Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures at an event to present the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election manifesto in New Delhi on April 8, 2019. - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 8 sought to woo Hindu voters and farmers with an election manifesto he hopes will help him seal a second term in office. (Photo by STR / AFP)STR/AFP/Getty Images
Narendra Modi Modi has cut red tape and reformed bankruptcy law, but the results of flagship policies have been ambiguous © AFP

Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party swept to power five years ago with a vision for a modern, corruption-free future. Since then, India’s prime minister has had a mixed record on living up to the lofty expectations. Nevertheless, early polls suggest the country’s 900m eligible voters are likely to return him to power in elections that began this week. If re-elected, Mr Modi should do more to tackle entrenched economic problems that have stifled India’s potential. He should also clamp down on his party’s polarising rhetoric, and the normalisation of Islamophobic sentiment in India. 

Mr Modi’s success in the 2014 election came from reaching beyond the BJP’s traditionalist Hindu power base. Voters were frustrated with the ruling Congress party, whose administration was marred by corruption scandals, apparent policy drift and runaway inflation. Mr Modi promoted himself as an alternative: a self-made strongman capable of kick-starting the economy and creating 10m jobs a year. That the BJP stopped releasing employment data last year is emblematic of its struggle to meet these targets.

Mr Modi has cut red tape and reformed bankruptcy law, but the results of his flagship policies have been ambiguous. The Goods and Services Tax was meant to turn India’s federal system into a single market. Its design and implementation were rushed, with IT problems leaving businesses unable to file returns. Demonetisation, which targeted high-currency bills, was supposed to end corruption by flushing out black money. The Reserve Bank of India estimated it removed only about 1 per cent of such cash. But it disrupted India’s informal economy, contributing to a slowdown in growth.

Beyond GST and demonetisation, Mr Modi has been more of a tinkerer than a revolutionary. More contentious changes, such as land reform, amending the banking system and relaxing labour laws, have not been implemented. Such structural shifts are needed if India is to increase its economic growth rate, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Rather than pursuing his promised economic overhaul, Mr Modi has let an increasingly vocal strain of nationalism take hold in India. The prime minister has been careful to avoid explicit Islamophobia, but the same cannot be said of his party. Mr Modi appointed Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, in 2017. A Hindu firebrand, Mr Adityanath has claimed Muslims cause riots and told supporters to kill 100 Muslims if one Hindu is killed. 

There have also been attacks and lynchings by gau rakshaks (self-styled “cow protection activists”) against Muslims accused of slaughtering cattle. Mr Modi himself heightened tensions with Pakistan by authorising the first cross-border air strikes since 1971. These followed a terrorist attack for which a Pakistani-based group claimed responsibility.

Though its chances of victory appear limited, India’s opposition, which was beaten heavily in the last election, is likely to come back stronger — especially the Congress party. It will have an important role to play in holding the government to account, something it has struggled to do over the past five years. The BJP is likely to be more reliant on coalition partners than in 2014, when it won a single-party majority for the first time — the first party to do so in 30 years. If Mr Modi is given a second term, he should remember what made him so popular in 2014. The majority of voters want a country with jobs, economic growth and stability, not a nation rife with sectarian division. 

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