By Gautam Hathi.
India often likes to call itself the world’s largest democracy, and next year the country will once again hold a general election, an event that is truly unparalleled in scope or scale across the world. For some context, The Election Commission of India estimates that over 400 million people voted in the last Indian national election. That’s about three times the number of citizens who voted in the 2012 US Presidential Election. However, as new political players enter the area, this election is shaping up to be a massive source of controversy.
On September 13, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently controls the second largest block in parliament, put its pieces on the board: It announced Narendra Modi as its candidate for Prime Minister of India. Mr. Modi, the 63-year-old, unmarried, and crisply bearded chief minister from the state of Gujarat, is widely regarded as a powerfully charismatic orator. He has ruled Gujarat, India’s 10th most populous state, with an iron fist for well over a decade, during which he presided over rapid economic growth. Gujarat’s GDP growth rate from 2010 to 2011 was more than 1.5 times the overall rate for India. Perhaps even more importantly, Modi has developed a reputation for absolute incorruptibility in a country plagued by corruption. He is held up by his supporters as a shining example of what India’s slowing economy and horribly inefficient government desperately needs. After more than a decade of doing little more than causing trouble for the incumbent Congress Party, the BJP hopes that a campaign centered around one person will help them to regain control of the nation.
However, Modi has a distinct dark side. He is an avowed Hindu nationalist in a country that has been consistently haunted by deep sectarian divisions between Hindus and Muslims from its very inception up until the present day. From a young age, Modi has been a member of the RSS, a militant Hindu nationalist organization with a violent past. During his tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister, he presided over some of the worst sectarian clashes in India’s recent history. In 2002, over 1000 people, a large majority of whom were Muslims, were killed in Gujarat during days of communal violence and large scale rioting. Modi was accused of doing little to quell the unrest. In fact, not-so-quiet whispers keep circulating that Modi played an active part in whipping up communal hatred against Muslims, although he vigorously denies anything along those lines. Modi’s reputation has suffered so much that he was denied an entry visa to the United States in 2005 on the grounds that he had supported human rights violations during the 2002 riots.
Indeed, even though Modi has been engaged in a years-long effort to transform himself from religious partisan to practical job creator, many feel that he still does all he can to favor Hindus over Muslims. Development projects in Gujarat find themselves neatly situated in Hindu areas. The dividing lines between clean and well-kept areas with proper infrastructure and dirt-poor slums in Gujarati cities often fall conspicuously along religious boundaries. And some have pointed out that several Indian states have economic growth rates similar to or even higher than Gujarat’s, suggesting that Gujarat’s economic reputation is more a result of a few high profile industrial commitments to the state from companies such as Tata than real standout growth. As a result, Modi remains one of the most deeply divisive and polarizing politicians in India today; loved by Hindu supporters, distrusted by moderates, and loathed by Muslims. In a country where tensions between Hindus and Muslims are always on a hair trigger, such a record is not only troubling, but also extremely dangerous.
The BJP’s strategy of running a campaign centered on Modi would be extremely risky under normal circumstances. But things are different in today’s India. The ruling Indian National Congress party, which traces its roots through the Gandhi-Nehru family back to India’s colonial era, has found itself in a deep rut as of late. After winning a second five year parliamentary term in 2009 on promises of economic reforms and growth, the party has found its agenda stymied by stubborn coalition partners, ineffective administration, and a punishing economic slowdown that has robbed India of the growth upon which it depends.
Manmohan Singh, the aged, soft-spoken Sikh economist and current Prime Minister has developed a reputation for meek ineffectiveness. Although widely believed to have no personal involvement with corrupt practices, he has seen a number of major corruption scandals precipitate around him during his time in office. He was also forced to back down from several efforts to reform the retail sector before finally passing watered-down reforms, losing large amounts of political capital and popular support in the process. To cap it all off, the rupee is just leveling out after a major dive. Despite Manmohan Singh’s reputation as a brilliant economist, he hasn’t been able to stop this currency crisis, which has caused prices to soar. Currently, Mr. Singh’s government operates on razor thin parliamentary majorities with shifting coalitions that prevent almost any real governing. Such paralysis does not make for a particularly compelling re-election platform.
Then there is the Congress Party’s elephant in the room. As everyone in India knows, Manmohan Singh isn’t really the man who runs his party or his government. The real power lies with Congress’ old aristocracy, the Nehru-Gandhi family. Sonia Gandhi, the matriarch of the family, is the one who gives all the orders within the ruling coalition. Mr. Singh may run the government on a day-to-day basis, but all major decisions go through Ms. Gandhi. Furthermore, it is widely believed she is prepping her son Rahul Gandhi as both the new party leader and Prime Ministerial candidate. The problem is that Rahul hasn’t quite been fitting the “leader” mold. He has vacillated on major issues, refused to deal with speculation of his future political role, and failed to gain the type of popular respect enjoyed by other members of his family. The fact that everyone believes he will soon be taking over doesn’t exactly bolster the current government’s legitimacy either.
However, with Modi’s ascendancy and the increasingly gloomy prospects for Congress next year, Rahul may be forced to step up to the plate and do what’s required of him. Last week he picked a fight with Manmohan Singh, publicly calling his cabinet’s decision to let convicted criminals remain MPs “complete nonsense.” Many see this move as a way for Rahul to distance himself from the deeply unpopular current government and position himself as a leader. But it will take more than a passing swipe at current leadership for Rahul Gandhi to lead his party to victory and cure it of its current ills.
So where does that leave India, the world’s largest democracy? In short, the country must choose between two seemingly bad options. On the one hand, there is the current government: corrupt, incompetent, leaderless, and overdue for a change after a decade in power. Rahul Gandhi is not in a position to take over at this point, and it is quite unclear whether he really wants to or whether he’s being pushed into the limelight by his overbearing mother. On the other hand, there is the Hindu nationalism of the BJP and Narendra Modi. While Modi appears to have a better record than the incumbent government in a strictly administrative and economic sense, putting lighting rods in charge of countries is rarely a good idea. It is considered a virtual certainty that Modi’s candidacy for India’s highest office will provoke riots at some point over the next few months. He is also unlikely to ever have the support or trust of India’s 176 million Muslims. And what sort of awkward conversations are going to happen when Prime Minister Modi visits the United States, which has labeled him a violator of human rights?
Either way, India has a difficult choice to make, and there’s certainly no guarantee that things will hold together in either case. Right now, the country is just starting to come off the growth high that has sustained the complacency of its voting based for the past couple of decades. India needs its next government to do well, but at the moment there are very good reasons to be deeply skeptical of all the options on the table.