In the first year of his second term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi can draw satisfaction from advancing a major part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s agenda. Far less satisfactory has been his performance on the economy and the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which created an avoidable humanitarian crisis. Both issues will remain the big tests in the year ahead. Mr Modi’s stunning 303-seat victory in the Lok Sabha election, increasing the party’s vote-share six percentage points to 37.4 per cent, in 2019 was all the more remarkable because it came on the back of slowing growth and record unemployment, both the result of two signature first-term moves: Demonetisation (2016) and a crash goods and service tax deadline (2017).
While some analysts ascribed this victory to the lack of a credible opposition, Mr Modi moved swiftly to consolidate his gains by mobilising those elements of his party’s agenda that would resonate strongly with his support base. By July 2019, Parliament outlawed the Islamic practice of instant divorce or Triple Talaq, which would have earned unqualified approbation from Muslim women had the law not criminalised the practice. This came two years after the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. In August, his government read down Articles 370 and 35A, two key provisions that granted special status to Jammu & Kashmir. The process, however, was convoluted enough for constitutional experts to suggest legal legerdemain. At the same time, the state was brought directly under Central rule with the creation of two Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
These moves, again, may have been popular had they not been followed by a lengthy lockdown
of the former state, which morphed into the Covid-19 lockdown, an information blackout, the prolonged arrest of local leaders, and the legally questionable suspension of habeas corpus. By December, a month after a favourable and unanimous Supreme Court verdict on the decades-long Babri Masjid/Ram Janambhoomi dispute, Mr Modi was able to pass through both Houses of Parliament the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), offering a path to Indian citizenship for persecuted religious minorities in neighbouring countries except Muslims. The Act defined for the first time Indian citizenship on the basis of religion. It also raised the spectre of disenfranchising some of India’s Muslims after Union Home Minister Amit Shah
announced in January the countrywide rollout of the National Citizenship Register, an exercise which had created enormous controversy in Assam. The uproar prompted Mr Modi to repudiate his home minister’s statement but prominent countrywide protests over the CAA, often led by Muslim women, persisted until the Covid-19 lockdown.
If the record till March pointed to a sectarian agenda, the nationwide lockdown, imposed at four hours’ notice and without consultation with the states, has raised serious worries about the party’s centralising tendencies and governing abilities. The administration’s leaden-footed response to the migrant crisis — the government clearly underestimated the problem — exposed its inability to respond nimbly to crisis and to work with state governments. Today, with a brute parliamentary majority, a weak judiciary, a shrinking economy as a result of the pandemic, and record unemployment, the need for sensible good governance has never been more urgent.