Asia, Fall 2013, World — January 6, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Modi Operandi

A Resurgence of Traditionalism in Indian Politics

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As mango season comes to an end, the monsoons slowly ebb away, and the scorching humidity of August sighs into a slight breeze, India prepares for a national election. Two political parties with drastically different visions for India will compete to lead the world’s largest democracy, and Indians are relying on the next prime minister to lead India into a new era of prosperity. “My simple political economy model, which economists don’t like, is that for any success to be achieved in a parliamentary democracy, the prime minister is very important. Is he able to exercise authority?” asks Arvind Panagariya, professor of economics at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.

Elections are held once every five years, but the current one is different. On previous occasions, the prime minister was only announced after the elections were held and a coalition was formed. But recently, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a traditionalist Hindu party, announced that 63-year-old Narendra Modi, the chief minister (similar to a governor) of the state of Gujarat, will be their candidate for prime minister, leading the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

While Modi plans to focus his campaign on religious traditionalism and the recent economic success of his home state, the Indian National Congress (Congress) party will run on a populist platform, with equal opportunity for all at its core. The Congress will most likely be led by 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, its current vice-president and a member of India’s parliament. He is also the political heir of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi family, whose members have led the Indian government throughout most of its post-independence history.

The Congress party is burdened by incumbency, having headed the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition and governed India for two consecutive terms, beginning in 2004. Corruption is rampant, and the decline in India’s economic growth in recent years is hurting the party’s prospects. Narendra Modi and the BJP offer a different direction, but Modi’s controversial past threatens to divide the country along religious lines. As both leaders and their parties gear up for electoral battle, the election has become centered on the protection of civil rights for all Indians as the country pursues rapid economic growth.

Modi has been a high-profile politician for some time as a result of his leadership of Gujarat, a large state in western India. In spite of controversial events that occurred during his first term as chief minister, Modi has been re-elected twice by an enthusiastic electorate in his state. In a time of dwindling economic growth in India, Modi is extremely popular for leading Gujarat to economic prosperity: The state has experienced double-digit yearly growth for a decade. He has welcomed projects like the Tata Nano, the world’s least expensive car, which have helped make Gujarat a mecca of foreign investment and trade. Meanwhile, as bad governance has seeped through all sectors of the broader Indian economy, food prices have risen, and the value of the Indian rupee has dropped. Many businesspeople want the growth-oriented economic policies of Modi, who has cut red tape and corruption in Gujarat, to lead India out of its economic downturn.

Modi appeals to the many among the middle class and majority-Hindu communities of India, but at the core of his base of support are the unemployed urban and semi-urban youth. To the urban youth, most of whom were born after the economic liberalization of the early 1990s, Modi portrays himself as an advocate for economic opportunity. Religiously, Modi likens himself to a spiritual “savior” of India. His lifestyle is priestly in some ways: He is a devout Hindu with no children, and seems to project himself as a Hindu sadhu, or saint. He often uses the symbolism of Hindu sadhus by wearing saffron, the Hindu holy color, and his first initials in Hindi and nickname “NaMo” in fact reference namo – the holy word for Hindu prayer in Sanskrit.

But Modi’s Achilles’ heel is his controversial past. Paradoxically, Modi has held the title of the least and most popular politician in India. Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party, has dubbed Modi the “merchant of death” due to his administration’s handling of an alleged involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots, which resulted in the death of more than an estimated 1,000 Muslims. Gujarat has a very diverse population, much like that of India. About 9 percent of the population is made up of Muslims – a significant minority in a state with a population of 60 million.

In 2002, tension turned into violence when a train carrying Hindus back from a pilgrimage to a Hindu holy site caught fire in some compartments. 59 people, mostly Hindu activists, were burnt to death. Though the cause of the fire remains legally disputed, it was perceived at the time that Muslim terrorists carried out the attacks. Violent riots quickly spread across Gujarat. Hindu mobs, armed with kerosene, sticks, and guns, stormed Muslim villages, burning, raping, and destroying. Modi became involved because of claims that the police force in Gujarat and the state government did nothing to stop the violence, and that some members may have even participated in it. Legally, Modi has never been charged with any involvement with the riots. However, several observers feel that his delay in engaging state law enforcement allowed many Muslims to be slaughtered.

At the time, the National Democratic Alliance (led by the BJP) was the ruling government of India, and its prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, went to Gujarat and publicly admonished Modi, a member of his own party. He told Modi to follow “Raj Dharma – a king’s equal treatment of all citizens.” The National Democratic Alliance lost the next national election, a loss which many attribute to the riots. Yet, since then, Modi has been re-elected twice as chief minister. Some have claimed that he used the religious tensions and fervor from the riots to garner support. Steven Wilkinson, a professor of South Asian studies at Yale University, writes that “the link between government action and state response to the riots was clear from the fact that the state BJP leaders met … while the violence was still continuing to discuss the possibility of early elections to benefit from the anti-minority, pro-Hindu wave the Godhra killings and subsequent riots engendered. As a result, Gujarat burned.” For his apparently gross violation of human rights, Modi was denied a US visa in 2005, and the U.K. imposed an international diplomatic boycott of Modi between 2002 and 2012. Modi has never apologized nor expressed regret for the incredible loss of life during the riots.

While Modi and the BJP represent religious, traditionalist, and business voters, the Congress Party, a more left-wing party, caters to a larger number of low-income voters, running on a platform of equality for all. Since 2004, India’s prime minister has been Manmohan Singh, the renowned economist who was the architect of India’s economic liberalization in 1991. He was selected for the position by Sonia Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), who belongs to one of the most powerful political families in India. Sonia Gandhi led the UPA to victory in the 2004 national elections (when the BJP-led alliance lost), and then declined to accept the position of prime minister. Since then, many believe that she has acted as the real power player in the UPA government, undermining the authority of the prime minister, and thereby perhaps threatening the foundations of parliamentary government in India. This unorthodox approach to governance has raised the stakes for the forthcoming national election.

Most observers believe that in 2014, the Congress party’s prime ministerial candidate will be Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi’s son and the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. The Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which has given India three prime ministers, began during the British Raj and has continued to the present. Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first prime minister of India, followed by Jawaharlal’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, and his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi. Both Indira and Rajiv were assassinated. Yet, the long reign of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has not been without blemishes. After the Indian army put down a secessionist movement by the Sikh religious community in Punjab, Indira Gandhi, India’s popular, secular prime minister, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. Mobs rioted and murdered Sikhs in large numbers and in New Delhi and elsewhere. The national government, controlled at the time by the Congress Party, failed to provide a firm and immediate response, resulting in controversies still being litigated in Indian courts even today.

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Rahul Gandhi is widely viewed as the one who will carry on his family’s storied legacy. Since his relatively recent entry into politics in the last decade, he has established his credentials with the poor by participating in farmer agitations for protection of their land from realtors and agents of industry. In the face of Modi’s rising popularity, Gandhi has been trying to create a presence in the political sphere. Most recently, he publicly intervened and stopped a “nonsense” bill from being made into law by his own party, which would have protected legally-convicted members of Parliament and other elected officials from being removed from office, as is currently required by the Indian Supreme Court. The two prime ministerial candidates also have contrasting governing styles. Modi is assertive, media-savvy, proud of his two re-election wins and economic accomplishments, strongly critical of his opposition, and appears ready to lead India. He is running his campaign on promises of leveraging the economic successes of Gujarat state for the benefit of the entire country. But given his record of divisiveness, it is questionable if economic gains will be equal for Indians of all religious denominations, regions, and castes. Gandhi, on the other hand, is young and inexperienced in governance, shy, modest, and secular. Furthermore, he has yet to lead the Congress party to victory in any Indian election, even at the state level.

India needs a strong leader to confront its myriad of problems. Some have existed since India’s tumultuous independence began, and others have been brought on by globalization. India, like much of the world, is facing an economic downturn. The value of the rupee has dropped considerably, income inequality is high (though poverty as a whole is slowly declining), and economic growth is declining. Indian voters are currently focused on big corruption as the root of all their problems and want it attacked vigorously. Tackling corruption, especially in the higher sectors of the government, is therefore key for the next prime minister. “The way I would see it, the top leadership issue is very important, because in the end, the big corruption which has had impact on the economy is at the top level,” says Panagariya.

However, India’s oldest and most persistent problem will be much harder to deal with: factionalism, rooted in the same religious and regional divisions that separated India in 1947. While India is one sovereign state, it encompasses various groups of people that differ in religion, language, caste, and ethnicity. Different regions vary widely in their landscapes, economies, and histories, and each state often has interests different from other states, which can sometimes strain national unity. India holds the world’s second-largest population of Muslims, about 180 million, trailing only Indonesia. Each state has a sizable minority of Muslims, and as seen in Modi’s Gujarat, factionalism often causes tensions and violence, leading to violations of human rights.

With destructive regionalism and factionalism in India today, and the inability of any major party to win a majority of votes in a national election, most political observers rule out the possibility that either the BJP or the Congress will alone win a majority of seats in parliament in 2014. The NDA (the BJP-led alliance) and UPA (the Congress Party’s alliance) coalitions may have to continue. Philip Oldenburg, a research scholar at the South Asia Institute at Columbia University writes that, “In a parliamentary system, it is crucial to remember the coalition system. No one party has all power. Voters want assurances that there will be no fighting amongst coalitions after the election. They are voting for stability.” Thus, even if the vision and policies of one of the two contestants appear to be more appealing, a truly successful prime minister must be able to work with broad-based alliances and build a strong, inclusive coalition. Such coalitions can create the opening for corruption-free governance that meets the needs of the voters. It is up to the prime minister and his party to organize and seize that opportunity.

While economic prowess is important, numbers reflecting economic growth should never trump the recognition and protection of basic human values and dignity. India is the largest secular democracy in the world, its formation based on “unity amidst diversity” and freedom and tolerance for the practice of all religions. Modi’s platform of “Hindutva,” (an idea of patriotic Indian-ness with a Hindu emphasis) glosses over this religious diversity of India, and is clearly not inclusive of the minority communities. Christians and Muslims make up about 20 percent of the total population. That would amount to the social and political exclusion of 240 million people, slightly more than 75 percent of the entire United States population. India is not solely a Hindu country, but a mass population of different cultures and religions. In this environment, a declared Hindu nationalist is likely to divide India even further.

The election season has already started off with violence; 44 people, once again mostly Muslims, were killed in early September in the state of Uttar Pradesh when a legislator from the BJP leaked a fake video of two Hindus being lynched by a Muslim mob. The national security force had to be called, and two state legislators from BJP have been arrested for inciting violence. If Modi becomes prime minister, such violence may continue, but it is not clear if the security forces will be called next time. They were certainly not called when the riots began in Gujarat in 2002. India cannot risk its unity and dedication to human rights for the ambitions of a politician, and Modi’s are no secret. Economic growth does not have to be at the cost of human rights, which is vital to the foundation of India.

Ignoring rights, values, and the dignity of all Indians for the sake of economic growth is not conducive to maintaining the integrity of India. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, believed in unity and cooperation, which gradually led to the acceptance of the coalition form of government as the norm in India, in order to accommodate all regional parties and aspirations. Modi’s use of using controversy and religious tensions to gain support fundamentally opposes this value and leads to doubts whether his domineering style is compatible with consensus-building in coalitions. It may seem impossible for India to be united with its many differences and tensions, to be united. But Nehru said of India that “it is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.”

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