This was a year from hell for many countries, and India’s 2020 was arguably more hellish than most. Hit simultaneously by the Covid-19 pandemic, an economic crisis and a Chinese land grab in the Himalayas, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ends 2020 facing the strongest headwinds of his 6½ years in power.
The year began with protests. Spurred by a new law that imposes the first ever religious test for Indian citizenship, Muslims and secularists organized noisy sit-ins. Protesters feared that the government would combine the new law, which fast-tracks naturalization for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, with a proposed national register of citizens to disenfranchise India’s Muslim minority. The pandemic cut short the protests, but not before Hindu-Muslim clashes in Delhi in February killed more than 50 people, most of them Muslim.
India was slow to react to the virus threat, but at the end of March Mr. Modi abruptly declared a nationwide lockdown with only four hours’ notice, leaving many people stranded in cities without work, money or transportation. Television screens soon filled with images of thousands of newly unemployed migrant workers trekking home to distant villages.
Experts differ on whether Mr. Modi’s lockdown was an unmitigated disaster or a knee-jerk response that nonetheless saved lives. Either way, India is among the countries worst hit by the pandemic. In terms of total formally reported cases it lags behind only the U.S. As of Tuesday 10.2 million Indians had caught Covid-19 and 147,901 had died. Given sketchy reporting in poorer parts of the country, the true numbers are almost certainly higher.
In terms of officially recorded cases and deaths per million people, India looks better than most Western countries but worse than its Asian peers, including densely populated Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. East Asian success stories like Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam are almost in a different universe.
The Indian economy was slowing even before the pandemic, in part thanks to a bizarre 2016 cash ban and the rocky nationwide rollout of a complicated goods-and-services tax. The pandemic pushed it over a cliff. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Indian gross domestic product will have shrunk 10.3% by fiscal year-end, easily its worst performance since independence in 1947. Among Group of 20 economies, only Argentina and Italy will likely contract more sharply. In terms of per capita income, India has fallen behind Bangladesh.
Adding to Mr. Modi’s troubles, China picked India’s moment of disarray to probe for weaknesses along a disputed 2,200-mile Himalayan border. In May hundreds of People’s Liberation Army troops pitched tents in territory claimed by both countries, blocking Indian access to traditional patrol routes and threatening access to an Indian strategic air base. In June Chinese troops armed with nail-studded clubs and iron rods wrapped in barbed wire brawled with Indian soldiers. The clash killed 20 Indians and an unspecified number of Chinese, the worst loss of life on the China-India boundary in more than 50 years.
India responded by banning scores of Chinese apps, including TikTok and WeChat, and by strengthening military cooperation with the U.S., Japan and Australia. But despite diplomatic talks, a heavy military buildup on both sides, and eight rounds of military negotiations, PLA troops show no signs of vacating newly occupied territory five times the size of Manhattan.
What does all this mean for Mr. Modi? That depends on whether Indian politics follows its traditional pattern of punishing leaders who underdeliver on their promises or it has entered a new phase of Hindu-nationalist ascendancy.
If history offers clues, he has reason to worry. In 1971 Indira Gandhi comfortably won her second national election. Two years later, amid high inflation, student protests erupted in much of the country, threatening national stability. In 2009 the Congress Party coasted to re-election with the biggest national mandate in nearly two decades. Two years later, a growing anticorruption movement sapped Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s legitimacy.
Yet predicting Mr. Modi’s downfall would be premature. For starters, he dominates Indian politics in a way not seen since the 1980s. Much of the domestic media acts more like a lap dog than a watchdog, amplifying the government’s talking points and savaging its critics. An opaque fundraising system gives the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party a fatter wallet than all its opponents combined. Many ardent supporters believe that India is in the early stages of a glorious Hindu revival. These are not people prone to switch loyalties based on IMF projections.
Meanwhile, the inept Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi, a fourth-generation dynastic politician, symbolizes a flailing opposition short of ideas and charisma. Last month the BJP and its allies retained power in Bihar, India’s third most populous state.
The year ends as it began, with protests. Since late November, tens of thousands of farmers have camped on Delhi’s borders to protest sensible but politically risky new laws that give the private sector a bigger role in agriculture. Mr. Modi may overcome this challenge, as he has others in the past. But 2020 has been the toughest year he has faced as prime minister.
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Appeared in the December 29, 2020, print edition.