India appears to be transitioning from Congress to a BJP-dominated system: Ashley Tellis

WASHINGTON, Apr 18:  India appears to be transitioning from a Congress-dominated system to one controlled by the BJP but it is yet to be seen whether the party can penetrate South India or not, an eminent American expert has said, as he joined a debate whether overwhelming power to a single entity can be a concern for the health of democracy.

Ashley J Tellis, the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, observed that the ruling party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as per latest opinion poll trends, seems to be headed for a third consecutive term.

If the opinion polls are correct, Prime Minister Modi will be elected likely with a comfortable enough majority to dominate politics for another five years, Tellis said at a panel discussion on “India in Modi’s Third Term” on Wednesday.

Alyssa Ayres, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs and professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, and Ashok Malik, a partner at The Asia Group and Chair of its New Delhi-based subsidiary were the two other panellists.

“For the longest time, India was very comfortable with what was called the Congress system. Congress was hegemonic in politics for many decades. It appears like we might be transitioning now to a BJP system and a BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) hegemony,” Tellis said.

“We will have to wait and see what the results bring with respect to South India in particular, ..The party can penetrate south,” he said.

“But if we are on the cusp of a transition to a BJP system, do we have reasons to be concerned about the health of Indian democracy? I don’t mean that it simply concerns minorities, so on and so forth, though that is commonplace. But the question of a party that has overwhelming power at the centre, that has an extraordinary mandate vis-a-vis the civil society, other arms of government, the press and so on and so forth. What is the status when you think about Indian democracy for five years?” Tellis asked.

Malik said as an Indian he must confess that he is disappointed that India has never had a stable two-party system.

When Congress dominated, other parties, including the BJP were inconsequential. The BJP surged from 2014 onwards, and the Congress has become a very small body today.

“As someone committed to Indian democracy as an Indian citizen, irrespective of which party I vote for, this is disappointing. One would like to see a competition. It keeps governments on their toes,” he said.

“Having said that, it’s not just an opposition party that keeps the government or ruling party system (in check)… there are other characters,” he said.

Malik said Modi is not just popular in India today, he is extremely popular.

“He is the most popular prime minister I have seen in my lifetime, perhaps Nehru in the early 50s or something (to) compare. …Yet even he has had to change 101 of his incumbent 303 MPs,” he said.

“He had to change them because he recognises that even with his popularity….Could lead to a problem. So, democracy has this way of offering corrections and telling the ruling party or the prime minister that you need to take some steps to compensate for excesses. So, I’m reasonably confident that the country as pluralistic and religious India will continue to retain that internal sense of debate and compensation argument,” Malik said.

Ayres said for some Americans and parts of the US government and US civil society organisations, it’s the question of how India conceptualises itself, how it keeps or maintains space for its minorities, freedom of expression, what does that look like, can you disagree publicly?

“I mean the kinds of concerns that you see people raising should be concerns for Indian citizens. If you criticise the liberal party, are there repercussions? These are the kinds of concerns that you hear in the United States,” she said. (PTI)