India’s General Election: Inequality, Religious Discrimination Have Invited Criticism

The ruling coalition led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unexpectedly faced an uphill battle in a general election. The response to the criticism and dissatisfaction seen in the election results will be of great interest in international politics as well.

In the general election, which is held every five years, the ruling coalition led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured a majority with over 290 of the 543 seats. But the BJP fell short of a single-party majority, having lost many seats compared with the last election, while the opposition coalition increased its number of seats significantly.

Modi said Indian voters had again “shown immense faith” both in his party and the ruling coalition, expressing his intention to aim for his third term in office. However, it is obvious that the hard-fought victory, contrary to prior expectations, reflects growing dissatisfaction with the two-term, 10-year Modi administration.

In the background, income inequality has widened even while India’s economy continues to grow. In particular, young people are facing serious difficulties finding jobs. The unemployment rate for those ages 15-29 in 2022 was 12.4%, double the rate of 10 years ago.

Modi will be tested regarding how to achieve development in a manner that raises incomes across the entire population by addressing the problems of poverty and unemployment.

Modi has promoted a policy described as “Hindu supremacy,” which favors Hindus, who account for about 80% of the population, and he has adopted a policy of suppressing Muslims and other religious minorities. Such policies also could have invited voter criticism.

A revised citizenship law that went into effect in March grants Indian citizenship to illegal immigrants from neighboring countries, but excludes Muslims. Just before the election, an opposition party leader who had been a leading critic of the administration was arrested on suspicion of corruption.

If Modi is to proclaim his country is “the world’s largest democracy,” he should refrain from intolerant policies that could be perceived as a retreat from democracy and respect universal values such as freedom and human rights.

India has been strengthening its voice in the international community as a leader of the so-called “Global South,” or emerging and developing nations, and has been pursuing a pragmatic foreign policy.

With China in mind, with which India is at odds over a border issue, India has joined the Quad framework for security cooperation with Japan, the United States and Australia, while also maintaining friendly relations with Russia, which continues its aggression against Ukraine.

From the standpoint of deterring China’s aggressive maritime expansion, Japan and the United States have attached importance to cooperative relations with India, aiming to realize a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

If India becomes unstable, it is inevitable that there will be a negative impact on regional situations. Japan needs to support India so that the post-election administration can work on domestic political reforms and promote a foreign policy that contributes to regional stability.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 6, 2024)