Modi’s last lap

In India’s upcoming elections, corporate interests are at the high table, and communalism on the ground.

Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the newly formed Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, is making gains in advance of the 2014 elections [AP]

When India attained independence from British rule in 1947, its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, made a finely nuanced speech about its “tryst with destiny”. Sixty-seven years later, India has certainly secured a functioning electoral democracy that ensures a regular change of regimes both at the centre, and in the multiple states that constitute the world’s most populous nation after China.

But mobilising voter blocks for competitive electoral politics has made the functioning of democracy itself, about regional, religious or caste identities, and increasingly, about big money. Rarely do politicians offer any idealism or lofty thoughts.

A very different vision from Nehru’s now confronts India with the right wing Hindu nationalist force, the BJP, certain to be the single largest party in the next parliament when national elections take place in the spring of 2014. This has been confirmed by the results of four state elections certified on December 8.

The ruling Congress party is in terminal decline, and the waning charisma of its leaders appears to have all but evaporated in the face of huge inflation of prices, including everyday essentials like vegetables. The BJP is marching ahead, though this election was also marked by the successful launch of the Aam Admi Party [AAP] that translates into Common Man Party, in the city-state of Delhi.

Inching closer to power

Yet the big story both in and out of India must be whether BJP, which has proposed controversial Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its PM candidate, is any closer to forming a national government in Delhi in 2014.

Investors are anxious to see the party put up a good show so that smaller parties with bases in specific regions of India are compelled to join a coalition led by the BJP. During the last two years of the Congress-led coalition several policies have been stalled as parties with a bloc of MPs in the national parliament, but  with bases in specific states, have refused to endorse them. Ever since, the business community has pinned great hopes on Modi and the BJP to fill the space as the Congress party caves in.

After all, in the two decades since single party rule became impossible, the party that emerges with the largest block of MPs leads a coalition that can be stable for some years. Modi’s backers, therefore, argue that they have to put their might behind getting a business friendly leader in, and after the 2014 poll, facilitate the behind-the-scenes deals now necessary to bring regional parties on board.

Indeed, never before in the history of Indian elections has the corporate sector pitched so openly for a candidate. Foreign investors too are anxious to see stability – although the US visa ban on Modi is still to be lifted. 

Viable alternative?

AAP, meanwhile, is a force that only worries this influential section. Begun as an anti-corruption movement, at one point they took on the most powerful business group in India, Reliance Industries. That campaign was eventually abandoned when they found themselves being shut-out by several news channels.

Traditional beneficiaries of the system, therefore, see AAP as anarchists. During the recent campaign for the Delhi assembly, their volunteers went to urban slums, fixed disconnected electricity lines, sold onions at cheap prices, and marched across the city wielding a broom which is the symbol of AAP.

Despite AAP’s charm offensive in the capital, many urban voters disenchanted with the economic slowdown, say they will back Modi on issues of development and growth, in the general elections. They argue that the perception of him being anti-Muslim is irrelevant today. Those who bring up his record during the 2002 Gujarat riots (when close to 2,000 Muslims were killed) or the fake encounters that are now being investigated in his state are  missing the point.

The Modi persona, they say, is about strong leadership at a time when India’s ship is apparently adrift. Significantly, the stock markets responded with great cheer to the news of BJP defeating Congress in four states.

But beneath all the spin about Modi’s development record as Gujarat’s chief minister, is the reality that he will be relying on polarisation against the minority Muslim community to make gains in a critical state in northern India.

Divisions on the ground

But beneath all the spin about Modi’s development record as Gujarat’s chief minister, is the reality that he will be relying on polarisation against the minority Muslim community to make gains in a critical state in northern India.

On August 27, vicious riots broke out in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, which sends the largest contingent – 80 MPs – to India’s parliament of 542. About 100 people died, thousands were dislocated from their homes and told to never return, and scores of women were raped. Delays in arresting local politicians, and a controversy over the compensation to the badly affected, only added to the hostility between Hindus and Muslims. 

The state saw close to a 100 minor clashes in the past year before the terrible violence at Muzaffarnagar. It is now quite polarised, disillusioned with current state politicians, and ripe for a figure like Modi to make gains. BJP strategists are relying on this to make significant advances in a part of the country where they have been out-flanked by regional parties.

Courting the Muslim vote

Although Muslims make up just 18 percent of the population, in some parliamentary districts of Uttar Pradesh they constitute 30 to 40 percent of the electorate. It is often said that there are no new ideas, just new ways of making them felt. The “Muslim liability” stereotype has been there since independence and the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. It has been reinforced by the strategies of political parties.

The Congress party keeps making token gestures in its how-to-get-the-Muslim-vote strategy, even as the community has slipped on all social and economic indices. In the process, apparently secular parties have also flattened out secularism to nothing more than keeping the community in a ghetto, fuelling their insecurity, then appearing as the protector and extracting their vote.

The consequence of this approach has been a sort of simplistic justification of the crude communalism that the BJP practices. Modi has successfully exploited these prejudices even as he basks in the admiration of a middle class which wants India to rise above the messy divisions and helps them prosper.

As things stand, Modi’s managers believe that the only stumbling block to power is the resistance of regional parties who nurture their own Muslim voter-banks. One right wing ideologue, close to the BJP, famously said about the party over a decade ago – “Between good governance and chaos stand the Muslims of India”. Their strategy now is to neutralise the impact of Muslim votes that can only be effective when combined with that of other castes within the majority Hindu community. Muslims will be examining the strengths of regional parties and in Delhi, the new AAP, yet many would be quite baffled: To vote for Congress, after all, could amount to wasting a vote.

On December 8, Modi entered the last lap of the race to power. But on that day, the leader of AAP, Arvind Kejriwal, captured the national imagination and stole much of media attention that had been focused solely on Modi.

Although he has no formal party structure behind him, Kejriwal suddenly emerged out of the blue and challenged the notion that Modi alone, appeals to that particular section of society in a changing India. The AAP ideology is very rudimentary: Clean up the political process and fight corruption. But it does excite the imagination in an age where cynical politics are played out in routine cycles.

Yet in this case too, Modi’s backers argue that the presence of a new dynamic in politics will only add to the anti-Congress sentiment and not really challenge the BJP. They say that the BJP has the largest and most organised cadre in India and that cadre is charged with enthusiasm after the big wins in the state elections. 

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi based journalist who follows politics and issues of identity. She writes for Outlook magazine and is the author of In Good Faith, published in 2012. 

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