New government in Delhi will face overlapping strategic, security and trade challenges

Published on Jun 25 2019

The 2019 general election in India has many distinctive features about it, quantitatively and qualitatively. The more visible is the strand that 900 million eligible voters would exercise their franchise to decide who will govern the world’s largest democracy for the next  five years. The identity and political orientation of the next government will be evident on May 23 but most  commentators are agreed that the 2019 election is being contested over the idea of India as envisioned in the 1950 Constitution and the manner in which the Modi-led BJP government has sought to transmute the core identity of the state and society.
Paradoxically, a parliamentary form of government is being fought in near presidential manner with Prime Minister Narendra Modi becoming the dominant face of the BJP’s campaign. The party leadership asserts confidently that Modi will be sworn in for a second term in end May. The Delhi grapevine has a muted  trail that refers to the Modi team  working on the composition of the next cabinet and the template of the 15 August, 2022, ceremonies to celebrate 75 years of India’s independence. But Indian elections have sprung surprises on the most confident political leaders of their time including Indira Gandhi (1977) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (2004). Neither of them returned to power despite the received wisdom at the time. Hence the possibility of a non-Modi led government cannot be ruled out.  
Depending on the number of Lok Sabha seats won by the major parties, two possibilities that may arise post May 23 are of a BJP-led coalition government, without Modi as PM; the other is of a non BJP-led coalition and perhaps a regional leader as consensus PM. Whatever be the nature of the next government in Delhi, India will have to deal with a very complex set of overlapping strategic, security and economic-trade related challenges. The headwinds that the Indian ship-of-state will have to  navigate are gathering momentum; these include the Trump induced global turbulence that impacts the US-Iran-China-Russia relationship with considerable downstream consequences. 
Concurrently, US policy on Iran can have unpredictable effects on global oil prices and the Indian economy, which has benefited from a favourable oil market, will have to prepare for an exigency where the barrel climbs to USD90. This energy shock will have to be accommodated  in 2019-20 when India’s fiscal deficit is expected to be closer to 3.9 percent of GDP and other industrial-manufacturing and agricultural indicators remain sluggish.
The larger strategic challenge for the next government will be to take stock of bilaterals with USA and China which are currently coping with latent tensions. The US under Donald Trump is adopting inflexible protectionist trade policies; the current US-China tariff war is illustrative. India has much less leverage with the US. The next Indian government will have to be nimble and nuanced to cope with the unpredictability of Trump policies.
The more abiding challenge for India is the relationship with China. Complex in nature, the broad political-security-strategic determinants are distilled in the Xi Jinping-led Belt and Road Initiative that India has steadfastly avoided, as noted in the April summit in Beijing. The deeper structural fault-line is whether Beijing, in its current assertiveness to become the world’s leading power by 2049, will enable a multi-polar Asia or inhibit democratic nations like India and Japan that are seen as challenges to the Chinese communist ideology. In this pursuit, the BRI is the means to realize the Xi - led Chinese vision; currently Delhi is the only hold-out, as it were. Delhi has conveyed  its reservations over the BRI, the central one being the disputed  sovereignty issue relating to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor that traverses what India claims is its territory now held by Pakistan in the composite state of Jammu and Kashmir. This goes to the heart of the unresolved Kashmir problem, with linkages to the even more complex territorial dispute with China.
National security dominated the election campaign of 2019. The terror attack in Pulwama and the resolute Balakot response are part of the perennial tactical  challenge for India. Ensuring that the country’s military preparedness can cope with the extended spectrum of these security challenges will test the modest  higher defence management skill-set of the next government in Delhi.

Source: South Asia Monitor, 16 May 2019,