May 9, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: While India Votes

• India may soon be the world’s most populous country and, by some measures, is already its third-largest economy

• Current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is retiring after ten years in office, and his dynastic, long-dominant Congress party seems headed towards a crushing defeat, despite its being fronted by heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi, whose family tree includes three former PMs

• The odds-on favorite to win a plurality of parliamentary seats is the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its prime ministerial candidate, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, is arguably the most controversial politician in the history of independent India

• Modi’s supporters insist his leadership will bring a surge of confidence and economic growth; his detractors claim his Hindu nationalism will fundamentally alter India’s secular nature and bring grief to the country’s 220 million non-Hindus.


An Awesome Undertaking

Conducting a national election in a country of 1.2 billion people is no mean feat, but this developing, largely agrarian nation is pulling it off. India’s nine phases of voting began in early April and results are expected on May 16. So far, the participation rates of 815 million eligible voters have been quite high, nearing 70%—never a good sign for incumbents. India’s electorate is youthful—two-thirds are under 35 years old. All signs suggest an eagerness for change after years of economic malaise, a Congress-led coalition that became mired in corruption scandals, and what’s been called the worst-performing Parliament ever. All of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (People’s House) are up for grabs, making 272 the “magic number” for a majority government.

Congress and BJP are the only two parties that can legitimately claim national standing, but the two combined received less than half of all votes cast in 2009. Powerful regional parties now play a vital role by being indispensable in coalition-formation (no single party has won an outright majority in 30 years). Even those with only two dozen seats can make or break a ruling coalition, meaning pre and post-election alliances now determine who’s in and who’s out at the federal level.


Out with the Old, in with the New

No credible polling data or analysis foresees a continuation of the incumbent, Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. Economic growth is just too slow and evidence of corruption too great. The 44-year-old Rahul Gandhi may do his best to bide time in opposition, take over party reins from his mother, Sonia, and angle for a resurgence in 2019.

It’s likely that no political figure could hope to withstand the “Modi wave” that pollsters see sweeping the nation, reaching even into the poor, rural, and southern regions traditionally home to Congress’s votebank. The strapping, thrice reelected Chief Minister of the western Gujarat state brings with him a record of strident Hindu nationalism and impressive economic growth, the latter apparently coming through business-friendly policies that cut through India’s notorious red tape and in turn provided reliable electricity supplies and smoothly-paved roads.

With unprecedented annual economic growth rates averaging up to nine percent before the slump of recent years, Indians’ expectations only grew, and they’re hungry for more. The “Gujarat model” of export-driven growth, and Modi’s reputation as a strong, effective, and incorruptible leader combine to make him an appealing candidate for many.

Yet there is considerable evidence that the narrative of Gujarat’s economic exceptionalism is flawed: the state was among India’s leading performers in the decade before Modi took office and, over the past 15 years, other major states have outperformed Gujarat in rates of both growth and foreign investment. In this respect, critics can persuasively call “Modinomics” more hype than substance.


The Dangers of Hindu Majoritarianism

For most of those opposed to Modi’s elevation, the question of his economic chops is secondary to fears about what his Hindu nationalism could mean for India. The BJP, a political outgrowth of the paramilitary, Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization or RSS), emerged in the 1980s on a wave of growing “Hindutva” sentiment (Hindutva seeks an India based on Hindu culture). While its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition was in power from 1999 to 2004, it put little energy into emotive issues, with the party instead seeking to transform itself into a development-oriented one. Modi himself now insists that he ranks “toilets over temples.” Yet this project remains half-finished, at best, and Modi remains haunted by a record of sometimes virulent Hindu nationalist rhetoric, along with the ghosts of more than 1,000 Muslims killed during horrific 2002 communal riots in his state.

India’s record of religious tolerance is tarnished by several bloody incidents of communal violence, and in many cases observers have seen evidence of official complicity, or at least gross inattention. Given Modi’s background as a lifelong RSS loyalist and evidence that Gujarati authorities stood by for days as Muslims were raped and dismembered in the streets, detractors remain convinced that Modi bears responsibility for 2002. His stunningly unapologetic attitude has only fueled these convictions, even as it has been part of his appeal to the more strident Hindus among his followers. His (suspected) role even spurred the US State Department to deny him a visa in 2005. Yet multiple investigations, including one by a Supreme Court-appointed team, resulted in no charges against Modi (one of his close aides was sentenced for 97 related murders), allowing him to wave a “clean chit” going into the elections.


• Unless BJP and its fewer and much smaller NDA allies can win a majority of seats, the May 16 announcement of results will set off an intense numbers game in which leading parties seek to collect enough support to form a working coalition

• Watch the numbers for BJP—and if it wins 180 seats, Modi’s divisiveness may make it difficult for the party to woo partners; if it wins 200, band-wagoning likely will kick in; and if it wins 220, his prime ministership will be nearly assured

• The postures taken by India’s many regional satraps (provincial governors) and their alphabet soup of state-based parties will make the difference; BJP will probably need to bring aboard at least one of three in particular: Uttar Pradesh’s Bahujan Samaj Party, West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress, or Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK party

• Despite the sensationalist rhetoric of his opponents, Modi as prime minster would be most likely to pursue economic growth policies that rely on pacific relations with neighbors and domestic stability—Hindutva will be set aside, at least temporarily

• But if the “Gujarat miracle” cannot be reproduced at the national level, Modi may well look to Hindu nationalism as the path to political success that it has been in his past, with potentially dire implications for the already hampered social status of the country’s 170 million Muslims, millions of other non-Hindus, human rights and free speech activists, and India’s record of secular pluralism.


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