26 July 2019

Can Modi Steer India Back to Relevance?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overwhelming victory in India’s recent elections solidified his grip on power and ensured that he will set the country’s agenda for the foreseeable future. While the vote was technically a victory for his right-wing, nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi turned it into a referendum on himself, becoming the face of nearly every BJP candidate’s local campaign. The landslide victory has critics paying close attention to whether Modi doubles down on the Hindu nationalism and illiberalism that characterized his first term in office, or reins it in.

Modi played up his strongman persona on the campaign trail, particularly with regard to Pakistan. He pushed a message that only he could protect India and even used images of the Indian military in his advertisements. That could complicate any rapprochement between the two countries. 

The election also revealed an opposition in disarray, unable to gain any traction despite the country’s troubled economy. The main opposition, the Indian Congress Party, challenged Modi’s failure to address the country’s agrarian crisis and his controversial demonetization policy, but none of their proposed solutions seemed to register with voters. 

Modi’s administration faces foreign policy challenges besides Pakistan, including regional competition for influence with China and, more recently, the possibility of a trade war with the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump has claimed that India is unfairly limiting American manufacturers from access to its markets. Tensions seemed to have cooled following a meeting between Modi and Trump at the recent G-20 Summit, but the two sides have not arrived at a resolution, and New Delhi remains sensitive to the public perception that Washington is bullying it into submission.

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