4-10 April 2014 #701

The shaky pillar of Indian democracy

This month’s Indian election is a battle to preserve the country’s founding principle of secularism
Anurag Acharya
The largest democracy in the world is going to parliamentary polls for the 16th time since independence from Britain in 1947. The month long voting will be closely watched not just in India but in its neighbourhood perhaps like never before because the outcome will decide future of India, and impact on South Asia and beyond.

A never-before 814 million people will be exercising their franchise this time. The retirement of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, coming of age of the young Gandhi scion Rahul who leads the Congress, and the dramatic rise of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)out of an anti-corruption citizens’ movement make this election interesting.

But the real dramatic part is the emergence of Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister and the leader of India’s Hindu right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leading his party into the election that has pushed up the electoral barometer. NaMo, as he is known to his Hindu admirers, has led every public opinion survey.

Besides being touted as India’s most successful chief minister, Narendra Modi is also arguably the most controversial political figure in Indian history. Blamed for presiding over the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in 2002 Gujarat riots by Hindu extremists closely linked to his party, the Indian Supreme Court in 2004 called him ‘a modern day Nero’ who looked the other way when women and children were being raped and slaughtered.

Although Narendra Modi was given a clean chit by the Special Investigative Team (SIT), national and international reports condemn his role in the riots. A US government report actually compares Modi with Hitler in his promotion of racial supremacy and hatred against minorities. The report states how Modi’s Gujarat government prescribed school textbooks in which children were taught about Hitler’s ‘charismatic’ personality without reference to the Holocaust, and referred to Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jew as ‘foreigners’. Unsurprisingly, Gujarat under Modi has outlawed religious conversion infringing upon the fundamental right to choose one’s faith.

Modi is standing from Varanasi which holds special significance for Hindus. At a time when all surveys point to the BJP coming to power in New Delhi, Narendra Modi’s move to contest from Varanasi is not just an appeasement of Hindus, it is also an electoral strategy to win over the largest state in India with most number of constituencies.

The AAP’s corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal took India by storm when he defeated the powerful Sheila Dixit in New Delhi last year. If he can repeat this in Vanarasi against Modi, it could be another big upset. The Congress still looks undecided whether to field a weak candidate and help Kejriwal bag non-BJP votes, or to field its General Secretary Digvijay Singh who is keen to take on Modi.

Opinion surveys show that out of 543 electoral constituencies, the BJP and its allies could bag at least 200 seats (see chart). This is not enough to form a government at the centre, but sufficient to bring the Congress down from its position as the largest party.

For its own sake, the fringe Left may back the Congress in post electoral alliance and powerful regional parties, especially those from the southern states may once again be kingmakers. But irrespective of political alliances, it is eventually India’s rising urban middle class that could prove decisive.

Not surprising that Modi is brandishing his much touted ‘Gujarat model’ to woo voters. However, his government has been criticised for handing over the State economy to the corporates, abdicating its decision-making role and forcing farmers out through land acquisition for Special Economic Zones.

If a Modi-led BJP comes to power in New Delhi in two months time, it could affect India’s foreign policy in Muslim neighbours Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. And his hardline stance against India’s Maoist insurgents will further constrict political space for those on the left political spectrum, and this could play out in Indian policy towards Nepal.

Modi’s rise to power will embolden Hindu nationalists and their leader Kamal Thapa of the RPP-N which is the fourth-largest party in Nepal’s Contituent Assembly. Thapa’s demand of a return to the Hindu state is gaining popularity, although support for reinstating the monarchy is lukewarm.

The battle lines have been drawn. The Modi-led BJP and National Democratic Alliance will fight the Congress’ United People’s Alliance, with Aam Aadmi Party, the Left bloc and regional parties looking for a post electoral alliances. This Indian election will not just decide who rules in New Delhi, it will test the democratic credentials of India’s 80 per cent Hindu population and their faith in one of the formidable pillars of democracy: secularism.

See video NarendraModi's interview where he walks out after being unable to face questions.

Read also:

Modi's momentum, KANAK MANI DIXIT

The vote in Varanasi, AJAZ ASHRAF

Infographic: Lok Sabha elections

Locking horns with the BJP

For the aam aadmi

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