When Narendra Modi was elected India's prime minister in 2014, there was one particular hope in the world's largest democracy – and one monumental fear.
The hope was simple. Years of corruption scandals had led to economic stagnation under the Indian National Congress. Mr. Modi's rival Bharatiya Janata Party promised to clean up the government, boost economic growth and bring real benefits to the people.
The fear, though, was that electing Mr. Modi would tear apart the social fabric of India. The Hindu nationalist politician had been chief minister of Gujarat for more than a decade and was in power when anti-Muslim riots tore through his state in 2002. Survivors still live in squalid resettlement camps. And although he lured big businesses to his state, including Canada's McCain Foods and Bombardier, several social indicators fell during his tenure, such as literacy and per capita state spending on health. Social critics said they were harassed.
In recent weeks, as India grappled with more caste protests and two people at a major university were hauled away under a colonial-era sedition law, something that was already sort of apparent has become increasingly obvious. Under Mr. Modi, India has far too little of the economic progress his supporters had hoped for, and far too much of the strife his critics feared.
That's not to say India's economy is entirely in the tank. The country's fourth-quarter GDP growth came in at 7.3 per cent. With other emerging markets suffering through a slump in commodity prices, India has shone among a broadly dismal group – and may now be the fastest-growing major economy in the world.
But is Mr. Modi responsible? He has re-energized bureaucrats and worked hard to generate new investment by travelling to Japan, Europe, Canada and the U.S. But one of the main reasons for India's current success is the collapse in oil prices, which is hugely beneficial to India – a net energy importer. Thriving sectors such as tech and e-commerce are chugging along as a result of their own initiative, not any particular policies.
Elsewhere, Mr. Modi has not been as lucky. His major economic reforms – on land acquisition laws, for example – have faltered. Food inflation has picked up once again. A parliamentary committee has also expressed worries about India's banks, which have amassed bad loans totalling around $100-billion (U.S.). At the same time, according to London-based research firm Capital Economics, Mr. Modi's "Make in India" manufacturing push amounts to little more than a "sound bite," despite netting $200-billion in pledges at a recent investment conference. This "flagship initiative is still unlikely to succeed in the absence of wide-ranging structural reform," the firm's India economist Shilan Shah wrote. Not exactly hopeful stuff.
Meanwhile, India is practically burning down around Mr. Modi, even as he fails to revive the economy. There has been violence against India's Christian minority. A severe drought has led to farmer suicides. Not all of this is directly tied to Mr. Modi, of course, but he and his ministers have often done little to temper the rising anger, acted late when they have, or actually encouraged tensions to energize their base. India now seems more polarized and divided.
At Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital, a student leader and a professor have been arrested for sedition – a charge once used to jail Gandhi – over a protest on the anniversary of the execution of a Kashmiri militant convicted of an attack on India's parliament. Never mind that India's Raj-era sedition law requires an incitement to violence, the two individuals were arrested amid cries that they were simply "anti-national." Journalists trying to cover a court appearance were attacked by a mob. It is part of a new partisan shrillness in India's public sphere, which Mr. Modi's ministers encourage.
"Those involved in anti-India activities or propaganda will not be spared," tweeted Rajnath Singh, India's minister of home affairs.
And in Haryana, north of Delhi, there is now a violent caste-related dispute that has degenerated into mob violence. These protests are generally about caste reservations for jobs or education spots, but they are also manifestations of economic disparities and disenfranchisement – and there was also an earlier caste dispute in Gujarat, Mr. Modi's home state, where everything was supposedly fine. In Haryana, around 20 people have already died in the violence, shops have been torched and protesters managed to cut off Delhi's water supply, leading to shortages in the capital.
Mr. Modi was never going to fix India in a day, or even two years. His agenda may still have positive impact, and he still has time – perhaps even another mandate. But average Indians hoped for change in vain. India, after all, is a complicated place. And the wager that economic growth was worth a little social discord has turned out to be something of a bad bet.