Seven Years of Modi: Why India Needs to Find Its Joe Biden

India is at an inflection point like the US was last year. It needs a leader who can go beyond ideological constructs as a guiding force.

The Narendra Modi-led BJP government completes seven years in office this week. India’s political economy landscape has witnessed a meteoric transformation during these years if one could see it from the singular perspective of a ruling party’s own growth to power.

The BJP consolidated its fort during these seven years across most Indian states, winning one state after another, from Uttar Pradesh in the north to Assam in the east, while emerging as one of the most dominant national parties under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s duopolistic control. This at a time when the party’s main national opposition, the Indian National Congress, still finds itself lost in the corner, living in the imagined glory of a distant past (recent state election results from Assam, Kerala, West Bengal may validate this better).

Also read: Behind Narendra Modi’s Pseudo-Nationalist Mask

The Indian economy, however, during these years tanked to its worst performance level, observed since the post-liberalisation era of the early 1990s. The government’s dreadful handling of a surging pandemic, the increasing centralisation of economic power and an institutionalised culture of ad hoc decision-making offer little hope for any chances of a robust economic recovery, at least till the next general elections in 2024. Even most regional economies in South Asia which were way behind India’s economic performance are now way ahead (case in point: Bangladesh).

Before the pandemic, India’s youth unemployment rate for 2019 touched 23%. Its annual GDP performance in the year 2020 crashed to -8.0%, the worst amongst all developing nations (Bangladesh grew at 3.8% in 2020). As regards COVID-19 fatality per million population, India stands now at 212 (as per May 2021) despite the massive under-reporting of deaths fseen across India. For a nation that has been one of the world’s biggest vaccine producers, and till seven years ago was amongst the fastest growing economies, these numbers appear incomprehensible and puzzling.

File photo of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI.

Still, it isn’t just the economy that is the worst casualty from a seven-year-old Modi regime.

The state of Indian democracy and its public institutions, from being put into a state of ‘quarantine’ during Modi’s first term (2014-2019), now seems to be entering into a state of ‘lockdown’, as seen during his second term so far.

The pandemic has been insidiously used by the current administration to delegitimise India’s parliamentary due process. Standing committees of the parliament, present to analyse the functioning of the government, haven’t met since the onset of the second wave of the pandemic. Virtual meetings for parliament to function haven’t been permitted even though the prime minister regularly conducts his own meetings through virtual platforms.

Even during a normal period of parliamentary functioning, railroading of Bills – without adequate review, discussion or parliamentary scrutiny – has now been standardised. Every public institution seems subjugated. From the move to downgrade the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir to the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, seven years of Modi-Shah rule have choked the ‘feedback loop’ that once shaped India’s federal and fraternal relationship (as constitutionally envisaged).

Institutional credibility and public confidence in organisations like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Election Commission, and even the Supreme Court have been eroded, further widening the state-citizen trust deficit. It seems as if there aren’t any ‘safe spaces’ left anywhere (even within universities).

Besides, never before since the time of Indira Gandhi have so many people – social activists, dissenters, environmentalists – spent so much time in police custody for political reasons than in the last few years. And, never before since independence has there been such impunity for those associated with the establishment. It appears like a new ‘state-citizen compact’ is put in place where: a culture of ‘institutive impunity’ is both practiced and preached with support of the police and the approval of an apathetic state, using this across the nation to entice mobs, rioters for seeding communal hatred and social distrust.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued recently: “[It seems a] moral psychology legitimizing an unprecedented ruthlessness is now becoming the default of civil society in the state, thanks to the new governance style.”

What India can learn from the US 

Amidst such reflections, it is indeed difficult to be hopeful for India’s democratic functioning and the wellbeing of its citizenry.

Still, if one tried hard to find a ray of hope, one can perhaps look closely at the recent case of the US. After four years of Donald Trump’s presidential term when the US saw a serious democratic-backslide in its own governance systems and public institutions, and as Trumpian ‘populism’ went about altering the ‘moral’ order by which the country governed itself and even projected itself to the world, Joe Biden’s electoral victory has helped to work reasonably well in restoring its ‘dented image’. Biden himself recognises this now.

Also read: Joe Biden’s Victory: It Is High Time the Concerns of ‘Middle America’ Are Addressed

Once perceived as a moderate incrementalist, Biden has so far gone beyond his own political-ideological dispositions to promote big legislative packages that make many on the progressive Left extremely happy. He strongly believes that in a post-Trump world, the US is fighting not just to ‘preserve its middle-class’ (through better jobs, higher wages, more affordable healthcare and social security), but to ‘survive as the leading nation of the world’.

File photo of US President Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris. Photo: Twitter/@joebiden

As David Brooks, after interviewing Joe Biden, recently wrote:

Some people get their worldviews from ideological constructs or philosophical movements like ‘conservatism’ or ‘progressivism’. Biden derives his worldview from lived experience, especially the world of his youth, and how his parents taught him to see that world. It created the moral underpinnings of the big legislative packages he is proposing.”

India is perhaps at an inflection point itself (like the US was last year) where it desperately needs to find its Joe Biden. Someone, who can go beyond ideological constructs to use her/his lived experience – and of the people – as a guiding force for leading a nation’s citizenry to ‘building back better’.

What matters is not only how a person or a leader perceives an issue, but also where (s)he sees it from. In Biden’s case, he sees most issues that plague the US from the perspective and lens of the ‘common man’ or ‘the lower-middle-income class’ he grew up around. More notably, as a leader, an intense focus on ‘human dignity’ in his governing philosophy makes him unique – and a rare treasure in a time such as now when dignity centric and human rights-based political discourse is in scarce supply.

As for a recent illustration, it is difficult to imagine how without Biden’s persistent intervention in the recent Israel-Hamas military conflict, his calls to Netanyahu, and the diplomatic pressure put behind the scenes by the Biden administration, it is difficult to imagine if an Israel-Palestine ceasefire agreement could have been struck, if Trump was still the US president. Even in the handling of the pandemic, the US, since Biden came to office, has done well to provide more stimulus and relief to its economically weaker sections, and more decisively mass-vaccinate its population to restore economic activity.

Seven years of Modi-Shah rule in India has created a gaping hole in the nation’s social and economic landscape. People’s faith in the functioning of the nation state, and its capacity to improve their lives, remains scarred. The pandemic has wreaked havoc and destroyed lives and livelihoods of millions, and so many more are likely to be affected in the weeks to come.

In such a time, India’s quest for finding a ‘progressive’ voice in the political opposition, who can help restore people’s confidence in the state, help invest in improving our social and economic capital and be rooted to work for the wellbeing of ‘working and middle classes’ remains badly warranted.

Deepanshu Mohan is an associate professor and director, Centre for New Economics Studies at O.P. Jindal University.