Why India’s 2014 Elections Are Important – At Home and Abroad

Brian Stoddart argues that as India increasingly moves into the global mainstream its fast approaching elections matter inside and out (this post first appeared in April 2013).

India is about a year out from its five-yearly national election which is in itself a voting marvel. In 2009 approximately 714 million people voted, electronically, an electorate larger than the United States and the European Union, combined. The elections are staged over a month to cope with those numbers, the frenetic campaigning and voting bewildering most outsiders.

In 2009, there were 543 seats in the all-important lower house, the Lok Sabha, meaning any party or alliance had to win 272 to form government. The leading party, the Indian National Congress that led the country to independence, and its declared partners in the United Party Alliance (UPA) that was already in government came closest, with 262. A slew of splinter and regional groups then pledged allegiance and UPA2 resumed government.

It has survived, but just and its 2014 prospects look shaky. A key alliance partner from the southern state of Tamilnadu, the DMK, withdrew support recently in protest at the Government’s failure to look resolute enough on pursuing the Sri Lankan government over alleged war crimes against Tamils. Nearby, in Andhra Pradesh, the ruling Congress state government suffered serious defections over the central government’s vacillation over creating a new state of Telangana. Because Andhra Pradesh returned so many Congress members nationally in 2009, this disintegration is a major threat come 2014. Add to that a series of corruption scandals involving the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the selling of 2G spectrum licenses, and this government looks vulnerable.

Superficially, this looks like a normal electoral pattern: a long-serving government loses ground to a rival. But that is precisely where the 2014 elections take on enormous significance not just for India, but for global politics. The bitter, divisive Presidential-style election run that is emerging could well determine India’s immediate social and political trajectory, as well as its regional and global positioning.

That starts with the most likely stars of this Presidential style battle, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

First, however, the deeper background is important. The opposition is also a coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that developed first in 1998 and remains dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Formed a little over thirty years ago the BJP is best, if loosely described as being on the right of the political spectrum. It rapidly became India’s second most popular political party, and built a platform around Hindu nationalism and social conservatism. That became so popular that the BJP and the NDA took national government from 1998 until 2004, and remains the main opposition party. One prominent partner in the NDA is the Shiv Sena (Shiva’s Army) based in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, having begun in 1966 as a regional protagonist but transformed into an even stronger Hindu nationalist entity which some describe as Hindu extremist.

Given India has the world’s second largest Muslim population, the significance of all this is obvious. The political symbolism was set in 1992 when the BJP sanctioned and led an attack on the Babri Mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodyha. Hindus believed the site to be the birthplace of Lord Rama, that a Hindu temple had preceded the mosque, and that the site should be returned to Hindu hands. The mosque was destroyed, a new era of Hindu-Muslim tension ushered in, and the court cases are still proceeding.

For the most part the NDA and the BJP have steered enough of a middle course to appear as a reasonable alternative government. But here comes Narendra Modi.

Now sixty two, young by Indian political standards, Modi has been Chief Minister of Gujarat since 2001 and is seen as the architect of the state’s considerable economic growth. In that sense he fits right in line with the “new India” model, where business and economic growth are seen to strengthen the country’s ability to drive social reform at home and stronger leveraging abroad. An adroit politician, Modi has been an activist since school and university days, but it is that activism that creates his considerable image problem at home and overseas.

He joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at a very young age. Founded in 1925 the RSS does considerable social and charitable work, but at its core is a paramilitary-type organization pushing Hindu nationalism and challenging Muslim rights. It was banned by the British before independence and three times since, most recently in wake of the Babri Mosque sacking where it had a leading role.

Modi moved into the BJP to become a hardliner, more in tune with the Shiv Sena in nearby Maharashtra. For that reason, communal issues in Gujarat under his leadership were always going to be difficult. In 2002 a series of riots left almost eight hundred Muslims and three hundred Hindus dead. Numerous allegations surfaced about Modi’s rumoured involvement, though he acted promptly to try and suppress the rioting. A 2009-2010 Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence that Modi was implicated. Other inquiries came and went with, again, no evidence he was implicated. The rumours persist, however, and he is forever marked by the episode.

Meanwhile, his BJP reputation strengthened nationally on the back of Gujarat’s increasing prosperity, and he began to look the most likely leader looking towards 2014. That was assisted by the British government recently lifting a ban on his entry imposed following the riots, and the European Union has now lifted its ban. The United States remains a problem for him, however, because a ban there is still in force. At the end of March 2013 he was elevated to the BJP’s all-powerful Parliamentary Board, and is the party’s likely nominee for Prime Minister heading into 2014.

In the face of this heady mixture, the Congress and the UPA have a problem. Current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the gifted economist who “opened up” India in the early 1990s, will be eighty one by the time the elections arrive. He has not ruled out running again but with another demanding five year term ahead, a flaky five behind, and an odd position inside Congress, he is unlikely be the one to confront Modi. Part of his enduring problem is the sense that while he was Prime Minister the real shots were fired by Sonia Gandhi, President of the Congress who ruled herself out as Prime Minister. The widow of Rajiv Gandhi and Italian by birth, she has always been a polarizing figure in India, especially for the harder end of the Hindu nationalist movement.

That is where Rahul Gandhi comes in. Still in his early forties, Rahul is almost as divisive at Modi but for entirely different reasons. Put perhaps too baldly, the debate around him is whether he is a true successor to great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv, or simply a privileged dilettante sans political compass. He resisted going into parliament for a long time, then took the family seat in Amethi in 2004. He is Chair of both the Indian Youth Congress and the National Students Union, and so regarded as a link to the country’s newer political generations, an important issue for Congress which, to many observers, is now a rickety monolith directed by old leaders clinging to past glories. In one sense, the Congress needs to be re-invented, and Rahul is seen as the possible innovator: he has the name and heritage, but comes of a new generation.

Just before Modi was elevated in March 2013 so, too, was Rahul. He is now Vice-President of the Congress and the second ranking member of the Congress Working Committee. Like Modi, he is now expected to be the face of Congress and the proxy Prime Minister leading into the elections so is out and about, to a stuttering start. The central problem for Rahul is his thin track record, he has not done much. ((http://www.sunday-guardian.com/analysis/unpleasant-truths-about-rahul He has increased membership in the youth wings, yes, but politically Congress still trails the opposition seriously in his home state of Uttar Pradesh, despite his presence and the Nehru-Gandhi mystique. He led a desultory campaign on land title issues that produced few if any results. Provincial elections in 2012 underlined the issue when, under his leadership, Congress actually did worse than previously, a blow to the “Rahul for the national leadership” push. Added to that, pertinently, there are reports that he believes ultra-Hindu nationalism movements threaten India’s future, that the RSS poses a similar danger and might even be labeled a “terrorist” group. If that is correct, then campaigns involving Modi and Rahul will be lively, to say the least.

If all goes as anticipated, then, Narendra Modi, a skilled technocrat with solid achievements but shadowed by doubts about his Hindu right wing grounding, will be pitched directly against Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent of India’s political elite who has no track record and holds apparently strong views on the sort of political interests represented by Modi. Modi will gain substantial support from the Hindu conservative heartland and the business community, Rahul and Congress will looking towards support from younger, more urbanized generations and the more liberal sections of the community and, presumably, at least some of the Muslim elements.

Considered in that way, the implications of this likely contest are considerable for India both at home and abroad. While it is always risky trying to characterize India’s overall political shape and direction (because there are just so many nuances within), it is worth suggesting that if the BJP’s accession to power in 1998 was a turning point in the country’s political evolution, then a Modi-Gandhi contest is very likely to provide a similar moment.

At home, the emphasis will be upon maintaining the economic growth that has characterised the past decade or so, continuing reforms that look to FDI improvements, more innovation, more employment, stronger investment in education, greater provision of infrastructure, and a general reduction in bureaucracy.

There is no question that the Modi rise has been framed around this narrative, he has the track record. For that reason he is already appearing more in national rather than his usual regional settings, frequently with Chambers of Commerce, and in states like West Bengal where previously he would not have been reckoned to do well.

Rahul has a problem here in that apart from his own direct involvement in some business and commercial activities before entering politics, he has no achievements at which to point. Moreover, the UPA’s on-going woes over corruption issues, an inability to cut red tape, flat lining growth figures and issues around policy coherence do nothing to prop him up. Manmohan Singh himself, the architect of all this growth is struggling to handle it, so for Rahul to swing the election on this front is a monumental ask.

The UPA political strategy, then, will likely be to play to the social agenda, to emphasise the “Modi as an extremist” theme, and that is an obviously delicate and potentially volatile matter. The “Congress as the natural leaders of the people” line has taken a hammering in the past two decades, additionally compounded by the rise of the dalit political movement (those formerly known as “untouchables”). That has been a major problem for Congress, even in the Sonia/Rahul “home” state of Uttar Pradesh. In states like Bihar, leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav and his successor Nitish Kumar have played to that vote, and it is important. (However, it should be noted that Nitish Kumar, for one, has tried to “secularise” the NDA of which he is a leading member, and that has raised questions about his possible lack of enthusiasm for Modi as national leader.)

Both Modi and Rahul, for different reasons, will desperately want to avoid inflaming communal tensions, but the problem is that those very tensions reflect one of the principal electoral touchstones, the idea of communal identity and destiny.

Then, this personality battles carries an inherent potential impact on regional security. Modi’s hardline image and background will not smooth an already hazardous Indian relationship with Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan, and that will be of concern outside the immediate region because of rising concerns about Islamist tendencies inside both. Modi’s attitudes on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue might give him some additional support in the south, but Congress has already conceded that it needs to become harder edged on that matter. Given the geostrategic issues, especially on the security front, if Modi does come to power then the USA will have a major decision to make about freeing up his access there.

Similar issues may well arise with ASEAN where Muslim states like Malaysia and Brunei have important roles, where Thailand has a significant communal issue in its south, and where most other states have a Muslim presence, such as in Cambodia. The UPA is likely to be better placed to deal with the relationships, as well as broader Indian Ocean and wider strategic concerns, than will be a BJP led by Modi.

The obvious question, though, is “does Rahul Gandhi have any strong credibility there?” and the answer is largely “no”. Modi can at least point to having gained FDI for Gujarat through his linkages into places like China, and he has challenged (perhaps unconvincingly) the idea that the states are subject to national direction on international involvement. Rahul Gandhi has little or any of that, bar the family political inheritance and reputation overseas. It is not much on which to win a campaign by demonstrating clear foreign policy superiority.

If the pair does lead their respective parties into the elections next year, a lot of voters will have a lot of problems, and a lot of observers around the world should be taking a lot of notice. As India moves increasingly into the global mainstream, what happens in these elections will matter. At stake is the continuing economic growth that has placed India in that mainstream. So, too, is India’s stance on some critical international strategic issues in its immediate regions as well as more widely. And that is before even considering might happen to India’s on-going challenges of a rapidly growing population, faltering food production, and the ever-present and prevalent poverty. These elections do matter.

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