During the Indian Elections 2019, Asia House partnered with the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute to keep you up-to-date on the latest analysis of the largest democratic exercise in the world.
Now, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes his first 100 days in his second term, the Asia Research Institute reflects on what implications this has had for the government, the economy and India more widely.
Modi’s first 100 days
The election that returned Prime Minister Modi to power with an increased majority differed from the 2014 election in its naked communalism, articulated by those in the higher echelons of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rather than those working on the ground. Many observers have been surprised by the speed with which this communal agenda has been given legislative force in the subsequent 100 days, especially after a cautious approach to many of these issues in Modi’s first term.
The most prominent legislative change has been the removal of the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under the constitution, through the revocation of Article 370. Although the ‘special status’ meant little in practice – the powers of the state having been eroded over time through legislation – it was a hugely symbolic move. While the BJP has been historically committed to abolishing Article 370, the move surprised even seasoned Kashmir observers. It was accompanied by the downgrading of Jammu and Kashmir’s status as a state of the Indian Union to a Union Territory and the splitting off of Ladakh as a separate Union Territory. Although any changes to Kashmir’s status require approval by its state assembly, the state has been under central control (President’s Rule) since December 2018. The constitutional changes were therefore approved by its Governor – a centrally appointed figure.
The day before the action, opposition politicians were taken into custody. Internet access and phone services (mobile and landline) were blocked. A month after the action, communications are still severely restricted. Reports have emerged of torture and of more widespread arrests than previously thought. Although the BJP has promised that the action will lead to increased investment in, and development of, the area, the imposition of the change without securing buy-in from local politicians raises concerns about the future political stability of the area. Concerns have also been raised about the influx of non-Kashmiris to the area, previously restricted by Article 35(A) of the constitution, and the impact on the demographic balance of the region.
While the publication of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has received wide international coverage for rendering 1.9 million residents of India stateless, this is part of a much longer process initiated and monitored by the Supreme Court that cannot be directly linked to the current government. Nevertheless, the Modi Government has reacted defensively to international scrutiny by placing Assam in the ‘protected area’ category, which bans the presence of all foreign journalists in Assam unless explicitly permitted by the Ministry of External Affairs. Moreover, the high percentage of Hindus in the list of those excluded has caused concern for the BJP and led local leaders in Assam to distance themselves from the process. This is significant, as implementing the NRC nationally was one of the promises the BJP made in its election manifesto, which was repeatedly championed by Amit Shah, the current Minister of Home Affairs.
Another change introduced was the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill 2019 (known as the triple talaq bill). It was introduced in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) towards the end of June and passed by both houses (despite the government lacking a majority in the Upper House). The legislation was a manifesto promise of the BJP and was the first bill of the government tabled in the Lok Sabha. The Bill sought to criminalise the practice of triple talaq (instant divorce), previously a civil matter, and make it a cognisable offence with up to three years imprisonment and a fine (the previous BJP government had passed three ordinances in 2018 and 2019 effectively introducing the measure, while awaiting the passage of legislation). The BJP’s 2019 election manifesto promise to ban triple talaq referenced the practice in relation to the party’s pledge to ensure gender equality for all women in India, i.e. women from all religious communities, and Prime Minister Modi referred to the passage of the bill as a ‘victory of gender justice’. Critics of the Bill say the measures for dealing with triple talaq as a civil matter were sufficient. In criminalising triple talaq, opponents of the Bill said the legislation sought to criminalise Muslim men and inculcate fear in Muslim communities, which some believe is in line with the BJP’s Hindu majoritarian ideology. Others said it would make it harder, not easier, for Muslim women to seek justice, and does not address provision for women and their families whose husbands are imprisoned under the law. Other opponents of the bill suggested that the government was not treating all women equally and that one community in particular had been targeted. The first case under the new law was registered by the police on 1 August.
The Unlawful Activities Prevention (Amendment) Bill 2019 received presidential assent in August. After its enactment, the government can now define individuals (rather than only organisations) as terrorists. It also allows government to designate terrorists on the basis of only suspected terrorist activity rather than proven activity. The Act strengthens the investigative powers of the National Investigative Agency vis-a-vis police jurisdiction in Indian states, thus centralising power in India’s federal system. Critics of the law note that even the previous legislation in this area had been misused by the government to arrest critics of the government and human rights activists and that this new law raises further concerns about freedom of expression and human rights. A recently elected female MP, Mahua Moitra, drew international attention with her speech in parliament in late June, criticising the government and signs of ‘rising fascism’ in India. She stated that the Indian Constitution was in danger, that the ruling government were trying to divide Indian society, that hate crimes were rising, and that voices of dissent were being silenced.
The government was elected despite failing to deliver on its economic promises made during the last term. Unemployment levels had risen rather than fallen, rural distress was high and GDP growth was slowing. The first budget of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman included measures to please the corporate investors who had backed Modi’s campaign for re-election. Corporate tax taxes were reduced. What has been lacking, however, is a focus on the development of India’s human capital. Although the National Education Policy published after the election recommended increasing public investment in education (which ‘hit a new low – 2.6% of GDP last year – the lowest in decades’) the Budget failed to deliver on this. The Budget did focus on infrastructure development – another key demand of industry and foreign investors – but failed to specify where the funding would come from. Although a surcharge on the income of foreign portfolio investors was increased, this surcharge was reversed in August after £2.6 billion was withdrawn from domestic markets.
Modi’s first 100 days have also seen dire warnings issued by industry leaders about the state of the Indian economy. The crisis is not confined to any single sector. Since June, the automobile industry has seen a drop in sales ranging from 30 per cent to 50 per cent for the largest car companies, leading to reports of significant job losses. The Northern India Textile Mills Association (NITMA) has expressed its concerns over a crisis in the cotton spinning sector, ‘not seen in the last decade’ with mills reducing production and ‘huge’ job losses. While an unprecedented $24 billion transfer of funds from the Reserve Bank of India to the Central Government provides some hope of government spending to boost the banking sector, there are also concerns regarding the loss of autonomy of the RBI and fears that the money might be used to meet the tax revenue deficit of the government instead of being used to stimulate the economy.
While the recent Lok Sabha session was lauded as one of the most ‘productive’ in terms of producing legislation, of major concern is the bypassing of legislative scrutiny of draft legislation. Of the 38 bills introduced by the government to the Lok Sabha during the first session of parliament (June and August 2019), none were referred to parliamentary standing committees for further scrutiny and discussion (though some bills had been introduced in the previous parliament where they had been scrutinised by committees). When the government introduced the legislation to abrogate Article 370, the government gave the opposition a matter of hours to review the draft legislation and prepare its response. Twenty eight bills were passed by both houses before the end of the parliament session, and a further seven were passed in the Lok Sabha and are awaiting passage in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House). These include the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill 2019 and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2019, setting up a National Council of Transgender Persons. However, the transgender community have voiced opposition towards the Bill because, according to international practice and a Supreme Court ruling, legal and medical recognition of transgender identity should be separate – self-identification of transgender identity should not require sex reassignment or medical screening.
Modi’s first 100 days have been eventful. Before the election concerns were articulated that should economic development be difficult to secure, a rise in communal rhetoric was likely. However, the first 100 days have demonstrated that the government is determined to move forward on its communal agenda regardless of the economic prospects (although the growth in GDP continues to slip).
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*This article has been modified in line with Asia House editorial guidelines.