Naveed Ahmad |
Riding the wave of populism and charisma courtesy a clever, aggressive and tech-savvy campaign, Narendra Modi today holds stronger sway over India than he had since May 2014. This weekend, his party – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or India’s People’s Party – won a rare single-party victory in Utter Pradesh (UP) in three decades.
The most politically significant elections clear up quite a few misgivings about India’s response to Modi’s governance so far. Before analyzing the political landscape after the March 11 vote, here is a quick summary of recent developments.
BJP won in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand while Congress got some consolation with victory in Punjab. Manohar Parrikar has already resigned from defense minister’s post and will be leading a coalition government in Goa. The rightwing party Hindu-nationalist party is also mulling to form a coalition government in Manipur state.
The most significant of them all remains outcome of UP vote where 19 per cent population is Muslim and the state’s over 200 million population parallels the size of Brazil. In 2014 election, Modi had shrewdly chosen to contest from UP instead of his home state of Gujarat where he had ruled for 13 years. Then, the BJP bagged 73 seats of total 80, easing the way for Ahmadabad’s tea-boy to prime minister’s office.
The BJP has broken the record of 309 seats in 1980 by Indira Gandhi’s Congress after bagging 312 slots in the 403-member state assembly. The ruling party did not field a single Muslim candidate. Overall, the number of elected Muslim members in the house has fallen to 24 from 69, all of them sitting on the opposition benches.
Interestingly, Modi’s candidates sailed through in Muslim majority town of Deoband. Rarely do Muslims in India vote for a single party en bloc. The UP, a microcosm of India, saw near-perfect manipulation of voter psyche along with chic election engineering in choosing candidates or crafting rhetoric. Even Modi’s controversial decision of withdrawing high-value currency notes called demonetization proved no hurdle.
Some believe that it was seen as an act against black money aimed at the rich, giving a boost to his pro-poor stance. Numerous traders found his policies as business friendly while others backed him due to different factors like change or BJP’s choice of candidate.
Though saffron party’s impressive win can’t be attributed to any single factor, it’s a clear manifestation that India’s leftover secular character may completely erode in the next general elections.
India’s dilemma has been the lack of charisma and political astuteness within the opposition parties. For instance, Congress not only lacks leadership and strategy but also faces fierce infighting, thus the anti-Modi vote remained largely divided.
For foreign investors, Indians reposing trust in Modi creates a more conducive environment for businesses. For civil society activists, the BJP’s ascent means larger footprint of religion-centric politics.
The triumph of Hindutva extremists in India is anything but good news for Pakistan. The Modi government is already dubbing it as a sweeping endorsement of its policies, domestic and foreign, both. Delhi is further likely to pursue more aggressive posturing along the Line of Control (LoC) while upping the ante against Pakistan at the international fora.
Deployment of US-made drones along the LoC has already raised alarm bells in Pakistan as well as at the UN. António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, is rightly advised by aides to press for peace and resumption of talks between India and Pakistan. The UN and great powers must intervene before it’s a bit too late.
Observers privy to trends in cross-LoC firing and India’s deployment of troops see a greater likelihood of increasing hostilities with Pakistan in the summer. India’s recent missile tests and induction of a vast array of military systems complement the hawkish approach the BJP leadership has been pursuing.
The new ascent in Modi’s profile brings him almost at par with Jawaharlal Nehru’s popularity and electoral strength. Though court cases against him (like Zakia Jafri’s, wife of Congress Party leader Ehsan Jafri) for his role in Gujarat massacre remain pending in Indian courts, the world has conveniently moved on already.
With heightening the risk of limited conflict on Kashmir and little prospects of the resumption of talks with Pakistan, minorities in India, especially Muslims and Dalits, will suffer ever more hostile treatment on daily basis. The Modi government will press harder for changing the special status of Kashmiris in Indian constitution while engineering the demographics to Delhi’s advantage.
The BJP’s policies of trashing the Indus Water Treaty, use of the heavy-handed presence of Indian military in Kashmir and clamping down on dissent on the university campuses as well as in media houses won’t confront sane and credible opposition in the near future. The incumbent defense minister may further harden the policies as well as rhetoric aimed at Pakistan. The diplomatic belligerence and hawkish military posturing are there to stay for a few years.
In an ideal world, a statesman with resounding public support would like to leave aside populist policies and take an aim at resolving longstanding disputes. In BJP’s India, such a possibility requires a miracle given en mass presence of Hindutva hardliners in the cabinet and global military industrial complexes contesting for Delhi’s embrace. Personally, Modi is a proven self-preserving narcissist with the ambition to personify a warrior king. The more optimist ones are recommended to read Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s book titled Narendra Modi: The man, the Times.
Naveed Ahmad is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He is based in Doha and Istanbul. He tweets @naveed360. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.