the prime minister, who relied on a small cadre of loyalists to advance the successful policies that established his political career in Gujarat.

The most unifying factor among the 282 BJP parliamentarians is their links to Hindutva elements, especially the RSS. Appointments of individuals with questionable experience, such as Irani, have led many of Modi's opponents to question whether Modi or the RSS is running the country. These doubts are not assuaged by commentary from senior BJP leaders, such as Subramanian Swamy's comments in a recent televised debate where he criticized those who chided Modi for not containing the Hindutva element of the party. Swamy argued that Modi was not opposed to creating a Hindu renaissance or an enlightened Hindutva national agenda. He cited the prime minister's RSS membership as his tacit support of many of the party members' actions, implying that the national policy agendas of the ruling party and the RSS are intertwined.

Competing Domestic Agendas and the Effects on Growth

Modi came into power amid a serious decline in India's gross domestic product growth rate, rampant corruption in state and private sectors, and lagging infrastructure development. Modi remains focused on improving India's regulatory and economic environment, having spent much of his first six months in office conducting high-level bilateral meetings and courting renewed international investment into India's lagging economy. However, bureaucratic and political inertia makes creating long-term changes in India a slow and difficult process.

Modi's focus on foreign policy since taking office is understandable in this context. The move has enabled him to accumulate victories in attracting promises of investment or recognition of India's international presence. Moreover, it has allowed Modi to avoid becoming embroiled in difficult policy debates at home, especially in the run-up to several elections for state governments. However, while Modi has devoted his energies to foreign policy and investment, other elements within the government have been following their own agendas. His counterparts in government have prioritized a number of socio-cultural and religious issues over government reform initiatives in interviews, speeches and policy initiatives.

Meanwhile, Modi's opponents decry the rise in Hindutva rhetoric out of the ruling party, saying it could spawn communal violence on par with the 2002 Hindu-Muslim clashes that occurred under Modi in Gujarat. The risk of communal violence is a persistent threat in some parts of India, such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states (riots in Muzzaffarnagar in 2013 were a key focus for BJP candidates who promised during campaigns to protect Hindu interests against Muslim aggression). However, the recent crises have struck the biggest blows against Modi's leadership capability.

As evidenced by the split in the ruling party, a BJP majority in parliament does not necessarily equal a Modi majority, and contrary to claims made during the campaign season, Hindutva groups are directly affecting national policy debates. In addition, Modi was a controversial choice for the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, and he will have to work to prevent factionalism from spreading through the party's 282-member parliamentary majority. Moreover, business groups and the Indian middle class are also slowly beginning to question Modi's management ability — a key aspect of his appeal to voters.

Ruling Parties in Indian States

Ruling Parties in Indian States

Change in India cannot come out of passing laws in parliament alone. Implementation will also be a difficult phase of reform. Opposition parties hold several state governments, such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal — significant seats of power. Modi will need to forge ties across the political spectrum regardless of the ruling party's majority in parliament. If Modi's party cannot organize around a central platform that avoids the Hindutva rhetoric that halted the legislature's winter session, this process of outreach will be undermined.

In the coming months, Modi will attempt to square off with opponents over the contentious issues of divesting state-owned enterprises, reforming land acquisition policies, and reforming the country's corrupt and inefficient coal, iron ore and steel industries. However, before Modi can tackle India's powerful labor unions, local rights groups and an entrenched opposition movement, he has to take on his core group of supporters. Modi cannot afford to alienate the Hindutva heart of the BJP, but neither can he allow it to dominate public policy discourse. Modi needs the support of the Sangh Parivar to keep his government in place, just as the Sangh Parivar needs a sympathetic government to help realize its national goals. The challenge is in finding a separate space for both, as the combination of Hindutva policy and Modi's goals has proven untenable.

As the prime minister attempts to reach out to the opposition, he will try to get his own party to agree to mundane economic reforms and development at the expense of social and spiritual issues. This deliberate process will eventually benefit Modi's ambitions, but at the expense of meaningful economic change in the short term. Modi's biggest challenge will be to convince India's voters to give him the time to do so. He will also have to rely on the tools he has criticized for much of his career: government largesse, respecting states' rights and turning a blind eye to local corruption. Ultimately, there will be more of the same in India even as Modi attempts to make changes.

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