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Narendra Modi at a campaign rally in West Bengal, India, 04/03/2019 © Saikat Paul / Shutterstock

India’s 2019 Election Is a Choice between a Strong and a Helpless Government

In this guest edition of The Interview, Nilanjana Sen and Varuna Shunglu talk to Maheish Girri, the national secretary of the BJP.

In 2014, the world’s largest democracy elected the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power, with Narendra Modi as the prime minister. Modi came to victory on the promise of creation of jobs and development across India. This promise of 10 million jobs hasn’t been met, and in 2018 unemployment in India was at a 45-year high. An independent study suggests that the informal sector, where around 11 million jobs were lost, was most severely hit by government policies such as demonetization.

But as Modi seeks reelection five years on, India ranks 77th among 190 nations in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. This is a marked improvement from 142nd place in 2014. Policies such as the financial inclusion initiative Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana have successfully integrated 310 million marginalized Indians into the banking system. The BJP government has also initiated notable technology interventions. The new national crop insurance portal captures real time information from farmers on harvest losses. In order to improve connectivity, the government has prioritized the availability and usage of broadband services across the country.

On May 19, the six-weeks-long exercise to elect 543 members to India’s next Parliament will come to an end. This time around, not only is Modi’s promise of acche din — Hindi for “good days” — being questioned, there is also growing concern of the challenge posed by the ruling party to the secular fabric of the country. As issues like construction of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh — which saw the demolition of Babri Masjid mosque in 1992 that led to intercommunal rioting, resulting over 2,000 fatalities — repeatedly find their way in the election manifesto of the BJP, it stirs fears among the public of a very specific kind of majoritarian politics.

The opposition parties in states like Uttar Pradesh have come together in an attempt to save democracy and challenge the divisive politics of the ruling party. In a similar move, the chief ministers of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, and N. Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh, have maintained their willingness to unite with other opposition parties at the national level to “save India” from the BJP. The BJP continues to maintain its commitment to fight against dynastic politics, corruption and terrorism. It has pitched the election to the Indian voters as a choice they will make between a strong and a helpless government.

In this guest edition of The Interview, Nilanjana Sen and Varuna Shunglu talk to Maheish Girri, MP, the national secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, about the significance of the 2019 election, the government’s economic policies, the growing importance of the issue of national security, as well as how India should respond when its core interests are challenged in the international arena.

The text has been lightly edited for clarity.

Varuna Shunglu: What makes India’s 2019 general election special? On what issues is the Bharatiya Janata Party fighting this election?

Maheish Girri: The 2019 general election will play a pivotal role in shaping India’s image as an emerging nation. If you look at it from a political standpoint, 2019 Lok Sabha [lower house of India’s Parliament] election has managed to unify a variety of opposition parties into a so-called mahagathbandan. This arrangement comprising of opposition parties does not aim to promote development and is only aimed at unseating Narendra Modi and the BJP, thus pushing the voter to decide between mazboot (strong) and mazboor (helpless) sarkar (government).

In the words of our prime minister, the “2014 Election was [fought] to fulfil hopes and expectations, but the 2019 general election is going to fulfil the dreams of Indians.”

In the last five years, India has seen considerable progress on various fronts under the visionary leadership of Narendra Modi, and if he is not elected back to power, India will again fall prey to dynastic politics that led India into a state of hopelessness, with policy paralysis, rampant corruption and sluggish development. The 2019 Lok Sabha election will be a big game changer.

Nilanjana Sen: In the recent past, national security issues have prominently figured in the BJP’s election campaigns. What explains the new-found focus while communicating with the voters?

Girri: National security is not a new-found focus of the BJP or the prime minister. Ever since he assumed power, Narendra Modi has emphasized the need to strengthen the army and the national security system. For years, India has lacked a concrete national security doctrine, and our security policy was subsumed by foreign policy. It is only after the Modi government came to power that our defense policy has been given due importance. Therefore, it is definitely a big election agenda for the BJP.

Going forward, as suggested in the BJP election manifesto for 2019, the focus is going to be on national security and zero tolerance against terrorism. The manner in which India has retaliated against terrorist activities, such as the Pulwama attack in Kashmir and its robust response to Pakistan’s shenanigans, has brought to light the courage that Narendra Modi has displayed in countering terrorism. This is unlike the previous government that failed to act against terrorism.

Shunglu: The BJP has been criticized by the opposition parties for not being policy-oriented, and some major policies like demonetization have hit small entrepreneurs and farmers. In the coming years, if brought back to power, what measures can we expect from the government to strengthen the economy?

Girri: Narendra Modi had assumed power at a time when the economy was growing at the slowest pace in a decade, and high hopes were pinned on his administration considering the remarkable electoral victory in 2014. Under Modi’s leadership, India emerged as the fastest growing economy in the world. Demonetization and the Goods and Service Tax (GST) are two major economic reforms that have taken place under Narendra Modi’s leadership. While demonetization aimed to wipe out the black money, the GST was a landmark legislation that streamlined India’s indirect tax regime.

With Modi’s government rolling out a series of major reforms that made it easier for firms to get construction permits, pay taxes and carry out trade across borders, the ease of doing business in India has also improved significantly over the past few years. The development work of the next government of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would be multi-layered, with a focus on work for the development of villages, those belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, women and the youth.

The BJP aspires to make India the third largest economy of the world by 2030. For rural development, the BJP has promised to spend 25 lakh crores ($356 billion) in the next five years, including 6,000 rupees ($85) yearly income support to farmers and pension to small and marginal farmers above 60 years of age.

Shunglu: Post the Pulwama attacks, analysts and many in the opposition are debating the BJP’s stand on Kashmir. At a time when militancy is a major concern, what exactly is the BJP’s policy on the region? Do we need a more robust political solution for Kashmir?

Girri: Kashmir’s problem is a very old one, and this issue must be treated with sensitivity and understanding. As far as the challenge being faced in Kashmir is concerned, the BJP in its 2019 election manifesto has reiterated its resolve to abrogate Article 370, which gives autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir, and annul Article 35A of the constitution, which the party finds discriminatory against non-permanent residents and women of the valley state.

The party also aims to make all efforts to ensure the safe return of Kashmiri Pandits and provide financial assistance for the resettlement of refugees from West Pakistan, Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, and Chhamb.

Sen: As far as India’s foreign policy is concerned, if re-elected, what will be the priorities of the Modi government while engaging with its immediate neighbors in South Asia?

Girri: Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the face of Indian foreign policy changed. The situation in South Asia does not seem to paint a perfect picture, I may agree. India’s relations with some of its neighboring countries have been problematic.

India views China and Pakistan as its biggest security challenge in the South Asian region. But unlike his predecessors, Modi has chosen to be more assertive when it comes to national security. Pakistan today has been isolated in the world arena due to the prime minister’s diplomacy. He has built successful relations with the leaders of the world. Modi has also transformed India’s “Look East” policy into a more aggressive “Act East” policy that seeks to connect India to East Asia through better trade, infrastructure and regional institutions.

Sen: There have been talks about the growing challenges to India’s autonomy, especially in light of the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iran, which happens to be a major oil supplier to India. How will India respond to such postures when its core interests are challenged by countries like the United States?

Girri: For India, Iranian sanctions present both political and financial problems, due to its strong relationship with both Iran and the United State of America. India and Iran have traditionally maintained cordial relations. India continues to be Iran’s second-largest buyer of crude oil, next only to China. At the same time, India is also keen to preserve its close partnership with the United States of America. Therefore, India will have to work on a two-fold strategy: negotiate with the Trump administration to get special exemptions in the case of Chabahar Port, for example, and at the same time maintain its current economic and security ties with Iran.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.