India’s ongoing elections promise to be the largest democratic exercise in history, despite the best efforts of their prime minister Narendra Modi. Modi may have substantially damaged the democratic institutions which brought him to power ten years ago, but the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party is still expected to win the election. The vote looks likely to emphasise the dynamic and complex role which India can be expected to play on the world stage.  India is not at a crossroad, as even if Modi were not to come out the winner, many of India’s main reforms of the last decade would continue. But the huge exercise in popular politics – filled with all the expected nationalist rhetoric, corruption claims and nationwide posturing – should not distract us either from the economic and geopolitical significance of the landmark. 

The year before Modi took over, India was listed by Morgan Stanley as one of the ‘Fragile Five’ economies which had struggled to get over the financial crash and were beset by mismanagement. India’s economy has always had its big stars, the ultra-rich moguls who have presided over the nation’s largest corporations in luxury while hundreds of millions lie jobless. But the country’s financial credibility has certainly risen since, much of it due to some rigorous decisions by forces inside and outside India around previous loans and lame ducks in the banking sector. The market capitalization of its stock market has risen considerably, and the money which is flooding into this market is remarkably active: the number of new businesses is soaring and venture capital is thriving. 

What India  had always struggled to do, but  is  now  succeeding in doing, is providing opportunities for its huge middle-class. Modi’s popularity is built upon the solid foundation of economic security and growth for the middle caste of society. India has experienced sustained economic growth even with a global slowdown the decade since his election. This comes on the back of the country’s wider economic transformation since the liberalisation of the early 1990s. Much journalistic and diplomatic ink has been spilt over the last two years advising readers and investors to refocus their eyes to India over China. There is good reason for this. 

Nor does the picture for the next decade of BJP leadership look like India is running into trouble. The country has seen the world’s fastest growth since 2021, and the steady pace of domestic reform could help fix the long-running problems in administration and cooperation between the different regions. However, Bureaucratic inertia has long plagued the Indian civil service. India’s people are not rich, either, and even if their economy does become the third largest in the world the average Indian will be nowhere near as wealthy as their Chinese or American counterparts. Yet further and unified reform to existing or moribund institutions across the state’s huge apparatus will not be amiss: and that is what all major parties continue to promise every time Indians go to the polls. 

All of this growth and gradual increase in prosperity raises some of the questions which lie behind the more aggressive ideologies of this year’s contest. India is undoubtedly a bigger player on the global stage than it has been at any point since independence. Yet despite the pronouncements of national self-determination and a clear vision of India’s place as an international arbitrator, Modi’s own foreign policy is a much more complex beast than might be assumed from his crass populism on the campaign trail. India continues to trade large quantities of oil with Russia, for example, and trade links with China are as developed as they are essential for both countries. Due to its large diaspora in the region, Indian politics and concerns play a large role in the Middle East, driving huge levels of trade and investment between that region and the Asian sub-continent. Yet links with the West are in some ways more profound, and the diplomatic temperature is much warmer, than they have been before. The ambiguity of India’s foreign policy is also at the root of the nation’s dynamism and flexibility. There has never been a better time for a more nuanced and constructive view of such an approach from the growth-hungry Western nations which rely on the United States than this year. 

India is not at a crossroads: many of its developments for good and ill have been long in the making, and have not been shaped by Narendra Modi. Yet a better understanding of these trends, and a greater awareness of how India’s economy has underlined the success of its educated class who nevertheless continue to support a populist leader may allow some observers, however tinted with the European liberal lens, to make more sense out of the powerhouse which could do more than China to shape the future of the twenty-first century.

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