By Kumar David –
Indian pre-election opinion-polls are notoriously unreliable and have made lousy predictions in the past; but we are stuck with them for want of anything else. The three most recent polls which closed in early April give the NDA 279, 275 and 310 seats in the 543 member Lok Sabha, the UPA 149, 126 and 122 and ‘Others’ 115, 142 and 111, respectively. The National Democratic Alliance is a BJP led alliance of centre-right and right-wing parties whose other significant members are the Anna DMK and Shiv Sena. The United Progressive Alliance is the Congress led group which partners with the Nationalist Congress of Sharad Pawarand and the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the latter has Lok Sabha seats only in Bihar. The CPI and the CPI(M), the left core, between them have five Lok Sabah members from Kerala and one from West Bengal.
‘Others’ is a term loosely used to lump together entities that do not belong to the NDA or UPA; especially the regional Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, the Bajujan Samaja and Samajawadi Parties of Utter Pradesh, and the two Andhra-Telangana parties. The two DMKs and two Communist parties sometimes count as ‘Other’ and sometimes as part of the NDA or UPA. Due to India’s first-past-the-post system some of the ‘Others’ poll huge numbers but fail to win Lok Sabha seats. A possibility this time is a hung parliament and ‘Others’ emerging as king makers. It’s all too complicated and details are not necessary for the purposes of today’s column. The reason I led off with this brief data survey is because despite India’s being the most important foreign election for us, the 11 April to 19 May seven-phase election has, surprisingly, attracted little attention in our domestic media.But let me repeat before moving on: Indian opinion-polls are notoriously unreliable. Results will be released on 23 May.
Modi’s strong if not winning suit is the economy. In the last five years the economy has powered ahead at 6.5% to 7.5% annual GDP growth and Modi has been a determined helmsman. Even if one disagrees with his policies, demonetisation has been the most controversial, it cannot be denied that he has stuck to his guns and pushed his plans with grit. This is why in opinion polls about “Who will make a better prime minister?” Modi leads Rahul Gandhi 2 to1 and Priyanka Gandhi by the same margin. On “farmer distress”, a critical vote pulling issue, Modi has surprising 65% approval, but on employment he trails by 42%-approval to 46%-disapproval. Unemployment has risen to a 40-year high. A strong pro-Modi factor is that his not personally corrupt and no member of his Cabinet has been investigated for corruption as far as I know.
This is a welcome change from previous Congress governments where senior figures were accused and some found guilty of bribery. The big case of incompetence and mismanagement, rather than corruption, against the Modi government is the Rafale deal. This is a controversy over the purchase of 36 multirole fighter aircraft at a cost of $8.8 billion from France’s Dassault Aviation. The previous Congress government had negotiated a $30 billion contract for 126 aircraft in 2012, but after interminable disputes the order was trimmed to 36 by the Modi government. Congress accused it of incompetence, mismanagement, and favouritism for Reliance Defence Limited, an Ambani owned firm.
The case went to the Supreme Court whose verdict gave the government a clean chit. I quote Wikipedia’s summary of the judgement: “The court dismissed all petitions seeking a probe of alleged irregularities and gave a clean chit to the Union government on all three aspects, viz., the decision making, pricing and selection of Indian partner. In its ruling the court said it studied the material carefully and was satisfied with the decision making process and found no evidence of wrongdoing.” I think one can generalise that high-level corruption is not a concern when appraising the Modi government’s copybook.
The other generalisation one can make is that if Congress-UPA win and Rahul Gandhi becomes prime minister the Indian economy will do less well. If one leaves aside political dislikes and Hindutva communalism and cold-bloodedly reflect on the economy, the simple fact is that Modi is better organised and in control than Rahul is likely to be; he has a clear set of targets and is more determined. I think even those who dislike Modi’s programme will grant that he is strong-willed. I grant that India’s above-average economic performance was not due to Modi-policies alone, global and cyclical factors were favourable (India has maintained very high growth rates since 2004, except 2009), but government policy did make a contribution. Since we are comparing alternative capitalist options it is reasonable to say that Modi will be more effective than the alternative.
Hindutva (Hindu-pride or Hind-ness)
The tilt to extremism and Modi’s links to Hindutva is a cause for worry. Communalism, not chauvinism or racism, is the word used in India to designate the principal sectarian axis of conflict. It denotes Hindu-Muslim tension and also Hindu antagonism to Christians. Hindutva does not target Sikhs and Jains but anti-Muslims emotions are widespread and historically rooted. These roots go back to numerous Muslim invasions from the founding of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 to the fall of the Moguls to the British Raj in 1858 – the East India Company had influence for 250 years before that. This has been exacerbated in the last 70 years by the horrors of partition in 1947.
As with the Dutugemanu-Elara episode and the conquest of Anuradhapura and founding of Polonnaruwa as the capital by Raja Raja Chola (Chola rule 993-1077AD), phantoms from the past are conjured up to resolve material conflicts and political scores of the present. “The traditions of dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living just when they are occupied in creating that which did not exist before. Precisely in such epochs they conjure up spirits of the past, copying names, battle slogans, and costumes to present the new in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language” (Edited). Hindutva in India, like chauvinism in Sri Lanka, conjures up the anger of the past to serve the battles of the present. The struggle for sectarian hegemony, whether racial or religious, is offered up as salvation of the nation and recovery of its lost glory and heritage.
The concern today is whether Modi is a warrior in the cause of Hindutva or whether he can be trusted with the fortunes of the Muslim people in the capacity of prime minister. There is no denying that he has an unsavoury record, but to be fair it is also evident that during five years in office he has to a substantial degree tried to free himself of an anti-Muslim image; Imuran Khan and Modi succeeded in defusing incipient war recently and the Indian government, wisely, refrained from playing the Muslim-card in the aftermath of Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. The shape of India as a secular republic is at stake and these steps by Delhi are reassuring.
At the periphery, it is less reassuring. About ten high-profile candidates have been banned from the election trail for 72 hours for hate speech, fuelling caste tensions and playing the religion card. Unsavoury tactics are used by candidates scrambling for votes. It is true that Modi has made an effort to change his image as an anti-Muslim zealot, reached out to the Bora and Muslim communities, spoken of the need to separate religion form politics, and tried to live down his apprenticeship as an RSS recruit. But can the Muslim community let down its guard; is there enough to persuade India that the man has been transformed? I quote an entire paragraph from The Economist of 2-8 March.
“Modi has not sparked the outright communal conflagration his critics, The Economist included, fretted about before he became prime minister. But his government has often displayed hostility to India’s Muslim minority and sympathy to for those who see Hinduism as under threat from internal and external foes. He has appointed a bigoted Hindu prelate Yogi Adityanath, as chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. A member of his cabinet presented garlands to a group of Hindu men convicted of lynching a Muslim for selling beef. Modi himself has suspended the elected government of Jammu & Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state, and used force to suppress protests there leading to horrific civilian casualties.”
On balance which way does the coin flip? Since this column has argued that Modi is very likely to be re-elected prime minister for another term, the important task is to be vigilant and not to be carried away by promises that may turn out to be hollow. India’s minorities and Indians committed to democracy must not let themselves be seduced. Even in the minds of those of us who have noted that a less Hindutva Modi does at times emerge, what guarantee is there that the more Hindutva incarnation will not resurface? Allies he is dependent on may call the shots after the elections and harsher communalism may resurface. For example, Mrs Pragya Thakur a Hindu zealot, suspected of orchestrating a bomb blast that killed six and injured 101 in Malegaon in 2008 and currently out on bail, is running on the BJP ticket. The first time a person charged with terrorism has been nominated for parliament in India! All this is a pity because Modi can discard these communal props and project himself as prime minister for all of India and thus win a much larger support base. Rather than envy Nehru he can aspire to Nehruesque stature and universal respect.
Till then qualms about Hindutva cannot be ignored, therefore the nation has to remain vigilant and the people ready to mobilise against communalism and for the defence of democracy. Modi may win (hopefully with a sharp rap on the knuckles) for economic reasons since Modi-NDP-BJP projects an image that gives greater confidence than the Rahul-UPA-Congress alternative and because of communal campaign rhetoric. All this be as it may, “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” and will remain a sine qua non in the post-election era.