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'Biden has thrown out the rule book for India'

Last updated on: September 29, 2023 11:16 IST
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'In the long run, I don't foresee major ramifications [about Trudeau's allegations].'
'There's just enough hypocrisy among Western nations for India to douse the outrage.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi greets Bharatiya Janata Party supporters during the Nari Shakti Vandan - Abhinandan Karyakram in Ahmedabad, September 26, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

"Modi's novelty has worn off in some quarters. So, there's a sentiment of anti-incumbency."

"Make no mistake, however, the BJP remains in pole position. They have the most popular political leader in a generation in Modi and have delivered on enough priorities for their core voters to stick with them," says Milan Vaishnav, Director and Senior Fellow, South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Dr Vaishnav is an incisive observer of Indian politics, economy, foreign policy, society and hosts the popular weekly podcast Grand Tamasha. He holds a PhD, MA, MPhil in Political Science from Columbia University.

"I don't think the BJP is in any grave danger in 2024, but they are vigilant, looking to plug any holes they see," Dr Vaishnav tells's Archana Masih discussing the arc of Indian politics from the new Parliament to Justin Trudeau's explosive allegation and to Narendra D Modi's strengths and vulnerabilities heading into Election 2024.

Part 1 of an in-depth interview:


What have been the top-most political signals that have emerged from the special session of Parliament? Also, what era in Indian politics is the new Parliament going to unfold?

First, we must acknowledge the peculiarity of announcing a special session with no advance agenda and without any consultation with the Opposition. In fact, many BJP MPs and even ministers seem to have been in the dark about the purpose of the special session.

It is a signal again of the tremendous dominance the BJP high command exerts that it feels so assured in calling a special session without providing any additional details.

Second, clearly the prime minister wanted to use the special session not only to formally inaugurate the new Parliament building but also to showcase it as a milestone in the construction of what he calls the 'New India.'

It really serves as a capstone of nearly a decade of BJP government under the prime minister -- not as a coda necessarily, but as a road marker signalling how far India has travelled under this government and where it would like to take the populace.

Finally, the surprise introduction -- and eventual passage -- of the women's reservation bill was a clear signal that the government recognises the power of the female voter.

We have downplayed the fact that female voter turnout is now on par, if not higher than male voter turnout in state and national elections, but that female candidacy is much less prevalent.

The new bill aims to bring the two into closer -- though not full -- alignment and complements many of the welfare policies the government has introduced that also try to appeal to women, whether it is Ujjwala, Jan Dhan Yojana, or Swachh Bharat.

IMAGE: President Droupadi Murmu and Modi receive US President Joe Biden at the Bharat Mandapam during the G20 Summit gala dinner. Photograph: ANI Photo

What implications, in your opinion, is Justin Trudeau's explosive allegation going to have on Indian foreign policy: 1. In the short term and 2. In the long term?

In the short term, the most obvious casualty is Indo-Canadian relations, which have now hit their nadir.

We don't know yet the extent of Indian involvement in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar as the Canadians have yet to publicly disclose the evidence they've compiled (while the Indian government calls the allegations 'absurd').

But if India was involved, it clearly felt the upside outweighed any possible downside, perhaps a recognition that bilateral relations with Canada were going nowhere fast given the grievances on both sides.

Trudeau's allegations have put the United States in a bind insofar the Biden administration has to walk a fine line between supporting its closest ally, Canada, while not alienating its most important strategic partner.

In the long run, I don't foresee major ramifications. There's just enough hypocrisy among Western nations for India to douse the outrage and while this incident may be perceived as a 'negative' data point in the West, no major partner is in the mood for a fight.

There could be some ancillary unwanted attention, from civil society, the media, and perhaps parliamentary hearings in places like the United States and the United Kingdom. But I think India will weather any potential fallout.

IMAGE: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the media after attending G20 Summit in New Delhi, September 10, 2023. Photograph: Ishant/ANI Photo

Do you believe the impact of these allegations on India-US relations will be minimal because this strategic relationship is far too strong and will withstand this grave allegation?

People need to appreciate just how much the Biden administration has invested in India. It has literally thrown out the rule book to try and consolidate the strategic partnership with India. And this is not a new trend -- this is the culmination of two decades of similar behaviour starting with the George W Bush administration in 2000.

Having just achieved significant breakthroughs with Modi's June 2023 State visit to Washington, the administration is not going to just junk all its hard work.

Indeed, the United States was critical in ensuring that there was consensus at the G20 summit in Delhi in September.

Indian diplomacy deserves ultimate credit for making it happen, but timely Western concessions also helped ensure India's presidency was deemed a success and that the summit concluded with a joint communique.

What are the domestic challenges that will pose an impediment to the BJP government in the General Election?

First, I think we start with a general sense of fatigue, which is natural when you have a decade-long incumbent.

Modi's novelty has worn off in some quarters. So, there's a sentiment of anti-incumbency.

Second, the economy is not firing on all cylinders. Inflation remains elevated and India shows signs of a 'K-shaped' recovery; the better-off have recovered from the pandemic but those belonging to the lower socio-economic strata have had a harder time.

This is also true at the firm level, where we see large conglomerates doing well, but many small-and-medium enterprises struggling.

Third, the BJP has lost many allies over the previous nine years -- from the Akali Dal to the Shiv Sena (or at least the Thackeray faction) to, more recently, the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.

Make no mistake, however, the BJP remains in pole position. They have the most popular political leader in a generation in Modi and have delivered on enough priorities for their core voters to stick with them. But there will be some jockeying for swing voters who could be disaffected for any number of reasons.

I don't think the BJP is any grave danger in 2024, but they are vigilant, looking to plug any holes they see.

IMAGE: Modi with Union Ministers Smriti Irani, Anupriya Patel, Meenakashi Lekhi, Shobha Karandlaje, Rajya Sabha MP P T Usha and women MPs after the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill in both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, September 22, 2023. Photograph: Shrikant Singh/ANI Photo

In what seminal way has Mr Modi transformed India in his second term as PM?

I think we see a deepening of several trends Modi began back in 2014.

First, Modi came to power wanting to create a stronger congruence between Hindu culture and Indian culture. That is, after all, at the heart of the BJP-RSS project.

With Article 370, Ram Mandir, Kashi Vishwanath, Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and numerous other initiatives at the state and local levels, it has doubled down on that -- especially in the second term, when the party had greater political confidence.

Second, Mr Modi has continued to invest in what Arvind Subramanian and Joshua Felman call the 'hardware' of the Indian economy -- tax reform, digital payments ecosystems, direct benefits transfers, massive new infrastructure projects, new laws on Aadhaar, data protection, bankruptcy, and so on.

The 'plumbing' of the Indian economy is in much better shape than five years ago and certainly ten years ago.

Where they've fallen short, as Subramanian and Felman remind us, is in developing the 'software' of the economy -- strengthening rule of law institutions, ensuring greater policy certainty, maintaining the independence of regulatory agencies, etc.

These are places where the government has underperformed.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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