Gandhi’s picture has been printed on the Indian rupee since 1969 but is not on the new digital currency. Critics say this is a deliberate attempt to alter the existing idea of an all-inclusive India.
Debate on such issues tends to become acrimonious or even toxic. Modi, who enjoys overwhelming support, uses rhetoric that is echoed by an obliging media. NDTV was the last major television channel that was critical of the government, but it now has ‘Modi-friendly’ owners, much to the frustration of his critics.
After eight years in office, Modi’s popularity remains high thanks to his proactive approach to policymaking. His party, the combative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is seen by many as seeking to perpetuate its political hegemony. It currently dominates roughly two-thirds of the country and this remains the case as India prepares for parliamentary polls in May 2024. But the BJP is still seriously challenged by regional opposition parties, especially those that dominate peninsular India. The latter accounts for 131 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies.
India’s political opposition is a complex gathering that remains divided and clueless about how to counter Modi and the BJP. Principally dominated by political dynasties, leaders of none of India’s opposition parties command a pan-India image. They also have fewer resources to pose a united challenge outside their areas of influence. Since the BJP holds the federal purse strings, regional opposition parties are forced into political neutrality.
The Parliament enacted an ‘electoral bonds’ scheme in 2017. The scheme has been criticised as a means of enabling secretive donations to political parties. Despite voting in favour of the bonds, opposition parties now face a huge inequality of resources. The BJP receives 94 per cent of funding under the scheme, besides anonymous sources. Cautious trade and industry groups, afraid to court trouble with the government’s investigative agencies, also anxious about continued political stability should there be a change, are bound to favour the BJP.
The opposition landscape is aggravated by the continued weakness of the Indian National Congress party (INC), which has ceded considerable support base and vote share, mainly to the BJP. This has prompted some who have based their political careers on an anti-INC platform to position themselves as an alternative. Some opposition quarters now realise that marginalising the INC, the only party other than the BJP having a national presence, would divide the anti-BJP vote and weaken their endeavour.
Former INC president Rahul Gandhi conducted a 3500-kilometre-long ‘unity’ walk across India, completing it on 30 January. He highlighted unemployment and inflation, promoted ‘freedom from fear’ and opposed ‘hatred’ towards minorities. It resonated with the public. Many opposition parties joined the walk. Whether the Gandhi-led walk will remain a catalysing force or impact opposition unity and yield electoral dividend will be tested, before the parliamentary polls in 2024, in eight provincial elections scheduled in 2023. Going by past experience, a unified opposition challenge may materialise only in the lead-up to the 2024 parliamentary elections.
Lack of consensus dogs the Indian polity. Critics say Modi’s political ideology is socially divisive and economically elitist, favouring a few. They see the political and social schism widening and allegations of a majoritarian agenda at work persist.
Many contentious issues have gone before the Supreme Court and its verdicts have been mixed. The Supreme Court validated the abrupt rupee demonetisation of 2016 but the public suffering and the economic setback it caused continue. Disputes over the religious shrines of Hindus and Muslims have also come before the court. A citizenship law that Muslims say discriminates against them also upsets Bangladesh, India’s most friendly neighbour.
India’s achievements in recent years include developing and sharing COVID-19 vaccines. The pandemic’s return in China has not ruffled India’s feathers. India’s film industry — the world’s largest — produced 757 feature films in 2021 despite COVID-19 pressures and is projected to reach US$2.7 billion by 2024.
The US$84.84 billion committed to India in foreign direct investment during 2021–22 and US$100 billion in foreign remittances paint a positive picture. India continued making more battleships, purchasing gold and weapons and launching satellites for space research in 2022.
With the G20 presidency, Modi’s proactive foreign policy will receive global attention. Going against the United States and Europe, India secured discounted fuel from Russia. Despite this, India remains a potential mediator in the Ukraine conflict.
Being part of the US-led phalanx in Asia is both boosting and limiting. But many of India’s challenges lie closer to home. India will not talk to a hostile Pakistan but will engage with its ally, China — and not only because of the festering border dispute. Beijing’s encirclement of its entire neighbourhood concerns New Delhi. Yet, contradictions of its growing and adversely balanced bilateral trade with China will continue in 2023 amid political, military and diplomatic jostling.
Mahendra Ved is a Delhi-based journalist and President Emeritus of the Commonwealth Journalists Association.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2022 in review and the year ahead.