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Opinion

Failing economy is driving India protests as much as Muslim crackdown

Narendra Modi can still push Hindu nationalist agenda if growth recovers

Understanding the protesters' true motivation leads to a worrying conclusion.   © Reuters

India has been experiencing large, violent protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government since December last year. The protests originated in academic institutions in north India, primarily by Muslim students opposed to a new law excluding Muslim migrants from certain countries from receiving Indian nationality.

The protests quickly grew larger and wider, spreading to different parts of the country and drawing support from all religious groups and even Bollywood stars. To the surprise of the regime, a large number of youths and students, a majority of them Hindus, have joined this over a month-old protest.

Although protesters are openly opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act, it would be naive to jump to the conclusion that Hindu Indians are protesting solely in support of secularism and democracy. What we are seeing is their economic unhappiness emerge under the banner of defeating religious chauvinism.

Hindu youths were core in propelling Modi to national power in 2014 and they had continued to be ardent supporters until this protest engulfed the country. They knew he had been a Hindu hard-liner ever since he became chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2001. Even before becoming prime minister, Modi had openly described himself as a Hindu nationalist. We cannot say that they are now surprised by his Hindu majoritarian policies.

It is the other half of Modi's image which explains why his former supporters are protesting: as a messiah for economic development.

His first election victory came on the promise of bringing "good days" for Indians. He sold the dream that he would make the whole country as developed as his home state, where he was chief minister for more than 12 years. They believed him without questioning the fact that Gujarat was developed even before he came to power.

It is not possible to fool all the people all the time.   © Reuters

A few months after Modi took the top office, his government changed how India calculated its gross domestic product, removing the possibility of comparing India's economic growth under Modi with previous years. This new calculation kept India's growth rate at around 7%-8% from 2015 to 2018 and helped Modi to boast that he had made India the world's fastest-growing major economy.

India started to believe that its time had come not only to catch up with China but even to overtake it under Modi's leadership. To achieve that dream, Indian voters were willing to sacrifice some of the country's democratic and secular characteristics by accepting, among other things, Modi's radical demonetization, his law criminalizing a form of Islamic divorce and his ban on the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter -- cows are sacred to Hindus -- to smooth the path for Modi's decision making.

Despite claims of impressive economic growth, job creation had not taken place as expected. That prompted the Modi regime not to release national employment data before the May 2019 election, however the leaked figure suggested that unemployment in 2017-18 had reached a 45-year high.

By manipulating and hiding the data, the Modi regime was successful in keeping the trust of India's Hindu youths in its ability to make India an economic superpower. However, it is not possible to fool all the people all the time.

In the third quarter of 2019, India's GDP growth hit an alarming 4.5%, the lowest since 2013. Growing unemployment, Modi's 2016 cash ban and a new value-added tax have forced poorer families to cut back spending on food, according to the Financial Times. The situation has become so grave that even usually pliant Indian industrialists have started to criticize the regime.

It is failure on the economic front which has made Modi vulnerable. Hindu youths and students, for whom he was a cult hero, feel betrayed, seeing the economic downturn of the country under his watch and their own situation worsening. His critics have found their voice and his admirers are finding it difficult to defend him.

Understanding the protesters' true motivation leads to a worrying conclusion: if Modi is soon successful in getting the economy back on track, he will surely be able to pursue his Hindu majoritarian agenda successfully in the future. The danger to secularism in India is not over yet.

Ashok Swain is a professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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