Center for Strategic Communication

Patricia Lee Sharpe

If the past is predictive, there’s little reason to worry about the mechanics for India’s parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to begin on April 5 and roll across the country, phases by phase, for thirty-six days. What does worry me, for the first time, is some potential for violence.

Check the Numbers

Indian elections have been one of the wonders of the post-colonial political world.  To quote  Chennai’s highly respected The Hindu, “The numbers say it all.” With 814,500,000 people eligible to vote, the nine-phase election will utilize over 930,000 polling stations. It is, The Hindu boasts, “the largest and lengthiest democratic exercise in the world,” to which I add, “China, take note.” (As for Pakistan, note this: there’s never been a military coup in India.)

A polling process that goes on so long and involves so many candidates, officials and observers is bound to have some malfunctions, even some irregularities, including attempts to steal votes. Election after election, India’s non-political Election Commission has handled such instances to the full satisfaction of neutral observers by holding carefully scrutinized re-votes.  During any one election cycle, re-polling might affect a few dozen (or fewer) precincts, a miraculously minuscule percentage of the whole.

There’s no reason to expect that the Election Commission won’t handle next month’s elections just as competently. Efficiency and honesty will reign. But what will happen before the voters queue up? That’s the concern.

A Free-for-All?

Why? Because the violence-prone, Hindu chauvinist genes of the B.J.P. (Bharatya Janata Party) have been reexpressed in the state of Gujarat. Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi, a B.J.P. star, wants to move up to Prime Minister. His ambition would be easier to achieve if rival candidates weren’t wooing voters on his home turf. And so, when Arvind Kejriwal, the eager-beaver head of a brand new party, the Aam Admi or Common Man party, sought votes among local farmers, Gujarati cops clapped the intruder into jail overnight. He didn’t have a vote-hunting permit, they said.

Now this is very interesting. These over-achieving Gujarati cops were distinctly under-achieving when it came to protecting Muslims from Hindu extremist mobs some years ago. The police (notoriously responsive to B.J.P. needs) stood by, doing nothing, while hundreds of innocent Muslim men, women and children were slaughtered. Thugs (allegedly Muslim) had set fire to a train carrying militant Hindu activists back from Ayodya (see below), a ghastly murderous criminal act, but no excuse for gangs, with the not merely tacit cooperation of authorities, to declare open season on all Muslims. And who was Chief Minister at that time? The very same Narandra Modi. A pitifully few mid and low level officers eventually went to jail for facilitating the slaughter. As for Modi himself?  There wasn’t enough evidence (or courage) to convict him of being directly in the chain of command. Needless to say, Modi’s the darling of Hindu communalists.

Unfortunately, Kejriwal’s detention had a ripple effect in other states. When the news reached Aam Admi supporters, they took to the streets in fury. In Delhi, they also attacked the B.J.P. office, which brought criticism from the local press. As The Hindustan Times put it, “Now that it aims to be a national party, A.A.P. has to behave far more responsibly. It has to…make it clear that no indiscipline which results in disruption and chaos will be tolerated. The party is still in its infancy and many people are pinning their hopes on it.” 

Yes. The reform vote. The protest vote. However you label it, it’s up for grabs this year. That’s what agitates the B.J.P. No one expects the A.A.P. to win a huge number of Parliamentary seats during its first season, but Anna Hazare, the spiritual father of the A.A.P., is the second most trusted figure in Indian politics today, trailing only Modi himself, according to a recent Pew poll, and not by far.  Could this new element cause some electoral surprises? If so, the A.A.P.’s coalition-building heft could be a complication for Modi, whose anxiety has also surfaced in the state of Maharashtra, where his people have been pleading with local ideologues to unite in support of the B.J.P.  During an interview with The Hindu,  a former B.J.P president admitted that “I had a talk with Raj Thackeray to convince him not to field too many candidates for the Lok Sabha election. By fielding candidates, he will help the Congress-NCP by splitting the opposition vote.”

Raze Mosques, Ban Books, Exile Artists

Although some of Modi’s predecessors have played down the religious angle and stressed free market economics to broaden the party’s appeal, the B.J.P. nevertheless adheres to a militantly nationalist ideology based on a (this part is almost funny) Victorian re-interpretation of Hinduism known as Hindutva, and the party belongs to the same political family (aka parivar) as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S.). As the Hindustan Times says, “Few are convinced that the R.S.S. has no role in B.J.P. politics.” 

In its early days R.S.S. members donned khaki, marched around and provided intimidation services for the Hindu Mahasabha and other Hindu nationalists in the manner of coeval Brown and Black Shirts in pre-World War II Europe. It was banned in 1948, after an over-zealous member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for being too tolerant of Muslims and too reformist vis-à-vis Hinduism, as in treating “untouchables” like fellow human beings. Reactivated as a “cultural” organization, with a leadership overlapping that of the superficially benign B.J.P., the R.S.S. in 1992 recruited a mob to raze the centuries-old Babri mosque in Ayodya, alleging it had been built over the ruins of a temple honoring the Hindu man-god Rama. Eventually, the courts intervened, dispatching teams of archaeologists to excavate for evidence of Ram’s temple. In the end, with the mosque destroyed and signs of a temple wholly lacking, the judges split the difference: Hindus and Muslims get to use court-allocated portions of the disputed site. Naturally, neither side is happy.

Moving forward to 2013, Hindutva sympathizers have been responsible for the Indian High Court’s decision to ban a book by an eminent American Sanskrit scholar on the grounds that its erudite version of a polycentric Hinduism shaped by a multitude of Vedic and non-Vedic traditions might hurt the feelings of some Hindus. As a result, naturally, sales of the ebook version have soared, but fears of violence, if not a justification for the decision, were also not totally unfounded. There were angry demonstrations over attempts to sell Salman Rushdi’s Satanic Verses, which was banned to spare Muslim sensibilities.

And here’s a truly sad case of triumphal, puritanical Hindu communalism: death threats forced M.H. Hussein, India’s most acclaimed modern painter—if you want a Hussein, think in terms of seven figures in U.S. dollars at Sotheby’s—to spend his last days in exile. His “crime”? He, a secular, perhaps even heretical Muslim, had dared to paint some Hindu goddesses veiled (at best) diaphanously. Anyone familiar with the buxom, bare-bosomed devis on Indian temples would have to ask: how else would anyone paint a Hindu goddess? But no one has ever accused religious fundamentalists, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, of sophisticated cultural criticism.

The Twilight of the Congress

All in all, then, the B.J.P. bunch and its buddies don’t like competition, which is to say, free expression of the political, cultural or religious variety. Like most bullies, however, they prefer their victims to be weak. When Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi made a campaign stop in Gujarat not too long ago, this normally prudent campaigner compared Narendra Modi to Hitler—and yet, unlike Arvind Kejriwal, he got away unmolested. Fascists steal farmland to benefit industrialists, Rahul declared, and stealing from the poor is what the apparent prosperity of Modi’s Gujarat is built on. Pretty strong stuff, but the cops made no move, and I for one can’t imagine a formal rally permit had much to do with the hands off stance.

Why not? Not only is Rahul the unofficial standard-bearer of the Congress Party in this election, he’s the great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of Indira Gandhi and the son of Rajiv Gandhi, whose widow has run the party ever since her husband was assassinated, waiting, waiting, waiting, for her son to grow up, to mature politically, to capture the public’s admiration and to carry on the family tradition of running the country, thus racking up a fourth prime ministership. Meanwhile, Manmohan Singh, an octogenarian and once redoubtable economist who became a transformational Finance Minister, has been serving as caretaker Prime Minister for a Congress-led coalition government at the Center.

And thus, year after year, an essentially leaderless Congress has been marking time. The anointed one has repeatedly disappointed, but no one else has got the nod. And therein lies the tragedy for a once unbeatable Congress whose current weakness fuels the ambitions of the B.J.P., the A.A.P. and a number of formidable state- or caste-based parties, which have long since seized power at the state level, even in Uttar Pradesh, the home state of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Nice Guys Finish Last

Rahul Gandhi is a nice guy, which is why the desperate Hitler analogy surprised everyone, but he’s been politicking for more than ten years now, and he still doesn’t fire anyone’s enthusiasm. No compelling vision, no charisma, he’s liked personally, but not as a leadership figure. Meanwhile, the Congress (as political party, not family fiefdom) is suffering from an even more serious problem: graft and corruption on a scale that a very free press has pounced on, and the voters want a change. (In fact, the A.A.P. springs from a movement that gained visibility through dramatic protests against corruption.) Worse, perhaps, economic growth, never as robust as China’s, has stumbled, for reasons discussed in The Economist this week. As a result, recent Indian polls have gathered data showing that potential voters favor the B.J.P at a ratio of 60% to 40% over Congress.  Pew Global, as of January 2014, had collated even more impressive percentages for the B.J.P.: 70% B.J.P., 20% Congress, 10% other.

Unfortunately for the ambitious Mr. Modi, the elections next month won’t be the end of the road to the prime ministership, even if he reaps the largest seat bloc in Parliament.  To gain a majority he’ll probably have to build a coalition, possibly including parties that have made alliances of convenience with Congress in the past. Pre-election scuffles probably preclude cooperation from the A.A.P, but that marriage was unlikely anyway.  It would seem that the fledgeling A.A.P. is closer to Congress than to the B.J.P. on social issues, while equidistant from both on the urgency of eliminating graft.  Meanwhile, the A.A.P. has been  campaigning gamely, building up the fledgeling party by recruiting well-respected candidates from many professions.  Arvind Kejriwal, who astonished political pundits when he broke the Congress stranglehold on Delhi state last December, insists that there’s no “Modi wave.”  But, he says, there is “a wave of people’s anger….And if this anger is channelised, a major change would occur.” Kejriwal, naturally, is doing his best to whip the anger into a tidal wave for the A.A.P.  Given his electoral feat in Delhi, he may have earned the right to hope against hope. 

It’s not over Until the ballots Are Counted

Angry or just unhappy, Indian voters are restive.  Although the polls strongly favor the B.J.P., I’m not making any predictions. I’m only hoping that a heated election doesn’t get any hotter— and that a B.J.P.-headed coalition, if the ballots and the subsequent horse-trading go Modi’s way, will govern from the culturally and religiously tolerant political center.  And do something about graft.