When the Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) won a landslide victory in India’s general election in 2014, its leader, Narendra Modi, was something of a mystery. Would his government initiate an economic lift-off, as businessfolk hoped, or spark a sectarian conflagration, as secularists feared? In his five years as prime minister, Mr Modi has been neither as good for India as his cheerleaders foretold, nor as bad as his critics, including this newspaper, imagined. But today the risks still outweigh the rewards. Indians, who are in the midst of voting in a fresh election (see article), would be better off with a different leader.
Mr Modi is campaigning as a strongman with the character to stand up to Pakistan for having abetted terrorism. In fact, sending warplanes to bomb India’s nuclear neighbour earlier this year was not so much an act of strength as recklessness that could have ended in disaster. Mr Modi’s tough-guy approach has indeed been a disaster in the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir, where he has inflamed a separatist insurgency rather than quelling it, while at the same time alienating moderate Kashmiris by brutally repressing protests.
This impetuousness disguised as decisiveness has infected economic policymaking, too. In 2016 Mr Modi abruptly cancelled most Indian banknotes in an effort to thwart money-laundering. The plan failed, but not without causing huge disruption to farmers and small businesses. He has pushed through a nationwide sales tax and an overhaul of the bankruptcy code, two much-needed reforms. But the economy has grown only marginally faster during his tenure than it did over the previous ten years, when the Congress party was in government, despite receiving a big boost from low oil prices. Unemployment has risen, breaking promises to the contrary.
Indians hear such criticisms less often because Mr Modi has cowed the press, showering bounty on flatterers while starving, controlling and bullying critics. He himself appears only at major events. He has also suborned respected government institutions, hounding the boss of the central bank from office, for example, as well as loosing tax collectors on political opponents, packing state universities with ideologues and cocking a snook at rules meant to insulate the army from politics.
Mr Modi’s biggest fault, however, is his relentless stoking of Hindu-Muslim tensions. He personally chose as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, a fiery Hindu cleric who paints the election campaign as a battle between the two faiths. Mr Modi’s number two calls Muslim migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh “termites”, but promises a warm welcome to Bangladeshi Hindus. One of the bjp’s candidates is on trial for helping orchestrate a bombing that killed six Muslims. And Mr Modi himself has never apologised for failing to prevent the deaths of at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, during sectarian riots in the state of Gujarat while he was chief minister there. The closest he has come has been to express the sort of regret you might feel “if a puppy comes under the wheel” of a car.
This is not just despicable, it is dangerous. India is too combustible a place to be put into the hands of politicians who campaign with flamethrowers. As it is, vigilantes often beat up or lynch Muslims they suspect of harming cows, a holy animal for Hindus. Kashmiris studying in other parts of India have been set upon by angry nationalist mobs. And even if the bjp’s Muslim-baiting does not ignite any more full-scale pogroms, it still leaves 175m Indians feeling like second-class citizens.
Congress, the bjp’s only national rival, may be hidebound and corrupt, but at least it does not set Indians at one another’s throats. It has come up with an impressive manifesto, with thoughtful ideas about how to help the poorest Indians. Its leader, Rahul Gandhi, although a much-derided dynast, has helped modernise the party a little, raising its profile on social media, for example. It is a worthier recipient of Indians’ votes than the bjp.
With less than a tenth of the seats in parliament, Congress will not improve its showing enough to form a government on its own. If it and its regional allies do better than expected, they may just be able to cobble together a majority. But even if, as is more likely, the bjp remains in charge, it would be preferable if it were forced to govern in coalition. (The current government is technically a coalition, but since the bjp has the numbers to rule without its partners, they have little influence.) The risk is that reforms get delayed yet again—but they were not progressing quickly anyway. A degree of bickering and stasis would be a price worth paying to curb the bjp’s excesses. At the very least, coalition partners might be able to bring down a truly wayward bjp government by leaving it.