The Oxford Union doesn’t believe that Modi’s India is on the right path, following a strong majority of voters rejecting the debate motion on Thursday.
This came after a lively debate concerning the Indian leader’s political record. Since Modi’s ascent to power in 2014, India has seen rapid economic growth and social progress. However, with an election looming large next year, some have criticised Modi’s BJP for religious conflict and dwindling funding of social services.
Speaking in support of the motion was Indian foreign affairs journalist Palki Sharma and the previous Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development Rt. Hon. Baroness Sandip Verma. Alongside them, the founder of the Deshbhakt, India’s largest political satire platform, Akash Banerjee, and President-elect of the Union Disha Hegde spoke for the proposition.
The opposition guest speakers included the president of the All India Kisan Sabha and member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India, Ashok Dhawale, and the previous Indian Minister of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Ajay Maken. Co-founder of the Aam Aadmi Party and later of Swaraj Abhiyan, Prashant Bushan, also argued against the motion along with the Union’s Ethnic Minorities officer Misha Mian.
In a filled chamber, Hegde began by describing Modi as “one of the most popular political leaders in the world” and that “you do not need to believe that Modi has fixed all the problems of India… all we need to convince you is that the India today is moving in the right direction.”
Misha Mian, opening up for the opposition, touched on Hegde’s decision to argue for the proposition: “I thought she’d stop selling her soul once she was successfully elected Union president but I see that she’s defending the side of the proposition tonight – a side she doesn’t believe in.” Citing the overriding of Article 370, which stripped Kashmir of its autonomy, the exclusion of Muslims from the Citizen Amendment Act, and the lack of sustainable development, she argued that India could not be on the right track.
Journalist Palki Sharma contrasted this by drawing on India’s digital developments, for instance, financial inclusion and internet penetration. These signify the path that India is on, she claimed. Sharma went on to describe India as a “soft power giant”, which “rubs shoulders with the West but also leads the Global South.” It is also a consensus-maker, not a trouble-maker, she asserted, referencing India’s neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war. “[India] does not have a national interest to pick sides and make things worse.” This, Sharma claimed, is like when two of your friends fight; as a good friend, you try to talk sense into them and bridge the divide.
Ashok Dhwalale, up next, made liberal use of the ten-minute speech time and argued that India is “on the worst possible path” for the overwhelming majority of the population. It is on the ‘right path’, only so far as the interests of the Adanis and Ambanis are concerned.” This led to cheers and applause from the audience. He also claimed that the recent railway accident, which led to over 280 deaths, occurred “because the Modi government is starving the railway industry.”
Responding to this, Akash Banerjee thanked Dhwalale for “an amazing electoral speech”, inciting laughter from the crowd. “You’re forgetting what’s bigger – India or Modi” he argued. “To say that one person can decide the destiny of this nation is to do injustice [to India].” Banerjee also asked the audience to consider how the UK is perceived abroad. Headlines in India, he stated, often take the form of: “Oh Brexit, oh Boris, oh cost of living… oh England is going down”. But, when he was in London, he didn’t see a country in decline or collapse, but rather the opposite.
Prashant Bushan, who spoke next, immediately laid out why he stood in the opposition:
“Because of the war, the Modi government has declared war on the poor.” The annual income of the poorest 20%, he said, has plunged 53% in the past five years. He lamented the rule of law being “demolished”, the compromised independence of institutions, and the degradation of critical thinking and democracy, the latter having been turned into “a game of money and propaganda.”
One of the floor speeches, for the proposition, also argued that Modi’s India is indeed on the right path – albeit, the path towards authoritarianism.
The last proposition speech was given by Baroness Verma. “Thank you ladies and gentlemen, and those rushing out, hurry up,” she began. As someone looking from the outside in, she said she has seen “transformational change [in India], particularly in the past nine years”, noting improvements in women’s rights and infrastructure. She went on to argue that Kashmir is now “a safe environment” and urged the audience to enjoy the fact that people now want to invest in the region.
Closing the debate, Ajay Maken made his case for the opposition. Citing the expulsion of India’s opposition leader from parliament earlier this year, he questioned: “Is democracy [in India] still alive?” Maken also expressed his dissatisfaction over the lengthy time it took to set up an anti-corruption body.
The Oxford Union’s final debate of the term will take place next week.