Which way Modified India?

By Ameen Izzadeen
India’s prime minister-elect Narendra Modi is a conundrum. So it seems for the time being. From his alleged role in the massacre of Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat communal riots to his invitation to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff to attend his inauguration on Monday, analysts search for answers. How will he drive the economy? What will be his foreign policy? Will India’s Muslims be safe?
One thing is certain. Modi will do what he thinks is right for India. If he sees peace with Pakistan is a way to enhance India’s status as an economic powerhouse in the world, then he will pursue a policy of reconciliation and cooperation. This applies to India’s other neighbours, with which India has troubled relationships. They include Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Just as every democratic form of governance, India’s democracy is also not blemish free. Yet, it shines as a model democracy for its neighbouring countries where democracy shows a tendency to give way to authoritarianism. India has not seen a military coup since independence in 1947. Its democracy has been growing from strength to strength since independence, except during the emergency rule by India’s Iron Lady, Indira Gandhi, in the mid 1970s. It has a vibrant Right to Information Act, an anti-corruption Lokpal law, a powerful elections commissioner who does not hesitate to crack his whip on wrongdoers however powerful they are, and above all a vigilant civil society.
So Modi cannot be a dictator, even if he wants to; his India won’t move towards authoritarianism. Besides, a psephological analysis of the election results shows a staggering 69 percent of the voters did not vote for Modi’s Bharatiya Janatha Party. It belies the cry that there was a Modi wave across India.
Modi’s BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition together with allies such as such as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayaram Jaylalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam enjoys a two thirds majority in parliament, but there is little space in today’s democratic India for any constitutional coup to undermine democracy. The NDA won some 38 per cent of the total popular vote. Yet its MPs will comprise more than 60 per cent of the next Parliament. This anomaly is a major defect in the first-past-the-post electoral system. The last time a single party won a huge majority was in 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress Party were swept to power on a wave of sympathy following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The 400 plus seats the Congress and its allies had in the 530 plus seat Lok Sabha enabled the then Rajiv Gandhi government to wield the stick to command compliance from neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Sri Lanka, but at the same time it acted realistically in the greater interest of India.
Modi’s India will be no different. It will be as strong as the Rajiv Gandhi government and as pragmatic as the previous BJP government of Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998-2004). Vajpayee’s pragmatism averted a major nuclear war between India and Pakistan over the Kargil crisis in 1999. To improve relations with Pakistan, he also initiated confidence-building measures such as the bus service between the two parts of the divided Kashmir.
True, Modi has not shown that he has abandoned his Hindutva agenda and his links with the Rastriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS), a staunch anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistani group. During the campaign he sent mixed signals to India’s 150 million Muslims, saying he would be the prime minister of all Indians, but at the same time he vowed to build the Ram temple at Ayodhya where once the Babri Masjid stood like a Colossus until it was demolished by Hindu extremists in 1992.
India’s Muslims, who voted largely for parties other than the BJP, are beset with uncertainty over the Modi government’s policies towards minorities. Adding to their fears is the fact that none of the 330 plus NDA parliamentarians is a Muslim.
Last year a Supreme Court panel cleared Modi of any direct involvement in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat when he was the chief minister. But the Muslims fear he could be vindictive. In his Gujarat, Muslims have been affected by a state law that prohibits land sales between Hindus and Muslims. This has turned Muslim-majority areas into ghettoes. Similar land problems remain in Assam and a few other states amid simmering Hindu-Muslim communal tensions.
However, the 63-year-old Prime Minister-elect, who rose from being a Hindu radical to cut a superstar figure in Indian politics, has said that Muslims could trust him.
If the previous BJP government dominated by Hindu hardliners such as L.K. Advani was to be a criterion, then the Muslims should entertain no fears about the Hindutva agenda of Modi. The Muslims were more secure during the Vajpayee government than they were during the previous Congress government of P.V. Narasimha Rao who could not stop the demolition of the Babri masjid.
Besides, Modi is committed to a development agenda – more so to the market economy. A government cannot put the economy on the fast track unless it does not adopt a policy of providing equal opportunity to all and giving merit its due place instead of caste, class, creed or other prejudices.
Modi was the candidate of the Corporate India, which sees stability as a pre-requisite for economic takeoff. An India plagued by communal disharmony is not to its liking. Corporate India needs more foreign investments and is set to launch a major drive to project India as a better destination than China or any other Asian country for foreign investments.
It is the Corporate India together with India’s Corporate Media that created the Modi brand. How they made use of the strategies and tools of the marketing world and ruthlessly promoted Modi and branded him as India’s hope should become an essential lesson for marketing students. They created media hype about Modi and made sure that every Indian spoke about him before the elections. The campaign was planned well ahead of the elections day. The BJP on its part came out with the slogan ‘little government and more governance’. It was appealing and reassuring to Corporate India which in turn projected him as the man who could give the economy the gallop and cited the remarkable performance of Gujarat’s economy whose growth rate is four times the national figure.
On the other hand, the Congress Party’s campaign was a marketing disaster. Apart from being the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Congress Party chief candidate Rahul Gandhi had little to talk about his capabilities or achievements before an electorate which saw little lure in dynastic politics.
With the ailing Congress President Sonia Gandhi not playing the active role she played during the past two elections, Rahul Gandhi who held no cabinet post pledged to bring in more welfare measures and other left-of-centre policies. This distanced the Corporate India from the Congress camp. If only the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a world renowned economic reformist, had been fielded as the chief candidate, Congress would have fared better with the Corporate India placing some of its chips on the Congress Party symbol. Unlike Rahul, Singh had many achievements to show – laws that guarantee jobs for youth and the remarkable economic growth throughout his first term and the early years of his second term. He could have explained to voters that the sluggishness of the Indian economy in recent years was largely due to global factors. But Singh’s drawback was his age. He is 81. Besides, he was seen as a technocrat who danced to the tune of Sonia Gandhi.
The entry of the anti-corruption Aam Admi Party into the Indian politics also affected the prospects of the Congress Party. The AAP ate into what was essentially the Congress Party’s vote base.
The votes of India’s Muslims, the liberals and the secularists got split between the Congress, the AAP and other parties, making the BJP ultimate winner. Many Congress loyalists voted for the AAP because the outgoing government failed to act decisively with corrupt coalition partners. As a result, the Congress Party was reduced to a humiliating 42 seats in the next Lok Sabha. However, it can keep its hopes alive because Modi will find it difficult to run a clean administration because of his indebtedness to the Corporate India.
Now that Indians have voted in a strong government with a Hindu radical-turned-reformist as prime minister, the rest of the world is eager to know what its economic and foreign policies will be. It is unlikely that Modi will be another I.K. Gujral who during his premiership pursued a policy of appeasing India’s neighbours. His party has expressed concerns over inroads China is making in the region while Modi is seen as an uncompromising hardliner on national security issues. It is in this light that Modi’s invitation to South Asian leaders including Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend his inauguration on Monday assumes political significance.
The invitation to SAARC leaders probably shows the importance Modi attaches to relations with India’s neighbours and his urgency to sort out contentious issues such as Kashmir and cross-border terrorism (Pakistan); migration and river sharing (Bangladesh); and fishing and the Tamil issue (Sri Lanka). Whether he will cajole or browbeat the weaker neighbours to achieve India’s foreign policy goals is too early to predict. Will he seek a policeman’s role for India in South Asia and adopt a policy similar to the Indira doctrine? It is too early to predict.
It is also interesting to watch how the new Indian government will deal with the United States, which once refused to grant a visa for Modi because of his alleged role in the Gujarat riots. However, this issue is unlikely to cause a major dent in India’s relations with the US, a key partner on whom India depends for trade and civil nuclear cooperation. The Barack Obama administration has made overtures to the Modi camp and extended a hand of friendship.
Since the Modi government is serious about making India a world economic power, a confrontational approach with regard to neighbours and other countries could be counterproductive.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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