Indian Elections 2014 -2
Secularism vs. Communalism
Dr. Mozammel Haque
India is a country of different cultures, diverse religions and heterogeneous languages and issues peculiar to specific areas determine the way people vote. The Indian general elections for 552 seats in the 16th Lok Sabha, the powerful lower house of the Indian parliament, are due in May 2014 and are of indisputable importance.
Elections, Electorates, Parliament and Party
The Indian elections, the world’s biggest democratic exercise, will take place over nearly six weeks beginning on 7 April; the country’s election commission has announced the dates of the coming polls. More than 800 million voters eligible to cast their votes at 930,000 polling booths to elect a new 552-seat powerful Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament. These elections will decide who will lead the vast emerging economic power over a five-year term. More than three-dozen parties are represented in the current Lok Sabha. Entry of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) may add one more party in the next – the 16th Lok Sabha.
More than 150 million first-time voters are expected to play a key role. Many have grown up with a booming economy and high expectations. “This is one of the most significant elections since India’s independence,” said Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the Caravan magazine. Sampath, the election commissioner, said there were 100 million more voters in 2014. His colleagues have predicted turnouts up to or exceeding 70%. “We expect the polling percentage to touch 70% or even cross it for the 16th Lok Sabha election. The [commission] has done work on a massive scale to educate voters, especially the vulnerable ones – illiterate, poor, marginalised – as well as women and youth,” HS Brahma, an election commissioner, told reporters.
Congress Party-led coalition will be facing the rising Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and its allies. The third force will be the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led by Kejriwal. To add to the confusion Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of Bihar talks of a Third Front with the JD (U), the CPI and the CPI (M).
Prime Ministerial candidate
Consequently, analyzing the trends and the likely outcome is of crucial importance globally. Next month’s Indian elections will pit Narendra Damodar Das Modi, 63, the main opposition candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) against Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year old vice-president of the ruling Congress party and the scion of the India’s most prominent political dynasty, Nehru-Gandhi family. Modi will contest from Varanasi whereas Rahul Gandhi will contest the Amethi seat in Uttar Pradesh.
The electoral battle between the two draws sharp lines across the Indian political landscape. Modi is proud to call himself a "Hindu nationalist" and appears to favour radical reform of the country's flagging economy. Gandhi holds true to the leftwing economics and belief in religious pluralism that is the legacy of his great grandfather, Jawarharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister.
Now BJP strategists believe they have an opportunity to end the long decades of Congress dominance for good – and with it the power of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. So the contest is between Insider vs outsider, dynasty vs working-class boy made good, suspected sectarian vs. secularist: this electoral battle has it all. Some analysts talk of the most significant contest since India won its independence from Britain in 1947.
Congress has pitched the elections as a battle to save the Hindu-majority nation’s secular identity in the face of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist politics, seen by critics as divisive in the nation where 13 percent of the 1.2-billion populations is Muslim.
Opinion Polls and Surveys
A third of Indian voters want Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi to be their next Prime Minister, placing him well ahead of his rivals in the general elections due by May, according to the latest in a series of opinion polls that show rising support for the opposition candidate.
The Survey, conducted by pollsters CSDS for the CNN-IBN television channel, also forecast that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would win 192-210 seats in the 543-seat assembly, while the ruling Congress party would only bag 92-108 seats. While 34 percent of voters surveyed picked Modi as their first choice for Prime Minister, only15 percent chose Gandhi, according to the CSDS poll. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother and Congress party chief, was in third place with five percent.
Another survey, conducted by pollsters CVoter for the India Today media group, found that almost half of respondents wanted Modi versus 15 percent who backed Gandhi. The CVoter poll forecast that the BJP would win 188 seats in the election, more than double the expected tally for Congress.
The CSDS poll surveyed just under 18,600 voters in 18 states, with a margin of error that varied from state to state. CVoter surveyed almost 21,800 respondents across all of India’s 28 states, with a three percent margin of error at the national level and five percent margin at the state level.
“BJP poised for best-ever tally, Modi set to be PM, say polls,” read a front-page headline in The Times of India, the country’s best-selling English-language daily. On the other hand, the Congress party, which has ruled India for the last decade, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, would win just 92 to 108 seats, down from 204 it holds now, the CNN-IBN poll said.
Though recent opinion polls give the BJP a clear edge in the general elections, polls after polls show BJP well ahead of the Congress and projected to win 188 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha. That is not enough to form a government with a coalition with regional parties. The regional parties could be the major players. They could very well demand how the government will be formed. Modi may not be acceptable to many from states that believe in secularism. Modi will have struggle to find coalition allies as his image remains tarnished by communal riots in Gujarat in 2002.
Commenting on the surveys and pollsters opinion, observers maintained, “Opinion polls are seldom an accurate guide to election outcomes especially when conducted in Asian societies where inherent cultural inhibitions make voters more reserved about divulging their political views to others let alone pollsters. However, three polls conducted in January point to the BJP getting more seats than Congress but neither party securing a majority by getting the required 272 seats or more. Thus the result will be a BJP-led coalition as things stand. Another major feature of the poll is that the personal popularity of Modi is higher than that of the BJP. And this is in spite of the controversy around Modi because of his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. The fact that Rahul Gandhi, while leading the Congress electoral campaign, has not been nominated as candidate for premier by the Congress is perceived as a sign of weakness.”
Given India’s diverse and fragmented electorate, neither the BJP nor any other party is expected to win the 272 seats needed for an outright majority. The biggest party will seek to form a coalition with regional parties.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
and the Congress Party
Let’s see where stands the prime ministerial candidate, Modi and Gandhi as well as the BJP and the Congress in the eyes and estimation of the electorate.
Writing about the Bharatiya Janata Party, , Middle East-based writer and Editor of CaravanDaily.com, Aijaz Zaka Syed, observed in her write-up, “BJP: Fascism in the garb of patriotism”, “Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a long history of promoting religious strife and violence. It views vast sections of the nation – its religious minorities and oppressed groups – as second class citizens. The Muslims, a 200-million strong community, in its view does not belong in India.”
On the other hand, writing about the Congress Party, Syed wrote, “Given the humble beginnings of the journey in 1947 and the tough path of self-reliance that it chose under Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, we have certainly come far and have managed to accomplish has been nothing short of a miracle. Today, India is not just one of the fastest growing economies in the world with a massive pool of talent and resources, it has established its presence in every sphere, from infrastructure to education to advances in science and technology.”
“But more than the progress in economic terms, if there is one single most important feat of which Indians can be truly proud of, it is their democracy. The boisterous and unwieldy Indian democracy is nothing short of a living miracle given its size and the myriad adversities it faces in poverty, illiteracy and social and economic inequalities,” observed Middle East-based writer and Editor of CaravanDaily.com, Aijaz Zaka Syed.
Narendra Modi as Prime Ministerial candidate
Modi was born in the dusty temple town of Vadnagar in what is now the western Indian state of Gujarat. His family belonged to the Ghanchi caste, low down on the tenacious social hierarchy that still often defines status in India, and had little money. As a boy, Modi helped out on his father's tea stall before his lessons at a government school.
By the time he was 10, Modi was attending the early-morning outdoor drill meetings held by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Organisation), the highly disciplined rightwing organisation dedicated to realising a nationalist, traditionalist and religious vision of India's future. When he left university, he became a full-time RSS activist, a pracharak, sworn to a celibate, teetotal, vegetarian life of organisation and propaganda. The RSS, which has around 40 million members, was, and still is, controversial. The organisation was banned in the aftermath of Mohandas Gandhi's killing by a Hindu fanatic in 1948.
Modi’s political philosophy
Modi’s political philosophy is in line with the Hindutva scheme. Writing about his political philosophy, Seema Sengupta, a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist, observed, “A minute study of the basic components of Modi’s political philosophy will reveal a dark agenda that seeks to aggressively reorient the Indian state in line with the Hindutva scheme of pampering to majority extremism. It also envisages a complete overhaul of the very idea of India, which is based on cultural and religious pluralism, so that the country’s majority community (read radical Hindu) can effectively prevent Muslims and other minorities from becoming more assertive. Most importantly, this agenda encompasses a vile objective of recreating the bitterness of partition days of 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was divided both physically and mentally.” (Seema Sengupta: Modi: A catalyst for instability in South Asia)
Modi and minority groups
So far as Modi’s relationship with minority is concerned, the butchering of Muslims in Gujarat state in 2002 when Modi was the chief Minister is well-known fact. Indian voters are aware of the anti-Muslim communal violence that raged in Gujarat for several months, when Modi was the state chief minister. Nilofar Suhrawardy wrote, “Certainly, Modi has the right to claim that he was not responsible for the carnage. Legally and politically, Modi can convince himself and some of his supporters that he should not be held responsible for the Gujarat tragedy. The political legitimacy of Modi’s stand, however, is confined to his own narrow circle, which does not include all his party members. The last point is supported by the BJP expressing willingness to apologize for the 2002 carnage. The underlying message is that the BJP has accepted that irrespective of what Modi claims, the people still hold him and his party responsible for Gujarat killings.” (Nilofar Suhrawardy, “Fooling Indian voters is a thing of the past, Arab News.)
When Muslims of India think about Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial ambition, they were haunted by the carnage in Gujarat under Modi’s chief ministership. Modi failed to display magnanimity and statesmanship - the essential ingredients required to lead a diverse India. Kolkata-based journalist and columnist Seema Sengupta, writing about the Gujarat riots in 2002, observed, “Not surprisingly, the chairman of the Supreme Court appointed special investigation team, probing Modi’s possible involvement in the riot, too was highly critical of the Gujarat chief minister’s irresponsible utterances and behaviour at a time of crisis. It is an irony that the Indian judicial system has in a stroke of judgement absolved Modi of all guilt and thus liberated his conscience. This despite an independent committee of eminent jurists’ acknowledgement – on the basis of Modi’s late cabinet colleague Haren Pandya’s confession – of Modi’s active role in keeping the law and order machinery passive during the riots. Intriguing it is that India Inc. is still lobbying for an individual who has also been found guilty of periodically promoting enmity on religious grounds by the judiciary appointed amicus curiae.” (Seema Sengupta, Modi at the helm would be a disaster for India.)
Opinions and observations on India’s Future
Modi tells the crowd that Saffron is the colour of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), of which he is the candidate in national polls next month, and is powerfully symbolic in Hinduism. Modi, a pro-business reformer in his home state of Gujarat, is also known for his strong Hindu nationalist leanings. He is accused by critics of turning a blind eye to deadly anti-Muslim riots in his state in 2002. Because of his anti-Muslim attitude, critics and columnists are predicting a dark days ahead of India.
Middle-East based writer and Editor of CaravanDaily.com, Aijaz Zaka Syed, observed, “The very constitution that the Republic Day celebrates and which promises freedom, dignity, equality and security to all its citizens is under siege. It would be a great tragedy if all that this great nation has achieved over the past 67 years as a democracy and as a society that remains a source of inspiration to the world is squandered. Do not let Gandhi’s dream die.”
In reply to my question at the Chatham House, London recently, the eminent human rights and women rights activist of India and a prominent lawyer, Vrinda Grover, said, “I think the Indian democracy is going to face its most serious challenge ever since its inception and this is something which will also have global repercussions. If he (Narendra Modi) does become the Prime Minister of the country you will have the complete change in the politics that the Constitution and the vision of the Constitution and the diversity of our society and what we will put out as laws and policies. But I do see that many across the world India is a market and India is an investment opportunity but I think some way we have to look at what is the impact it has having on the people of India particularly on the women in India and we do hope that those solidarity will also stand up there.”
Samajwadi Party national president Mulayam Singh Yadav said that BJP cannot be trusted as it is engaged in only in polarizing votes on religious lines for their own vested political interest. He said India is passing through a critical phase because leaders were acting like “Hitler.” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched a scathing attack on the opposition candidate for the top post, Narendra Modi. He said it would be disastrous for the country to have Modi as the prime minister, describing Gujarat’s chief minister as “someone who has presided over the mass massacre of citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad.”
Critics and columnists think the 2014 Indian general election is not simply a vote; it is a referendum on Indian future. Writing about this, Middle-East based writer and Editor of CaravanDaily.com, Aijaz Zaka Syed, observed, “It is part of the larger agenda and designs that the party and its extended family of various organisations, outfits and think tanks have for the incredibly complex, diverse country of a billion people with a myriad identities, cultures and communities. The threat is to the unity in diversity and pluralism that this nation has cherished and celebrated for centuries. This is not about Muslims and other minorities and their troubled relationship with a particular party. The is about the idea of India. If it is in peril, we are all in deep trouble.”
“The 2014 election therefore will be like no other. It will be a vote – a referendum, if you will – on India’s future. Few seem to be conscious of the radical ramifications of their electoral choice or the perils lurking around the corner,” commented Syed.
I would like to conclude with remarks made by an Indian, “To conserve our love for a democratic system in India and thereby sharing prosperity by all the citizens, "secularism against communalism" must be chosen by the electorate.”