By Ryan R. Migeed
Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu populist prime minister, will face his first electoral test since taking office in 2014. More than 875 million Indians will go to the polls between April and May, with the process of electing national and local representatives completed by May 15.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to win, despite losing three recent state elections to its rival party, the Indian National Congress. But Modi could face an unexpected challenge now that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the popular daughter of India’s Gandhi family dynasty, took a key position in the Indian National Congress.
“She is a sharp and charismatic orator, bearing a distinct resemblance to her paternal grandmother, Indira Gandhi — India’s only female prime minister,” wrote Niha Masih and Joanna Slater in a Jan. 23 article for The Washington Post.
Gandhi Vadra’s entry into the race could be a game-changer for the demoralized Indian National Congress, the country’s oldest political party. She is considered a natural orator and a skilled politician who has not shied away from confronting Modi.
The prime minister, however, remains popular with his Hindu base. At the same time, Modi’s heated rhetoric has been blamed for stoking Hindu nationalism, which has led to mob attacks on India’s Muslim minority. Despite the criticism, Modi is likely to continue pandering to his Hindu base heading into the May elections.
“Identity politics still works in India, as it does in many other parts of the world, including the West,” Aparna Pande, director of the Hudson Institute’s Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia, told The Diplomat. “So populist and religious rhetoric, but also caste- and ethnicity-based rhetoric, will continue to be used to energize and attract voters.”
Beyond appealing to hardline Hindus, Modi also won a landslide victory in 2014 on pledges to reform India’s economy. On that note, his track record is mixed. Modi presided over impressive economic growth, including a high of 7.9 percent in 2015. He instituted a nationwide sales tax to replace a byzantine system of local taxes; created a more business-friendly environment; attracted record foreign investment; overhauled archaic bankruptcy laws; invested in infrastructure; and jumpstarted high-profile projects like Clean India.
At the same time, he has shied away from unpopular reforms such as revamping the country’s rigid labor laws and curbing costly farm subsidies. He has failed to deliver on the ambitious job growth he promised in 2014. And his electoral promises to boost spending on health care and the rural poor threaten to strain the country’s precarious finances.
In 2016, Modi introduced an overnight ban on high-value bank notes (which constituted nearly 90 percent of the cash in circulation) to curb the country’s illicit black economy, but the move led to widespread chaos and pain for ordinary Indians and small businesses.
Despite the setbacks, Pande says Modi could enact stronger economic reforms depending on the mandate voters give his party. She pointed out that India is governed by a parliamentary system, meaning that Modi’s party will have to build political alliances to push through its economic agenda.
“There is an understanding within the Indian political establishment that economic reforms are important. However, there is still a tendency to choose the path of populism and limited marginal reforms over critical deep-seated reforms,” she told us via email. “Whether or not Modi’s government will bring about economic reforms if they win elections in 2019 will depend on electoral math (how many seats BJP wins versus its allies) and BJP’s own perception of its popularity. The more dependent the BJP is on allies and the more it senses that it needs economic reforms to remain popular, the more likely economic reforms will be.”
Although Modi’s popularity has declined from a high of about 65 percent approval in 2017 to just below 50 percent in 2018, he remains India’s most popular politician, according to a Dec. 13 Bloomberg article.
Pande agrees, saying that BJP “remains the party to beat.”
In 2014, she said, Modi and the BJP “won because there was a wave in their favor. In my opinion, 2019 will not be a wave election. It will be a normal election where people will vote based on their priorities — local, regional, caste, ethnicity, economic issues, etc.”
Afghanistan’s next presidential election, originally set for April 20, was postponed to July 20 so that technical problems that occurred in the October 2018 parliamentary elections can be fixed.
As Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, previously told The Diplomat, October’s election was positive in that “a lot of Afghans came out to vote.”
Administratively, however, Neumann called the elections “chaotic.” Final results have yet to even be announced.
The presidential election is expected to be even more consequential. President Ashraf Ghani is seeking a second five-year term at a critical juncture for the war-torn nation. Several former officials have also thrown their hat into the ring, most notably Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a longtime respected figure in Afghan politics who served Ghani’s influential national security advisor until his resignation last August. Other candidates include Rahmatullah Nabil, a one-time intelligence chief, and former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul.
In December, President Trump announced that he was pulling 7,000 U.S. troops from the country, roughly half the number in Afghanistan, signaling his desire to end America’s longest war. The announcement surprised both American and Afghan officials, especially because it came just as reconciliation talks with the Taliban appeared to be inching forward.
Days before the announcement, America’s envoy for those talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, had concluded talks with the Taliban, vowing that the U.S. remained committed to supporting the Afghan government.
Trump’s critics say that by declaring an imminent U.S. troop withdrawal, the president deprived Khalilzad of a key bargaining chip to extract concessions from the Taliban, which has long insisted on a timeline for foreign troops to leave the country as a precondition to peace.
The Taliban has also strengthened its hand on the battlefield. Despite a barrage of U.S. airstrikes, the war exacted a higher death toll in 2018 than at any time since the Talban were ousted by the U.S.-led invasion 17 years ago. According to the U.N., more civilians were killed in the first half of 2018 than at any other point over the last decade. In addition, 25,000 Afghan soldiers and police are estimated to have been killed since late 2014. Taliban fighters now effectively control perhaps half the country.
As a result, some fear that the Afghan government is on the brink of collapse yet again, with a divisive presidential election setting the stage for violence and the potential for an inconclusive outcome.
In a recent column for the Asia-based Diplomat magazine, Gul Maqsood Sabit, former Afghan deputy minister of finance, argued that the presidential election should be delayed again and an interim government put in place to complete peace negotiations with the Taliban before the next election.
“In 2014, the presidential elections worsened the situation when two major contestants, current President Ashraf Ghani and current Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, did not accept the election results. Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intervened and the national unity government that included both men was formed, creating the post of CEO to accommodate Abdullah in addition to the president’s office that went to Ghani. This carelessly arranged, deal-based government triggered the resurfacing of unmanageable conditions, putting Afghanistan on the brink of current failure,” Sabit wrote.
“Holding presidential elections, now scheduled for July 2019, will mean the continuation of the above and probably further deterioration of the security, economic, and political situation, leading to the catastrophic collapse of the Afghan government and state,” he added, noting that a peace settlement would “pave the way for transparent elections and stable future Afghan state.”