The South Asia Channel

What Would Modi Do?

Narendra Modi, the man most likely to be declared India's next prime minister, has spent much time in the public eye in the past eight months. India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims Modi has logged 300,000 kilometers and addressed 437 rallies while on the campaign trail.

Yet critics and supporters alike say not much is known about the post-election plans of the charismatic and controversial BJP candidate. One satirical website,, pokes fun at this ambiguity, inviting viewers to click on a moving button for details into Modi's agenda.

India will announce the results of its general elections for the Lok Sabha, or the lower house of Parliament, on May 16. All signs suggest the ruling Congress party is positioned for a historic loss, due to stagnant growth, persistent inflation, and frequent corruption scandals during the last few years. While some caution is in order -- polls are often unreliable in India and political parties often pay for newspaper coverage -- polling figures suggest that the BJP and its allies are positioned to win the 272-seat parliamentary majority needed to form a government.

What exactly would a Modi win mean for India? Despite the lack of details on his post-election plans, Modi's record in office as chief minister of Gujarat and his public appearances do provide some clues into his leadership style and agenda. Here are five things a Modi win would likely mean for the world's largest democracy:

1. Modi would pursue reform -- though he may have to bypass the Parliament to do so.

Modi almost surely understands the urgency of making accomplishments in the first 100 days and beyond. This election has turned on his promise to reinvigorate India's stagnating economy, and his ability to remain in power for a full five-year term and potentially win a second would depend on making visible progress on this front.

Whether Modi could enact policy changes and maintain a position as prime minister hinges partly on the margin by which the BJP wins. If the BJP underperforms in the polls, the party may have to rely on coalition partners in the Lok Sabha that are not as friendly to reform, like the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal, to form a government. A large, unwieldy coalition could slow, and even prevent, the reforms that many expect Modi to pursue to reinvigorate the economy -- such as minimizing red tape in approvals of business and infrastructure projects, and opening India to foreign investment.

If the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance, its center-right coalition, win more than 272 seats in India's lower house of Parliament on their own, however, Modi would have the means and the mandate to make bolder moves within his first 100 days in office.

But even then, the BJP's scant presence in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, could prevent big structural changes. The BJP and its allies control only 61 of the Rajya Sabha's 250 seats, while the Congress party alone has 72. Both houses of Parliament and the executive must pass any bill for it to become an official Act of Parliament.

Does that mean Modi would be ineffectual? Not necessarily. Arvind Panagariya, a Columbia University economist who is seen as a potential advisor to Modi, argues that the next central government could ignite a series of radical and beneficial reforms by empowering states to amend central laws as they are applied within their jurisdictions. In other words, Modi might be able to use "executive solutions," working with chief ministers to implement economic reforms in spite of an unwieldy Parliament.

Beyond the vote count, both skill and luck would play a role in whether Modi is able to pursue reform. For example, forecasters predict the monsoon season, which typically runs between June and September, could be short and relatively dry this year. That would aggravate food inflation and reduce rural incomes, slowing the Indian economy and reflecting poorly on Modi's record. However, early success would have a reinforcing dynamic for Modi, smoothing the way for later reforms.

2. A renewed focus on administration and governance.

Modi is often described in the West as being pro-reform, and he is a member of India's economic right, which believes in prioritizing growth over redistribution. But Modi has not yet articulated a clear economic philosophy, and his positions on many specific policies remain unclear.

What is clear is his talent as an administrator. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi demonstrated an interest in why policies fail and a willingness to critically engage with technocrats in designing policy. Some of his greatest accomplishments were administrative changes that helped advance productivity and attract business, such as ensuring 24/7 electricity in Gujarat.

As prime minister, expect Modi to continue to pursue his area of expertise: rooting out administrative inefficiencies. These changes could lead to more pragmatic and business-friendly policies, such as streamlined approvals for infrastructure projects.

Whether Modi would tackle India's extensive subsidy programs, pass the goods and services tax, and undertake other measures that economists recommend to ensure macro stability is less certain, says Arvind Subramanian, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

3. The rise of a more "muscular" nationalism.

The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party that believes in India's self-reliance and rightful position as a global power. It advocates scrapping Article 370, which gives semi-autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, and a foreign policy based on nationalist principles.

Modi, too, wears his nationalism on his sleeve, says Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Modi favors a robust military; he has said he wouldn't allow India to "bow down" and has warned China against expansionism in India's northeast.

Yet many say this stance does not rule out the possibility of closer foreign partnerships, especially when it comes to business and investment. Despite his nationalist streak, Modi's talent in bringing foreign investment to Gujarat has led many to forecast closer business ties between India and the U.S., China, Japan, or Pakistan.

"I don't think it's going to mean that India becomes more militaristic -- far from it," says Dhume. "But I think you're definitely going to see an India that is much more overtly concerned with things like territorial incursions and terrorist attacks."

4. India's massive welfare programs would continue.

Despite his rightist economic leanings, Modi has promised not to overturn any of the massive social welfare schemes of the Congress-led government and has even said he would increase agricultural support prices for farmers.

Many economists criticize programs such as the national rural employment guarantee scheme, which promises 100 days of guaranteed labor to rural households, and the food security bill, which aims to provide cheap grains for 70 percent of India's population, as well-intentioned measures that actually result in massive waste and opportunities for embezzlement. Yet rolling these programs back in a country that is home to one-third of the world's poor is very unpopular politically.

"Nobody in India gets elected by promising to cut government benefits," says Dhume. "This is still a very poor country. Most of the attacks on Modi, as is natural, have come from the left, so he's been quite careful in protecting his left flank."

Still, Modi's leadership would likely mean less emphasis on the Congress party's "one-size-fits-all" redistribution schemes and more on policies that focus first on stimulating growth. As Panagariya suggests, Modi might accomplish this by giving the states more legislative autonomy and greater control over their own financing.

Supporters say a renewed focus on growth is what India's sluggish economy and indebted public sector need. Critics worry that greater incentives for businesses will eat away at resources for helping the poor and point out that, under Modi's leadership, Gujarat's performance on social indicators lagged behind its progress on growth and governance.

5. Some disillusionment is inevitable -- but opportunities for success abound.

Expectations in India for the new government are sky-high. Some of the reforms most necessary to reinvigorate the economy -- such as loosening the tight labor standards that deter manufacturers from setting up shop in India - will be politically difficult, if not impossible.

Even if Modi's government wins a majority, he would not govern unencumbered. His efforts would face friction from the Congress party and its allies, as well as from the non-BJP governments that will rule India's biggest states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu.

Modi would also likely face pressure from rivals within his own party; unlike the Congress party, the BJP has no political dynasty to designate its champions, and it features much more internal competition. He might also have to guard against efforts to derail his economic agenda by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP's militant sister organization, and other right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in the Sangh Parivar.

But India also has an abundance of "low-hanging fruit" that an effective administrator such as Modi could capture. Improvements could be made in virtually every sector -- whether health, education, poverty, infrastructure, electricity, growth, business friendliness, or the legal system, said Pravin Krishna, a professor of international economics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Modi has not indicated that he connects with any of these issues above the others, but that he would push forward on all of them and see how far he gets.

Ana Swanson is an editor of Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel and an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Follow her on Twitter at @AnaSwanson.

Peter Bergen is the editor of Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel and the director of the International Security Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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