Month: May 2019

Narendra Modi and his soaring popularity

Prime Minister Modi contested the recent parliamentary election with at least half-a-dozen prime ministerial aspirants representing the opposition vying for his chair. That he swept the polls with the entire opposition ranged against him clearly demonstrates his credibility among the masses across regions. In sharp contrast, his opponents lacked credibility and came across as unreliable, if not unfit, for the Prime Minister’s office.

Modi, BJP, Mandate 2019, Elections 2019, Verdict 2019

Q: Did Narendra Modi become more credible? How did his party manage to stay in power?

A: Prime Minister Modi contested the recent parliamentary election with at least half-a-dozen prime ministerial aspirants representing the opposition vying for his chair. That he swept the polls with the entire opposition ranged against him clearly demonstrates his credibility among the masses across regions. In sharp contrast, his opponents lacked credibility and came across as unreliable, if not unfit, for the Prime Minister’s office.

The BJP alone has won 303 of the 542 seats. Its allies in the NDA won another 50, pushing the total tally to 353 seats. The Congress, the principal challenger to PM Modi and BJP, failed to win even 10 per cent of the total seats required to be designated as the main opposition party. The size and scale of ‘Mandate Modi’ can be imagined from the fact that over 67% of India’s 900 million eligible voters participated in this election.

Although BJP is the winner in this election, Modi is the victor: it is his soaring popularity, reminiscent of the popularity of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, that unleashed a massive wave of support. The BJP rode that wave to retain power. It was a single issue election. That issue was Modi. Nothing else mattered. Performance and promises of his government, including on key issues like the economy, were brushed aside along with identity politics which the Opposition had heavily relied upon to stage a comeback to the political centre-stage.

Q: Why did the recent conflict with Pakistan not affect the popularity of the Prime Minister?

A: The terrorist attack at Pulwama in Jammu & Kashmir in which a large number of security forces personnel were killed, and the subsequent retaliatory airstrikes on targets inside Pakistani territory by India, actually worked to Modi’s advantage. It arguably stoked nationalist and patriotic fervour on a significant scale. Modi was seen as a leader who would not hesitate to strike back at Pakistan, unlike his predecessors who sought accommodation over anger. Usual election issues like jobs and the state of the economy were buried in the fervour of nationalism across classes and among the masses.

What was significant in PM Modi’s decision to strike Pakistan was to call the extremist state’s bluff that allowed it to believe it enjoyed immunity from conventional strikes due to its nuclear weapons. The Modi decision has opened up the conventional space to respond to terror emanating from across the border.

Q: How will Modi’s victory affect the position of the Muslim minority?

A: India’s Muslims will remain secure and an integral part of what constitutes India, as will all other minority communities. In his first term Modi’s government has ensured a quantum leap in the allocation of funds for minority welfare schemes that directly impact their lives, more so the millennials. By proactively seeking to protect Muslim women from discriminatory practices like “triple talaq’ Modi may have also struck a chord among them. Most of India’s Muslims are integral to India’s aspirational middle classes. For them, bettering their lives is most important.

PM Modi’s recent speech top his party colleagues would also have sent the message that his government is seeking to work for all Indians.

Q: How will the Russia-India relations develop?

A: The state of the relationship is robust and my assessment is that it will only get better. There will be no disruptive change in Modi’s foreign policy agenda which evolved between 2014 and 2019. One of the hallmarks of this period were the deepening of ties between the two nations and the growing personal chemistry between President Putin and Prime Minister Modi.

Indian exceptionalism and realistic responses to climate change

Samir Saran

At a discussion in Washington DC this spring, I was quizzed with a degree of annoyance on the multiple messages coming out of New Delhi with respect to India’s position on a global agreement to combat climate change. In the same discussion there was also an exasperated inquisition on why Indian needs and priorities must hold the world to ransom (as if there were a consensus) and why India imagines that it merits a special space, attention or exception in the climate arena.

The response to these two central propositions on India and climate change must of course come from the officialdom at Raisina Hills, home to Delhi’s executive offices. However, as we move down the road to COP 21 in Paris, it is crucial that any response, if formulated and then communicated (a bigger ‘if’), would need to engage with the most important climate proposition put before India by the world, and its interplay with the country’s development/growth imperatives.

Viewed from New Delhi, and after sifting through the chaff, the proposition for India’s climate change response posed by a large section of OECD countries, and certainly from the influential capitals in Europe, is fairly straightforward:

1. India must be the first country in the world (of size and significance) to successfully transition from a low-income, agrarian existence to a middle income, industrialised society without burning even a fraction of the fossil fuels consumed by other developed countries. China was the last country to enjoy this privilege. India will be the first that will have to cede this option and of course this may well be the new template for other developing countries to emulate.

2. The scale of this transition and the current economic situation in some parts of the world, alongside the complex and privately controlled innovation landscape, means that there is limited ability for the Annex 1 countries (the developed world) to offer any meaningful support in terms of financing or technology transfer. Official Development Assistance (ODA) is a small fraction of what is necessary today, and India will therefore need to mobilise domestic resources to power the non-fossil-fuel-fired Indian story.

3. Even as India adopts this ‘exceptional’ approach to industrialisation, and creates the necessary financial and commercial arrangements to achieve it, mostly through its own endeavors, the developed world and others want to retain the right to judge Indian performance. India will be monitored with an increasingly extensive system of compliance verification, and will be criticised for its missteps on the journey despite the novelty and scale of its undertaking.

My response to the thesis of ‘Indian exceptionalism’ therefore is that India does not seek to be an exception, but the demands imposed upon it that will require it to be exceptional. This is a truth for others to accept, and the climate reality for which India must discover creative policy. Three distinct narratives among various actors in India have so far shaped its response.

The first set of responses is from a group of people I like to call India’s ‘cold war warriors’. This group believes that no matter the contemporary political, economic and environmental reality, an alternate universe can be constructed through the mandate of the UNFCCC. These persons are the architects of the global intergovernmental processes and have faith in them. They believe that an agreement in Paris this December at COP 21, that is sensitive to Indian needs, will somehow assist in the transition required by India and will ensure that India only needs to make incremental changes to its ‘business as usual’ approach to economic growth and development. This group has ignored the changing economic system, which is increasingly disinvesting from fossil fuels politically, and in terms of financial flows and promoting green energy markets. The ‘green’ economic and market realities that will shape India’s future are seen as something that can be circumvented by creatively crafted text and clauses in a legal (read weak legal agreement) agreement in Paris. Despite 20 years of failure to achieve this ‘world of equity’ with ‘differentiated responsibility’ they continue to believe that a global agreement is the end in itself.

The second set of strategies to the proposition facing India are advanced by a group I refer to as the climate evangelists. They believe that 2050 is already upon us. Commercially viable clean energy solutions are available, and these hold the answer to both our immediate and future energy woes. The opportunities that exist in the creation of a new green economy must be grabbed with both hands. This group wants subsidies and incentives for clean energy technology, and taxes and regulation of fossil fuels. These green pioneers are sanguine that sufficient ‘push’ and ‘pull’ will deliver technology innovation and development on the requisite scale. They reject that fossil fuels are necessary as baseline sources of energy and instead insist that the technological revolution is already here, and that India must get on board or be left behind. Their argument is often a moral one: we have a moral obligation to save the earth for its own sake and for future generations – ignoring the fact that at this level of income disparity, inequality and differential access to the right to life, the planet is in fact being saved for the rich to flourish.

The third set of responses is from the group I call the climate realists. The realists understand that the global climate proposition is inherently unfair, and that India could and probably should push back against such an imposition by the developed world. However, they also recognise that no matter how hard they try to construct a ‘fairer’ agreement in Paris, the combined forces of the market, society and technology are all pointing towards a ‘greener’ transition. The political economy of climate change necessitates a transformation, and it is not necessarily in India’s interests to fight against it. Instead, the realists understand that there is an opportunity to lead in constructing a green economy. They believe that this moment can be used to reshape the tax, financial and global governance systems. They also see no contradiction in also ensuring continued flow of investments and emphasis on lifeline sources of energy for India’s poor.

Analysis shows that India does better than Germany, the United States, China and others on per capita coal dependence, with about a third of the consumption levels of the greenest among these three. It also already commits, as a proportion of its GDP, more towards renewable energy off-take than most (except Germany). It therefore does not need to defend its coal consumption. On the other hand, it must certainly be the champion to encourage ‘greener’ performance from others. The equity that it seeks lies in this. The rich must continue to invest more in renewables. This must be demanded and enforced.

Prime Minister Modi’s recent statements suggest that he may be such a realist as well. He is promoting an aggressive renewable energy thrust, while being uncompromising on the point that lifeline energy will continue to rely on coal for the foreseeable future. When he takes coal off the discursive table, he is not foreclosing the right to use coal; instead he is sharpening the focus on India’s impressive credentials around green growth. He invokes religious texts, civilisational ethos and clever political word-play as he seeks a leadership role for India in global climate policy, and sets the agenda with ambitious plans for transitioning to a new energy paradigm. The ‘house always wins’ is a golden Las Vegas adage with a lesson for global politics too: unless we see strong political leadership of the kind being displayed by Prime Minister Modi and President Obama, the house – in this case national officialdom(s) and global bureaucrats – will prevail again. They will construct a new world order with words, commas and full stops, where nothing, not even the climate, can ever change.