In a nation of nearly a billion eligible voters, the idea of the electorate can be amorphous. On rare occasion, though, that amorphous entity speaks in one voice in India. The general election of 2014 that made Narendra Modi prime minister was one such instance, with his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, winning 282 seats in a 543-member lower house of Parliament—the first time a single party had managed to win a majority on its own in thirty years. The verdict of the 2019 election, which returned Modi to power, was even more emphatic: the BJP winning 303 seats and the opposition Congress party a distant second at just fifty-two.

But that same amorphous Indian voter is also known to cut leaders who dishonour and squander their mandate down to size. That is what happened to Modi on June 4, when the results of this year’s national election were announced.

In the face of a months-long campaign, in which he loomed larger than ever on the country’s destiny, the Indian voter delivered a surprising pushback that few foresaw, bringing the BJP’s tally down to 240, well below the 272 needed for government formation. While Modi returns for a third successive term in power—a feat not accomplished by any leader since independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru—he does so as a much-diminished man, an authoritarian leader now constrained by the compulsions of maintaining a coalition government, in alliance with temperamental partners known for frequently switching sides and thus likely to keep his demagogic tendencies in check. The remarkable sagacity of India’s vast and diverse electorate has prevailed.

We spoke to Sanjay Ruparelia, who holds the Jarislowsky Democracy Chair and is associate professor in the department of politics and public administration at Toronto Metropolitan University, about the significance of the election, particularly for Canada–India relations, which have been strained in recent months.

What are your thoughts on the Indian election—the way campaigning progressed as well as what ramifications the results will have for the future of a country that describes itself as the world’s largest democracy?

The campaign was surprising in several ways. First, voter turnout was slightly lower, after setting new records in 2014 and 2019. High turnout gave an advantage to the BJP in the last two elections. Second, Hindu nationalism ideologically defines the ruling party. But few expected the prime minister so openly to invoke anti-Muslim tropes, such as the idea that many are “infiltrators” whose national homelands lie elsewhere and that they pose a demographic threat to the Hindu majority, or to claim that the opposition Congress party would redistribute the wealth of Hindus to Muslims if it recaptured office. The failure of the election commission to take swift action against these violations of the code of conduct further damaged its authority.

Finally, there were growing signs of voter frustration with the ruling party in northern states—over inflation and lack of decent jobs—where it has traditionally done well and which it needed to retain in order to win a third term.

The BJP has once again emerged as the single largest force in Parliament. But exit polls failed to predict the outcome. Yogendra Yadav, one of India’s most acute psephologists, was one of the very few to forecast that the BJP would lose seats in the Hindi heartland. The party’s aura of invincibility, and that surrounding Prime Minister Modi, is now punctured.

What exactly is at stake for Canada, given that the two countries have deep people-to-people ties?

The stakes are many, significant, and asymmetric. The Indian diaspora is the fastest-growing segment of new Canadians. India sends the largest share of international students to Canada. The Trudeau government also expected India to play a pivotal role in its new Indo-Pacific strategy to counter the perceived growing threats from China, to expand commercial, investment, and trade opportunities, and to expand Canada’s influence in Asia in a century that will be defined increasingly by the latter.

India denied involvement in the killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar last June, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without naming any country, did say in one of his campaign speeches that his government has eliminated terrorists in their own homes. What do you make of this new aggression in India’s relationship to Western powers, and how vulnerable is Canada to it?

There are several dimensions to this question. First, successive Indian governments in New Delhi have raised their concerns over support for Khalistan over many years, and made several extradition requests more recently, claiming that Khalistani advocates in Canada have provided material support and participated in illegal activities to back the separatist cause in Punjab. Authorities in Ottawa have repeatedly said that the evidence provided by New Delhi did not meet its legal standards and thus was insufficient to act.

Second, like other rising powers in the South, India has become far more confident in pursuing its perceived national interests across many policy issues, from trade and climate change to global health. That is natural and inevitable given its massive economy, status as the world’s most populous country, and rising strategic importance. The current international order also privileges Western states in many domains. That said, the Modi government is far more assertive and brash in how it defines and pursues these interests.

Third, Indo-US relations have grown much deeper across the board over the past two decades. But unlike South Korea or Japan, two other major powers in Asia, India prizes its strategic autonomy. New Delhi seeks to bridge various divides: East–West as well as North–South. Consequently, it is unwilling to join formal alliances dominated by the West, and maintains strong relations with Russia, Iran, and other states that the latter opposes.

The relative power of states in the world shapes the outlook and conduct of decision makers in New Delhi as much as it does in Washington. Their relations are far deeper and more consequential strategically than Indo-Canadian ties. Given these factors, a convergence of views and positions and strong co-operation between Ottawa and Washington would bolster Canada’s position.

India became a major issue domestically in Canada after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of orchestrating Nijjar’s murder. What is your assessment of Canada–India relations a year later?

The situation remains quite difficult. On the one hand, there is a clear effort to highlight the many interests both countries share, while pressing their respective concerns. On the other, though, the murder of Nijjar remains unresolved. Ottawa stands by its allegations that Indian government agents were involved. There are now further allegations by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that India and Pakistan interfered in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections in Canada, alongside China, making a hard situation even more difficult.

Going beyond the political and diplomatic levels, what effect have the tensions had on the large Indian diaspora in Canada, a huge proportion of whom are students?

We have seen growing tensions between advocates of Khalistan and supporters of Hindu nationalism in particular: the desecration of mandirs over the past couple of years, public rallies and community events that display provocative images and signs, and so on. But the Indian diaspora in Canada is extremely diverse in terms of its linguistic and religious make-up, political views, and generational differences. I imagine members of most communities want to maintain good relations within and between themselves, not an escalation of conflict.

Canada is looking ahead to its own federal election next year. Do you see the current state of affairs continuing unless there is a change in government in either country?

That is a good question. The tensions over Khalistan and allegations of foreign interference transcend the current governments in Ottawa and New Delhi. That said, given the impasse over the past year, new political faces in either capital, or both, could help the two countries find a way forward. Given the verdict in New Delhi, India will once again have a national coalition government, led by a diminished BJP. This could alter the dynamic.

What will it take for the ties between Canada and India to improve?

Resolving the issue that has brought relations to a new low. Canada wants India to take accountability for the killing of Nijjar and, if the CSIS allegations are true, an end to foreign interference too. India wants Canada to show credible evidence that it was involved and take its long-standing concerns over the alleged threats Khalistani separatism poses to India and its officials here more seriously. So a lot rides on whether the RCMP investigation, or US indictments into the murder plot against Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, reveals and names clear links.

Given the severity of the issue, neither India nor Canada can afford to let it quietly go away without losing face and damaging their political credibility. It is hard to see the relationship improving substantially without enough movement on both sides.

The Walrus Staff