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India 2014 Elections: Modi - Plumbing the low depths

by Praful Bidwai, 7 April 2014

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The News (Pakistan), April 05, 2014

Many Narendra Modi zealots are acting as if the man had already been sworn in as India’s prime minister, or as if that were inevitable. They take their cue from Modi’s March 29 statement in Chandigarh declaring himself India’s future PM. Modi says the people have already chosen the government; the election is a mere formality.

Such contrived, media-propagated hype about a ‘Modi wave’, bankrolled by corporations, hides four recent trends which suggest the election remains open-ended. Modi has doubtless an edge, but it isn’t great enough to ensure the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s election victory.

First, the Modi campaign has peaked and is losing momentum. Its impressive early gains have eroded with internal resentment over ticket distribution, and the difficulty of sealing alliances with other parties. Modi’s ‘56-inch-chest’ machismo and ultra-nationalism is sounding unimaginatively repetitious, even childish.

Second, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is in retreat and presents no alternative to the BJP. Caste/community-based regional outfits like Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, and West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress, Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK and Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal, will play major state-level roles. But they lack national-level coordination and trust.

Third, the Left parties are floundering. They are unsure of their prospects in their former bastions West Bengal and Kerala, and are experimenting with little-known candidates and independents. They have no strategy for crafting a non-Congress-non-BJP front. Left unity, long their major asset, is under threat. The Revolutionary Socialist Party has quit the Kerala Left front after 35 years, and the CPI and CPM are negotiating with rival groups in some states.

Finally, the Aam Aadmi Party’s campaign has lost some of its thrust and lustre. Although some AAP candidates (eg Medha Patkar) have grown stronger, its overall prospect and impact has declined. It’s no longer targeting ‘cronyism’ in a sustained way. The AAP faces serious inner-party dissidence. Its entire Gurgaon unit has quit, complaints abound about arbitrary candidate selection, and four AAP candidates have returned their tickets.

Meanwhile, Modi has introduced a confrontationist, viciously personal element into his campaign by his deplorable remarks branding the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal ‘AK-49’, obliquely referring to his 49-day Delhi tenure. This is patently absurd. Kejriwal had clearly distanced himself from AAP colleague Prashant Bhushan’s demand for a referendum on the use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the Kashmir Valley, in itself unobjectionable given the widespread sentiment there.

Modi has returned to unspeakably low-level attacks similar to those in 2002. He then said the Muslim victims of that carnage had turned their relief camps into “breeding factories” by practising the norm of “hum panch, hamare pachees”, implying that all Muslim men have four wives and don’t practise family planning.

Modi has recently desisted from using explicitly anti-Muslim language – for tactical reasons. But his persona and image remain steeped in rabid Hindutva. It’s impossible to miss the undercurrent of Islamophobia in his pronouncements, or those of BJP leaders like VK Malhotra, who called Delhi’s Jamia Nagar and Batla House “terrorist hubs”.

This vitiated the climate. Next came an indefensibly intemperate remark from the Congress’ Saharanpur candidate Imran Masood, who threatened to “chop” Modi “into pieces”. Masood was arrested and publicly condemned by Rahul Gandhi in his wife’s presence. By contrast, the BJP only issued a mild, token, reprimand to Malhotra.

The BJP has again shown its deep antipathy towards Muslims. It hasn’t fielded a single Muslim candidate in Uttar Pradesh. Worse, it has given tickets to three men accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots. Modi’s candidature from Varanasi is also meant to signify his claim to a “pan-Hindu” identity, from Somnath to Kashi.

Make no mistake. Despite the recent entry into the BJP of a few Muslim businessmen from Gujarat, some obscure Maulvis, and journalist MJ Akbar, who has been currying favour with the party for years, only a negligible number of Muslims are likely to vote for the BJP anywhere.

UP’s Muslims face a wrenching dilemma. In 2009, they voted in significant numbers for the then-growing Congress, which seemed a better bet than the Samajwadi Party which had tarnished its reputation by admitting former BJP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh despite his complicity in the Babri demolition.

Today, UP Muslims are even more disillusioned with the SP because of Muzaffarnagar, but the Congress isn’t really in the reckoning. So many Muslims will vote for the BSP, which has nominated the highest number of Muslim candidates of all parties (19 of 80).

The competition for UP’s Muslim vote, 19 percent of the total, will be fierce, especially in the 20-odd constituencies where they have sizable numbers. The BSP probably has the upper hand, although the SP, the Congress and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal cannot be written off. Muslims are likely to vote for whichever party is best placed to defeat the BJP in their constituency/region.

Whichever way the Muslim vote concentrates and divides, one proposition will stand. To make a successful bid for power, the BJP will have to do many things. It must on its own win 40-45 seats in UP and 20-25 seats in Bihar, and sweep all its ‘home states’ – raise its seat-tally in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh (total, 91 seats) from 45 in 2009 to 75-plus.

It must also do well in states like Maharashtra and Karnataka, and win new allies elsewhere (other than the Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, Lokjanashakti Party, Telugu Desam and DMDK at present). This alone can make the BJP the nucleus of an NDA which approaches the half-way 272 mark.

This is difficult, yet possible. But it means that the BJP must run a highly divisive communalised campaign, especially in UP and Bihar. This will get it into problems with some of its allies, which are far more comfortable with a Vajpayee-style ‘moderate’ leadership. It will also create a coalition that rejects difference, dissent, compromise and consensus.

But accepting and accommodating difference, even respecting it, is a precondition for a leader of the entire nation – as distinct from a buccaneer-challenger who deals with all opposition by crushing it, to win admiration from his committed supporters.

Yet, respecting difference is something that’s totally alien to Modi. He is incurably authoritarian by nature and has an obsessive ‘winner-takes-all’ approach. This can only have dangerous consequences for Indian democracy, which is based on delicate balances and the acceptance of the country’s great ethnic-cultural-religious diversity and political plurality.

India witnessed some of these consequences in the 1970s, first, in the rejection of the political system as altogether illegitimate under Jayaprakash Narayan’s ‘Total Revolution’ movement, and then, more brutally, under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

If Modi wins, his regime is likely to be even worse, with systematic attacks on civil and political rights, railroading of all legitimate opposition, despotic imposition of corporate-driven economic agendas, and further militarisation and communalisation of society, which will lead to harassment of conscientious citizens, and outlawing and repression of dissent.

Sadly, there isn’t enough awareness of these dangers, nor political mobilisation against them. The Left, with progressive regional parties, could have catalysed such mobilisation. The AAP too could have contributed to it. Alas, they are too weak to matter – largely because of their own mistakes.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.


The above article from The News is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use