Ambassador Najmuddin A. Shaikh |
The Indian Lok Sabha election conducted from 11 April to 19 May is finally over. The results announced on 23 May show that 60.37 crore votes were cast in the election, representing 67 percent of the 900 million eligible voters the highest ever turnout in Indian Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP secured 303 seats, well above the 273 required in the 543 seat Lok Sabha for a clear majority. Its principal rival, Congress party secured 54 seats a marginal improvement on the 44 seats it won in 2014, and one short of the number required to be the leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha.
This result was surprising even for the BJP leaders, one of whom had earlier during the election campaign, asserted, as an almost boastful claim, before exit polls were released, that the BJP would get the same number of seats as they had secured in 2014.
The BJP secured 303 seats, well above the 273 required in the 543 seat Lok Sabha for a clear majority.
What were the factors that brought about the massive success primarily of Prime Minister Modi and secondarily of the BJP? The first and perhaps the most important was PM Modi himself or, as many Indian and foreign observers suggest, the duo party president Amit Shah and PM Modi.
They put forward a message of Hindu hegemony, arousing nationalist fervour that in advancing Hindutva automatically targeted India’s largest minority-170 million Muslims. One effect of the BJP’s vitriol was by the time the campaign wound down; no party was prepared to woo the Muslims or listen to their woes, even when they were more than 25 percent of a particular constituency.
A national register of citizens to remove Muslims from India?
The NRC (National Register of Citizens), first promulgated in Assam in 1951, called for the expulsion of all those who could not prove their Indian citizenship or eligibility for such citizenship. It was controversial and seen as legally challengeable, but Amit Shah, quoted as saying, “We will ensure implementation of NRC in the entire country. We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus, and Sikhs”.
This sort of sectarian prejudice has always existed in caste-ridden India and, to a much lesser degree, prevails in Pakistan too. The room for giving it homicidal articulation has, however, expanded greatly under Modi and has won him kudos and not brickbats. Anti-Modi and pro-secularists have decried the fact that secularism was fading in what was once touted as the world’s largest secular democracy. Mobs have lynched Muslims since Modi came into office for such offenses as eating beef, dating Hindus and refusing to vacate their seats for Hindu commuters on crowded trains; this too has won him votes.
Elections: Rich man’s war
Finance has also been important. The BJP war chest was enormous. Theoretically, the Indian Election Commission has laid down limits on the amount that can be spent on elections and on what individuals or corporations can donate. In practice, this went by the board, and one estimate by Bloomberg was that the expenditure incurred was Rs.50,000 crores or 7 billion dollars; in comparison, estimates of the 2016 US Congress and Presidential election were $6.5billion.
The first and perhaps the most important was PM Modi himself or, as many Indian and foreign observers suggest, of the Party President Amit Shah and PM Modi.
An Indian Think Tank Association for Democratic Reform calculated that the BJP took in 73 percent of the donation declared by the seven most significant political parties. The report also showed that the BJP had spent Rs.260 million for ads on social media while Congress had spent only Rs.35 million on this potent canvassing tool.
As also happens in Pakistan, but in India on a much larger scale, gifts to individual voters or groups were generously offered some of them were nabbed and confiscated by EC officials, but what was caught (reportedly about $ 1 billion) represented, as again in Pakistan, only a minuscule portion of what was distributed to willing recipients.
The Party which Gave Birth to BJP
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), we have always known as the organization which gave birth to the BJP. It was the organization which gave PK his start. For many years it had lost its appeal for the educated elite who perceived it as regressive. However, in the Modi era, it is no longer the party of the relatively poorer sections of society.
This organization, which claims to have more than 6 million members, with annual addition running into the hundreds of thousands, has become fashionable among the Indian middle and upper-class consumers numbering 600 million. This change in demographics even led to the RSS changing its uniform in 2016, substituting its symbolic Khaki shorts for, now smart brown trousers designed by a top fashion house.
The RSS with its new membership and by natural extension the new BJP supporter group is another factor that propelled the BJP to its victory. One should note that in the past, BJP leaders were said to take their instructions from the RSS leadership. This time, perhaps, PM Modi will ask them to accept his leadership.
All these factors while important, however, all paled in comparison to what PM Modi mesmerized the Indian voter into believing after the Balakot attack in February 2019, which made him into a decisive leader; a muscular leader; a nationalist leader and this last quality made a vote for him a ‘vote for the nation’.
Juicing the Balakot Attack
When there were reports, taken seriously by our Foreign Minister, that there would be another Balakot-like attack between the 16 and 20 April, it was speculated that PM Modi had milked the attack for all the gain that he could get for the elections. That he had, despite all the evidence to the contrary, coming from impeccable western sources about the failure of what the raid’s stated aims; nevertheless, been able to strengthen his image as a 56-inch chest, decisive leader who had hit Pakistan. “Ghar main ja kar mara.”
Theoretically, the Indian Election Commission has laid down limits on the amount that can be spent on elections and on what individuals or corporations can donate.
There is no doubt that he would not have had the success he did, were it not for the compliant Indian media which took up and multiplied the chauvinistic frenzy he created. It was inevitable at the time that there was no chance he would try another attack since retaliation was a surety and would only nullify the benefits he had already accrued.
It was true to much extent, but what was misjudged was the extent to which the Indian public had been brought round to the thesis that PM Modi was making India great internationally. It is against this background that we have to see what the future holds for Indo-Pak relations.
PM Imran Khan Sends Best Wishes
PM Modi responded very promptly to PM Imran Khan’s congratulatory message which said, “Look forward to working with him for peace, progress and prosperity in South Asia” and while not directly endorsing the call for working together but rather, very neutrally, stated; “I have always given primacy to peace and development in our region.”
Earlier, there was what appears to have been an impromptu meeting between our Foreign Minister and his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, at the SCO meeting in Bishkek, where our offer to resume dialogue was reiterated. There was nothing said that would indicate a positive response from FM Swaraj, but the meeting was cordial and our FM was offered the lotus-shaped sweetmeat that the BJP had ordered to celebrate PM Modi’s victory.
Is this a good beginning? It could be
In the turbulence created by the continuing US-China trade standoff, the Iran sanctions, and the Yemen situation, India may have to cope with many complexities not owed directly to the region, apart from the Afghan situation, which is one where the region’s countries are deeply involved. It will create not just political but economic problems.
Indian public had been brought to the thesis that PM Modi was making India great internationally.
Because of this, having won by fanning nationalist sentiment, PM Modi has to now tackle with greater urgency, India’s economic problems that were conveniently set aside earlier. He starts with an advantage internally. He has convinced his electors that he is personally not corrupt the scandal of the Rafale purchase and the contract to Ambani was played up by the Congress but not in a way that resonated with the people.
The distress caused by demonetization, however, remains, as does the unemployment question (10 million jobs annually). India, if it is to maintain its growth rate, has to enlarge labour-intensive manufacturing and create service sector jobs for the educated graduates, many of whom today are applying for government jobs no matter how lowly.
India’s internal need to repair relations with Pakistan
Repairing ties with Pakistan would open the door to an economically viable overland trade with Central and West Asia while boosting trade within SAARC. It is perhaps worthwhile mentioning the World Bank Study, “Glass half full,” which probably, over-optimistically suggests that the SAARC regional trade could rise to $67 billion. Many Indian businessmen, some known to be part of “Corporate India” that contributed to Modi’s election war, are aware of this and want to benefit from it.
India may have to cope with many complexities not owed to the region, apart from the Afghan situation, which is one where the region’s countries are deeply involved.
This is a sensible thing to do. Many members of the international community will suggest that India should move in this direction and as a first step, resume dialogue with Pakistan, assuaging, if not eliminating the threat to a confrontational relationship between the two nuclear powers. India could then also discuss with Pakistan, with support from the international community, the “verifiable and irreversible steps” Pakistan was taking in its battle against terrorism to eliminate alleged terrorist/extremists from its soil.
Unfortunately, from India’s perspective, this would run contrary to India’s need to have Pakistan seen as an epicentre of terrorism directed against India. Only if this happens, then India can continue to maintain that the indigenous and intensifying struggle against the Indian Occupation Forces, is not indigenous but turbulence created by terrorist infiltrators from Pakistan.
It will continue to deny the UN any role in highlighting the travails of the Kashmiri people and will not allow independent observers from organizations like the Amnesty International or the International Crisis Group access to Kashmir and will use its growing diplomatic clout to prevent any discussion at an international forum.
What does Modi intend to do on Kashmir?
However, if the new BJP government moves to implement its manifesto promise of abrogating Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which protects the rights of the Kashmiri people and lays down the special status of Kashmir in the Union; and cancels the Kashmir legislation Article 35a, which forbids the acquisition of property in Kashmir by a non-Kashmiri, there will be even more strife in the region and even more reason for India to make Pakistan the scapegoat.
Repairing relations with Pakistan would open the door to economically viable overland trade with Central and West Asia while boosting trade within SAARC.
Of course, the abrogation of Article 370 will require passage from both houses and in the Rajya Sabah, the BJP and its allies, currently, do not have a majority. Perhaps this may mean they would have to wait for some more state elections since it is these state assemblies that elect the members of the Rajya Sabha. The process may take some time, but the Kashmiri people will react negatively as soon as they see the process getting underway.
As a necessary corollary, India as the co-chairman of the Asia-Pacific Group, is likely at the meeting of the FATF to be held later this month (June) to concede that Pakistan has made considerable advances in legislation and setting up of anti-money units in various offices; but it would argue that this can only permit Pakistan to remain on the Grey list rather than being moved to the Blacklist.
Issues with the Iron-Brothers
Last, it is crucial to mention the jaundiced eye with which PM Modi views Pak-China ties and the potential that CPEC holds for promoting regional trade and the region’s trade with the rest of the world. This too would weigh with the business community in India and perhaps would also influence political thinking, once there are tangible results from the efforts China and India appear to be making, to strengthen their economic ties, despite the border dispute and despite India’s strategic alliance with the USA, and what this entails in terms of the Indian role in the newly named Indo-Pacific region.
It is another element that one would want to keep a watchful eye on. To conclude, as much as I would like to be able to interpret the exchange of messages between the two Foreign Ministers and two Prime Ministers, as offering the possibility of a thaw and a resumption of dialogue, my assessment can only be that the prospects are not good.
Ambassador Najmuddin A. Shaikh is the Former Foreign Secretary and Former Ambassador to the USA and Iran. Currently, he is the head of Global and Regional Security Studies, a think tank of the IoBM, a Karachi based University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.