With about one fifth of world population living in its countries, South Asia is one of world’s most populous regions. It has also wider significance – politically, militarily and economically. India and Pakistan, the two largest countries of the region, are both nuclear powers and arch rivals. Their military rivalry that manifest through arms race, border clashes and supporting each other’s insurgent groups, is a continuous source of threat to regional as well as international security. Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India are hotbeds for terrorism and extremism of multiple varieties – religious, leftist or ethnic. The countries of the region collectively are inhabited by largest numbers of poor in the world. The widespread poverty is exacerbated by sexism, classism, casteism, ethno-religious discrimination and socio-spatial marginalisation. Despite the persisting political and social odds, South Asian economies have been growing. According to World Bank reports, the region’s combined GDP has been growing consistently year on year. The regional GDP is set to exceed six percent in 2016 when South Asia will become second fastest growing region in the world after East Asia. The economic growth is reflected in rapid urbanisation with nine of world’s 35 mega-cities in South Asia.
South Asian politics have been quite eventful in 2014. It was a year of mega-events in national politics: parliamentary elections in India, Bangladesh and Maldives, presidential election in Afghanistan, campaigning for early presidential election (scheduled in January 2015) in Sri Lanka, anti-government demonstrations in Pakistan, and breaking of political deadlock in Nepal. In this multi-part series, I am going to review the political dynamics of the South Asian countries in the preceding year beginning with India. The following parts will dwell on national politics of the other regional countries.
World’s largest democracy India in last year had one of its most publicised parliamentary elections in recent times. There was landslide victory for main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by its charismatic Prime Minister (PM) candidate Narendra Modi while the incumbent Congress party had its worst defeat in history. Atypical of India’s parliamentary system where the party rather than the leader is in focus, Modi was at the epicentre of BJP election campaign that is more akin to US presidential election.
A Congress defeat was already evident even if not in such historic low. Anti-incumbency against Congress-led alliance was huge with accumulated allegations of corruption and malgovernance from a decade in government. What finally went against them was sudden economic downturn from the middle of 2013 that saw free-fall of Indian Rupee and spiraling inflation. Again, BJP track-record was not exceptionally better in most of the states it formed government. In bulks of state legislature elections that held prior to national election, Congress and its allies performed dismally. While BJP or its allies fared better than Congress in those elections, their performance wasn’t exceptional.
So, the big difference between BJP and Congress in the national election was Modi factor. In the context of corruption and bad governance, Modi offered a leadership profile that was high in demand yet scarce to find. As the three-times elected Chief Minister of south-western Gujarat state, he had an uncorrupted image and credit for a highly performing state economy that boasted double-digit GDP growth for about a decade. For the latter reason, he already became the preferred PM candidate of the country’s business elite who graciously bankrolled his election campaign.
However, Modi was not without any baggage. He is alleged by many quarters for abating and even provoking the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 in Gujarat that caused more than 2,000 deaths, gruesome violence against woman and widespread devastation of Muslim property and religious sites. This even earned him the label ‘Merchant of Death’ in liberal circles. There were even court cases against Modi in connection with the pogrom that never progressed due to his political influence. In the international reaction during and after the pogrom, Modi was denied visa in some countries including the United States. Several years after the pogrom, an Special Investigation Team (SIT) formed by Indian Supreme Court found no evidence of inciting hatred or administrative negligence during the Gujarat pogrom against Modi. But a web-based newspaper of India revealed Modi’s interview with SIT to manifest selective facts, evasion, amnesia, outright lies and rhetoric. The report also noted that the SIT probe was without any teeth and Modi knew well that investigators could not press him beyond a certain point.
Through his graduation to national leadership at the helm of triumphant BJP, Modi enjoyed a self-incarnation, a sort of Gangasnan (ritual dip in the river Ganges that is said to washes away one’s sins). With an electorate searching ways out of economic woes, Modi the orator he is could convince cross sections of voters trade off his managerial skills and financial honesty for his dubious role during the Gujarat pogrom. That was the tone of his campaign that highlighted ‘Gujarat Model’ of economic development and promised its replication for entire India. Religious symbolism that characterise BJP political communication was there but as the sub-text rather than the main text. Although Modi himself or BJP on his behalf didn’t make any overture to Muslims and other minorities, there was lesser invoking of Hindutva a.k.a. Hindu nationalism.
Following the triumphant entry to power in New Delhi, Modi charisma is still delivering one after another. He sent off a positive diplomatic signal when he invited to his inauguration all the heads of governments of neighbouring countries including Pakistan. He was quick in operationalising his governing mantra “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance” by downsising ministries and agencies. India’s growth rate is recovering and inflation is declining – a positive economic trend that is interpreted by the World Bank as ‘Modi Dividend’ for the economy. But there was still Modi dividend left to be reaped by BJP, now in state legislature elections. In the seven state elections held during and after the national election, BJP swept most of them riding on the Modi fever. Most striking were the elections of Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) states. In the former, BJP won single majority without any alliance for the first time. In J&K, the only Muslim majority state, BJP emerged as the second largest party.
Modi and his party BJP are products of Sangh Parivar, a family of right-wing Hindu nationalist organisations affiliated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). BJP parent RSS recently introduced Ghar Wapsi (Returning Home) programme that stipulates conversion of Muslims and other minorities into Hinduism. It assumes that followers of religions other than Hinduism were originally Hindus and they will be brought back under Hinduism through this programme. RSS already claims success of the programme in converting several thousand Muslims and Christians. Despite the move generating lot of negative headlines and criticism, Modi has been silent while BJP claims that the party has nothing to do with Ghar Wapsi. Again, BJP government hasn’t yet taken any action against the programme while there are clear laws in India against such activities.
BJP is the political wing of RSS and Modi began his public career as a pracharak (campaigner) of RSS. Coming from such a political background and with darkness of Gujarat pogrom in his past, Modi could successfully rebrand himself as a broad-based leader on his way to premiership. Doubt remains though, how long BJP as ruling party with Modi as its PM can maintain sufficient distance from Sangh Parivar ideology in governing the multi-religious and multi-ethnic India. Ghar wapsi and some other developments as well as provocative speech-acts of some representatives of BJP and RSS are creeping indications to the contrary. If Modi and BJP are unable to restrain such tendencies, their big plans for India’s governance and development can miserably derail. Then there will be greater chaos in ever complex Indian polity while the pledge of acchhe din (good days) as invoked during the 2014 national election campaign of BJP will be unmet.