The 2024 campaign is about two different paths for India during coming decades. Another term in office is essential for Prime Minister Modi to complete the work he began in 2014, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
Parliament will witness the start of the campaign by both the ruling as well as opposition parties for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections next week. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a hat-trick by securing a BJP majority in the next Lok Sabha, on the lines of the previous two. As for his likely opponent, a lower court found the Congress Party’s de facto Prime Ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi guilty of criminal defamation and imposed the maximum sentence prescribed for the offence. As a consequence of the judgement, Rahul was disqualified from being an MP.
The Gujarat High Court concurred with the lower court view, only to have the matter stayed by the Supreme Court, thereby ensuring his return to the Lok Sabha. Had Rahul Gandhi used his immense influence over the previous government to consign the colonial-era law relating to criminal defamation to the trashcan, he would not have had to go through the temporary inconvenience of being deprived of his Lok Sabha seat. A criminal defamation law belongs only to a colonised and not a free people. It is to be hoped that it will be removed from the statute books by the present government in the same way as so many other colonial-era laws and regulations have been since PM Modi took over in 2014.
Several of the laws passed in the present Monsoon Session of Parliament have a transformative nature, such as the legislation relating to ease of business. This de-criminalises several business practices that are legal elsewhere but were banned in India. In the US, the second largest democracy in the world, with rare exceptions, financial misdemeanours are punished with fines rather than with imprisonment. As a consequence, the exchequer gains revenue rather than incur the additional cost of yet another person joining the penal population of the country.
In the US, where business is concerned, prison time is given in rare cases of deliberate and substantial fraud, and not otherwise. During his tenure, especially in the second 5-year term, considerable distance has been covered by PM Modi in making India a destination where an official or a business mistake made in good faith is not used as an excuse to prosecute and ruin a person. Should Prime Minister Modi return to his current office after the coming polls, a clearing away of the web of enterprise and initiative stifling (where businesspersons and officials are concerned) laws and regulations is likely to continue. If the BJP were to lose the polls, the policy path that will be taken by the opposition alliance in such a matter is unclear.
The 2020s are an era of decoupling, and not merely from China. As a consequence of ageing populations, large numbers of Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese SMEs and MSMEs are relocating from their home countries to nearby destinations which are lower cost and have a relative abundance of young and skilled talent. Where India is concerned, it needs to be remembered that some of the ASEAN members are emerging as potent competitors, especially for relocating SMEs and MSMEs, both sectors which are significant job creators. Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia have improved the availability and standard of their educational institutions, thereby providing a sufficient pool of manpower for foreign companies seeking to relocate not just from China but from their own shores.
Ensuring that India is able to out-compete such countries in attracting external investment will need several more reforms, which is why the nature, leadership and composition of the next Union Government will be of overwhelming importance to the fortunes of youth in particular. On the matter of key elements of economic policy, as yet the stand of the I.N.D.I.A coalition is not known, and neither is the likely composition and direction of its government, were the group to emerge the victors in 2024. During the 1950s until the mid-1980s, it was considered the divine right of government to expropriate private property, a tendency still present in the form of numerous efforts by various state governments to seize private properties “for the good of the people” when they lack title to them, nor has the transfer been agreed to by the owners.
Fear of the courts is not a limiting factor in such property grabs, as the legal system is clogged with tens of millions of cases, and the laws so framed that substantial delay is commonplace, except in relatively rare cases of rapid intervention by a High Court or the Supreme Court. Redressal is often delayed for such a long period that often the owners pass away or lose interest in spending more and more time and money fighting cases that have lasted for decades. Justice sans delay is central to attracting investors, and the expectation is that the Supreme Court will put in place measures that have this effect.
The attitude towards court judgements often has an impact on the popularity of a government. After the courageous Shah Bano got a verdict in her favour in 1985 through the Supreme Court, rather than stand by her, the government of the day passed legislation that nullified the verdict. From that time onwards, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s political fortunes began to slide downhill. The error of believing that a small group of religious exclusivists accurately represents a vibrant community that now numbers close to 200 million has been repeatedly made. In Rajiv Gandhi’s case, several so-called “modern” minds of different faiths convinced him to pass the legislation that he did, rather than side with his own minister, Arif Mohammad Khan, who supported the Shah Bano verdict and urged its implementation.
As the welcoming reaction to recent measures such as the abolition of the practice of Triple Talaq has shown, those who look to the future rather than remain tethered to the past are overwhelmingly in the majority in our country. In the case of the abolition of Article 370, Kashmir has benefitted from a measure that nullified a provision that was implicitly based on the discredited Two Nation theory. Hindus and Muslims are a single nation, Indians together. Equally welcome would be the passage of a Uniform Civil Code that ensures privileges to women that some long-established modes lack would be welcomed by all communities. Mary Roy, the mother of activist Arundhati Roy, fought and won her case relating to inheritance rights for women in the Christian community.
Rather than change the law as happened in the case of Shah Bano, the government accepted the verdict, as did the Christian community. Those who had warned of the verdict’s severe disruption and turmoil within a community that has inter alia set up a large number of educational institutions across India were proved wrong, as would those be who predict a doomsday scenario were a Uniform Civil Code to become the law of the land, just as it is in the US, Europe, and several Muslim-majority countries. The good news in India is that women in particular are making their presence and ability felt in several fields, as are young people. They deserve good governance, they deserve an enabling environment for their brighter futures.
Where the reforms needed for that to happen are concerned, much will depend on which group of parties emerge victorious in the coming Lok Sabha elections. The difference between a continuation of the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and an alternative government made up of the 26 coalition partners is likely going to be substantial. The differences between the two cut across the fields of foreign, economic and domestic policy. The 2024 campaign is about two different paths for India during coming decades. Another term in office is essential for Prime Minister Modi to complete the work he began in 2014, the fact that is what makes the coming Lok Sabha election so consequential.
Prime Minister Modi has made central to his campaign issues such as the anti-corruption drive, the refusal (as witnessed at Galwan in 2020) to allow more land grab by the PLA, and showing that “PM Cares” is not just a slogan but a reality in terms of practical policy. Those who have brought forward the No Confidence motion will seek to disprove that such is actually the case. What the people of India will expect to hear during the 8-9 August debate on the motion and the Prime Minister’s reply on 10 August as to what the future that either side is planning for India, and how that future is to be made a reality.
The policies favoured by the two sides and the different futures they result in are what is of concern to the voter. It is important for both sides to show in detail what the difference is, so that an informed choice can be made while voting. What is expected are clarity and completeness in the alternative road maps presented by the two opposing sides for going on the path to the future of India. Such is what the people expect from the leaders speaking on the motion on both sides. More and more voters are becoming aware that the 2024 polls are on track to being the most consequential where their lives are concerned, and that the debate that will take place in Parliament on the motion before it will give a pointer to what is in store if one side or the other wins the 2024 contest for the Lok Sabha.
In the case of the government, the record of Prime Minister Modi is open and substantial. The parties seeking to overthrow the present government need to show what the alternative offered by them is, not in flowery poetic expressions but in real-life prose, and who the individuals are who will carry out the promises made. Thus far, neither has been revealed to the public.