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Indian politics redefined -- development over dynasty

Muhammad Zamir | June 03, 2019 00:00:00

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) with Union Ministers Rajnath Singh (left) and Amit Shah (right) during the first cabinet meeting of his second term in office, at the Prime Minister's Office, in South Block, New Delhi on May 31, 2019. —Photo courtesy: PTI via the Internet

After docking up more than 140 rallies while chasing a second term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has ended up scoring a dramatic election victory. The cult of personality politics was evident all the way. Through this process, he has increased his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) majority in the Lok Sabha. He, with the help of Amit Shah, President of the BJP, has reaffirmed the party's mandate pertaining to business-friendly policies and a tough stand on national security. This has helped the BJP to exceed survey forecasts in the run-up to the vote. This win has been an affirmation for Mr Modi. He has become the first leader since 1971 to secure a single party majority twice in a row in the Indian Lok Sabha.

Patriotic music, headgear marked with the words "Na Mo again" stamped on it, waistcoats similar to the one worn by Modi, white beards and wigs, saffron vests - all helped to create a vast pool of look-alikes at every Modi rally. Electronic media showed vast crowds whooping, screeching, and whipping out mobile phones as they chanted "Modi, Modi", Bharat mata ki jai (victory for mother India) in unison. Mr Modi also encouraged audience interaction and devoted time to criticise his main opponent, Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi. He did not hold back in his attacks on the opposition and that included criticism of his opponent's dead father Rajiv Gandhi (a former Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1991), as "corrupt number one". Subsequently, however, this political incivility was made up by showing respect to Rajiv Gandhi on his death anniversary.

Modi's dramatic election victory has reinforced a global trend of right-wing populists sweeping to victory, from the United States to Brazil and Italy, often after adopting harsh positions on protectionism, immigration and defence.

The BJP has kept its core states -- the Hindi heartland, Gujarat and Maharashtra -- while posting fresh victories in West Bengal, Odisha and the Northeast. It has also scored a huge win in Karnataka - a state the Congress rules jointly with HD Kumaraswamy.

Most election forecasts had indicated a possible victory for Modi's alliance but had expected it to fall short of an overall majority. This was because Modi was under pressure when he began campaigning, losing three state elections in December amid rising anger over farm prices and unemployment.

Rahul Gandhi, has won a seat in the Lok Sabha from Wayanad, Kerala but lost in Amethi - a seat long held by his family, to a former minister of Modi government. Rahul has remarked that "people of India have decided that Modi should be the Prime Minister, as an Indian person I accept it." Subsequently, he offered to resign as President of the Congress but this was not accepted by his Party. Nevertheless, Congress's continued slide has now raised questions about its future, why its electioneering efforts had little contact with the grassroots and its inability in the use of social media for gaining attention of the broad spectrum. One hopes that the Congress and its allies take this seriously.

Barring Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Bihar, the Congress failed to enter into alliance with key regional parties in most of the other big states including West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh where it was kept out of the tie-up between Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samajwadi Party. This did not help the Congress and the SP-BSP in UP. As the opposition votes fragmented, the BJP walked away with majority of the 80 seats in UP. Along with its allies, the BJP also swept Bihar and Maharashtra, the two states with a total of 88 seats.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been one of the first few to call Indian Premier Narendra Modi and extend congratulations to him on his party's landslide victory in the 17th Lok Sabha elections. She noted that the verdict was a reflection of the trust reposed on Modi by the people of India and reiterated that Bangladesh attaches highest importance to its multi-faceted relations with India. She also expressed hope that "with the renewed mandate given to both of us by our respective peoples, Bangladesh-India ties will be further consolidated and our relations will scale newer heights." She has invited Modi to visit Bangladesh at his convenience.

Other neighbours and foreign leaders to congratulate Modi on his polls win include Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, Portugal Prime Minister António Costa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong, and Bhutan's Prime Minister Lotay Tshering. There have also been congratulations from US President Donald Trump.

Modi's pledge of a strong stand against any separatist movement in Muslim-majority Kashmir has fuelled tension with nuclear-armed rival Pakistan but its Prime Minister, Imran Khan has congratulated Modi on his victory. Modi has responded by thanking Khan through a tweet: "I warmly express my gratitude for your good wishes. I have always given primacy to peace and development in our region."

Some analysts have made some interesting observations after the election results were confirmed. While acknowledging Modi's achievement they have drawn attention to several factors that the re-elected Indian government will have to address. Unemployment has risen to a record high, farm incomes have plummeted and industrial production has slumped. Many Indians have also been hit hard by the currency ban (also known as demonetisation), which was designed to flush out undeclared wealth. There have also been complaints about what critics have termed a poorly-designed and complicated sales tax. During his various rallies Mr. Modi has reiterated to the audience that he needed more than five years to undo more than "60 years of mismanagement". Voters agreed and have given him more time. Let us see what happens now.

The foreign media - both print as well as electronic - have acknowledged that a mixture of development and nationalism has worked in Modi's favour. There has been a subtle juxtaposition of nationalist rhetoric, religious polarisation and a swing of welfare programmes, and these have helped the BJP considerably. Mr. Modi and the BJP managed to fuse nationalism and development. On one hand, he promised the citizens, particularly in the rural areas, safety and security through the protection of India's "land, air and outer space". Mr Modi carefully used national security and foreign policy as vote-getters in a manner never seen in a general election in recent history. On the other, he also targeted welfare schemes for the poor - homes, toilets, credit and cooking gas. In this context, the BJP promised that the use of technology would assure speedy delivery. Mr Modi's strident nationalism as a main campaign plank seems to have overruled the more pressing economic problems facing voters. However, he will now need to do more, in particular by reducing red tape and protectionism. This will reinvigorate the economy and improve ease of doing business. This can boost economic growth and attract foreign investors. This will help generate employment. Mr. Modi also needs to take a comprehensive look at the shadow banking sector and mutual funds industries as there appears to be inadequate safety net and legal system for loan recovery

Mahesh Rangarajan has correctly noted that the most significant development in recent times has been the geographical expansion of the BJP. Traditionally, the BJP always found its strongest support in India's populous Hindi-speaking states in the north. The exceptions were Gujarat, Mr Modi's home state and a BJP bastion, and Maharashtra, where the BJP has governed in alliance with a local party. However, since Mr Modi became PM in 2014, the BJP has formed governments in key north-eastern states like Assam and Tripura, which are primarily Assamese and Bengali-speaking.

At this point one can only hope that the Modi government over the next five years will restrain itself from advocating communalism and pursue the path of secularism and upholding of human rights irrespective of religious persuasion. During the election campaign, the BJP President Shah fuelled nationalist sentiment by accusing his rivals of appeasing Muslims with funding for clerics and religious schools. In this context, he hinted that West Bengal was turned into a replica of neighbouring Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country. Shah also kicked off a campaign last month against alleged Muslim immigrants in West Bengal and Assam, likening them to termites, while backing citizenship measures for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs from neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

It would also be interesting to refer here to the emergence of Muslim lawmakers after this latest election. The number of such lawmakers in the Lok Sabha has gone up by four compared to the previous House, with 27 candidates from the community emerging victorious. The ruling BJP, however, does not have a single Muslim lawmaker among its lawmakers. Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, which have a considerable Muslim population, have this time elected six Lok Sabha members each. Five of the six MPs from West Bengal belong to the Trinamool Congress and one to the Congress. One hopes that this movement upwards will be reflected elsewhere in other dimensions of India's socio-economic matrix.

We, in Bangladesh, have followed the electoral process with keen interest. It has been a commendable effort and needs to be acknowledged as such.

We hope that this factor of continuity of government will assist in resolving some of the existing unsolved issues between India and Bangladesh: (a) water management of rivers flowing into Bangladesh from India (consistent with the UN Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses), (b) killing of Bangladeshis at the India-Bangladesh border (arrest for illegal entry being a better option) and (c) para-tariff and non-tariff barriers in the arena of bilateral trade. We also look forward to greater connectivity through higher Indian investment in Bangladesh Economic Zones and bigger availability of energy from India. This will help to reduce the massive balance of trade deficit between the two countries.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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