National elections in the world’s largest democracy are underway, with around 800 million people lining up to cast their vote in over 930,000 polling booths. The massive election is set to span over a month. There’s certainly been a lot more focus on this year’s election in India, with foreign media and policy institutions devoting an extraordinarily large number of opinion pieces and fact sheets to this election, almost certainly because of the highly controversial nature of the main contenders this year.
Although structured as a multiparty system, power at the Centre in India has traditionally alternated between the two major political parties, the Indian National Congress (INC), the incumbent ruling party, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Dissatisfaction among the educated elite with both parties has meant that, for more than a decade, neither of the two major parties have been able to achieve an unqualified majority, necessitating coalitions with regional parties with vested interests and ultimately, riddling governance with political compromise. This seems set to change in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, with all three main contenders engendering deeply polarizing loyalties among the population.
The race for control over a population of 1.4 billion today is between: Narendra Modi, the Prime Ministerial candidate projected by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia Gandhi and heir to the legacy of the Gandhi family, supposedly spearheading the charge from the INC, and the United Progressive Alliance led by them (UPA); Arvind Kejriwal, upstart from the realm of civil society who started his own political party, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), after external activism to get an anti corruption bill passed which led nowhere.
The Charismatic Rally Point
The NDA, led by Modi, seems set to sweep the polls this year with a thundering majority. While the BJP has never attempted to tone down or disguise its ideological stance as the protector and savior of the ‘Hindu Nation’ of India, with the ‘Hindutva’ philosophy gaining considerable traction in states under their rule, speeches and promises in this election have had more overtly aggressive communal tones than usual, perhaps because of its leader. Currently holding power as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, in western India, Modi is perhaps the most controversial and talked about candidate in these elections, because of his alleged complicity in the 2002 riots in Gujarat which remain the most bloodthirsty and savage instance of communal violence in India’s recent history, with over a 1,000 Muslims losing their lives in the carnage. Ignited by the alleged involvement of Muslims in the incineration of 58 hindus in a train carriage while on a pilgrimage to Godhra, the resulting backlash lasted for months, with State authorities turning a blind eye to the violence and sometimes, reportedly, even taking part in the massacre.
The Gujarat riots remain one of the largest incidents of mass sexual violence in India in the last decade as well, with thousands of Muslim women and girls of all ages suffering systematic and brutal gang rape and violence. Subsequent investigations and litigation have proven to be fruitless, with very few convictions, victims of the massacre still living in makeshift conditions or ghettoes and suits for compensation still stuck in the lower judiciary in Gujarat. The incumbent Chief Minister’s role in it has been a perennial point of dispute, with preliminary investigations by state police dismissed by the Supreme Court as being tainted, and a Special Investigative Team finally concluding that there was insufficient evidence to mount a criminal charge of complicity against Narendra Modi.
At the time, observers believed his rise on the political front would be tainted by the legacy of the 2002 riots, but since then, allegations of fostering communal hatred have been countered by claims of economic development and good governance in the State of Gujarat. The veracity of these claims are disputed, particularly because the parameters usually used to indicate development, such as literacy rate, female infanticide rate, per capita income, population living above the poverty line, general life expectancy, still reflect conditions of living for the majority far below an acceptable level of development. Rather, the claims of development seem to largely stem from the high amount of investment made in Gujarat by big industries, notably Reliance Industries, the corporate linchpin of the Indian economy and the Chief Minister’s role in cultivating these relationships seems established.
Whether or not the industry’s involvement in Gujarat has in fact, led to improving conditions for its people is still far from being known, however, as claims of development ensuing from the investment are almost always being countered by complaints of illegal acquisition of land or inadequate compensation. Modi’s association with and obeisance to, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), two of India’s most powerful right wing organizations openly dedicated to not only the preservation of not just the Hindu religion, but India’s identity as a Hindu state, far from hurting his campaign, may in fact prove to be his winning chip. His rhetoric and oratory have been openly inflammatory and enticing to the disenchanted youth, who are fast beginning to view him as the only salvation for a crumbling country.
The Disgraced Heir
Rahul Gandhi may or may not prove to be a successful politician, time will tell. What is clear however, is that him being the face of the INC and the UPA has certainly not done them any good. Once the promising representative of the dissatisfaction and anger among the youth, his unpreparedness during interviews, lack of oratorical skills or the ability to draw out strong emotions from his listeners, and the predominant perception that his rise in the party is largely a consequence of his birth into one of India’s last remaining dynastic families- a perception he has not worked hard enough to dispel- have all led to him being one of the most derided contenders.
Inundated with scandals and corruption scams, inability to maintain law and order, lack of political will and numbers in parliament to push through any substantive reform, the UPA badly needed a charismatic and dynamic leader with intrepidity and foresight to present even a credible threat to the BJP, and so far Rahul Gandhi has failed miserably on all fronts. While some creditable reforms can be said to have been achieved in the time of the UPA, including the Food Security Bill, the majority of the public attention has been focused on stories exposing corruption in the allotment of natural resources. Television interviews of the ‘Prince’ have become a source of online mockery and amusement, and his stray comments to the media have all been emblematic of a man who is undecided about his political stance and future, leaving very little cause for hope for the INC.
The Promising Upstart
Arvind Kejriwal fought the political establishment from the other side of the fence, agitating for a strong anti corruption law without loopholes. With little headway being made however, the protégé of Anna Hazare split with his mentor and decided to enter the fray, contesting elections in the capital, New Delhi, earlier this year. In a completely unexpected reversal of political predictions, his party, the Aam Admi party (the common man’s party) swept the polls, with massive swathes of the educated elite in Delhi swarming to the poll booths to cast their vote.
The results in Delhi accurately reflected the national mood prevailing then, a deeply rooted disenchantment with the Indian government, disillusionment with both of the majority parties and a sense of hope among a population that had largely given up on political accountability. In a drastic move however, 44 days after he came to power, Kejriwal resigned after failing to gain the majority to convert the anti corruption bill into law, the platform on which he was elected. Other anomalies during his brief time in power included brief attempts by his Ministers to overrule the Delhi police, random arrests, searches based on stereotypical suspicions and support for archaic village institutions entrenching the patriarchy that holds Indian women prisoners.
To be fair, the candidate roster of the AAP list for these elections has some praiseworthy names, with a large proportion of educated candidates with clean records, Indian entrepreneurs from abroad who returned to heed the call of the AAP, and including in its list Soni Sori, a tribal woman arrested on suspicion of insurgent activity and systematically tortured by the Indian police for months. The brief performance of the party in Delhi raises doubts about their ability to actually govern and move away from protests, leading to hesitancy among a crowd that previously offered its unqualified support.
Opinion and exit polls show Narendra Modi, a lowly tea-vendor-turned-politician winning by a large margin. Being a powerful orator capable of tapping into the rebellious mood of the youth, reports indicate a very strong support base for him. But, as repeated coverage both in foreign media and some Indian media outlets have pointed out, Modi’s complicity in the 2002 carnage and the savagery which reigned unchecked cannot be ruled out, despite lack of evidence to carry a criminal charge. The fact that Modi has found support among educated youth is reflective of an Indian psyche that is quickly becoming intolerant of its minorities and the weaker sections of its society, fiercely supportive of a man who has dismissed all pretences of being secular or egalitarian with respect to women, and a willingness to forget a tragedy that should never be forgotten.
Linda Beatrice Louis.