Marked by Strong Opposition, India’s Election Brings No Guarantee of Change

Marked by Strong Opposition, India’s Election Brings No Guarantee of Change
Photo: Party flags of the Bharatiya Janta Party, Mumbai, India, April 5, 2009 (Al Jazeera photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).
Over the next few weeks, more than 800 million Indians will head to the polls to vote in a general election in the world’s largest democracy. Early signs indicate that Narendra Modi, the opposition candidate from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will beat the ruling Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi despite the latter’s ties to the powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. While this is testament to Congress’ poor performance during its decade in power, the eventual election outcome—whatever that may be—could in fact bring more continuity than change for India. When Congress defeated the BJP in an upset election in 2004 and cobbled together its United Progressive Alliance coalition, expectations were initially sky-high. Despite winning the election, Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, asked Manmohan Singh, the architect of India’s economic reforms of the 1990s, to become prime minister in her place. Ten years later, Singh, the once revered Oxford-trained economist, is reviled for leaving the country in tatters. At home, India has seen double-digit growth rates shrinking to less than 5 percent, the rupee depreciating to all-time lows and inflation soaring to uncontrollable levels. Key reforms have been stymied by fierce political backlash, while a seemingly endless string of corruption scandals implicating government ministers has triggered massive street protests. While analysts project that the Indian economy will improve this fiscal year, the Congress party nevertheless enters the election with a record 35 percent of Indians saying the national economy is getting worse. Abroad, Singh’s record over the past decade has been mixed. His government built on the policies of its predecessors by finalizing a nuclear pact with the United States and bolstering New Delhi’s relationships with key Asian countries. But particularly during Singh’s second term, foreign policy initiatives on some of India’s most important relationships either foundered or failed to take off altogether. Initial optimism on warmer ties with China and Pakistan proved misplaced as intermittent skirmishes once again led to a groundswell of distrust. Meanwhile, critics bemoaned the sacrifice of national interests at the altar of political expediency when fierce domestic opposition scuttled a historic land swap deal with Bangladesh and forced Singh to boycott a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last November in Sri Lanka. Even relations with Washington, already drifting, were strained after last December’s arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York for mistreating her domestic servant. This dismal decade, along with early opinion polls, leads many to believe that the BJP will win the election comfortably and that Modi, the firebrand chief minister of Gujarat, will emerge as prime minister. But such forecasts have been wrong many times before. And even if the Congress party loses, there are reasons to expect more continuity than change in the broad contours of both domestic and foreign policy. On the home front, despite Modi’s pro-business streak, economists doubt that the elections will help revive investment in India, which is determined more by the realities of the business cycle and who controls the states than by the central government. And on foreign policy, politics aside, both the BJP and Congress have historically built on each other’s efforts in key areas, including advancing nuclear diplomacy, expanding ties with major powers and trying to untie the twin Gordian knots of China and Pakistan. That does not mean, however, that the BJP has no ideas of its own. There are discernable economic policy differences between Congress and the BJP regarding how much to emphasize growth versus equity. Many worry that Modi’s alleged complicity in 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat—never legally proved—means his leadership of the BJP could see renewed communal violence in India. While the BJP’s national manifesto, released on April 7 to coincide with the first day of voting, focused mainly on economics, it also included its usual Hindu nationalist rhetoric, with domestic proposals to build a Hindu temple at a bitterly contested site, revise the special autonomous status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir, and draft a uniform civil code which some fear could undermine Muslim rights. On foreign policy, the manifesto speaks of taking a “strong stand and steps” against India’s neighbors when necessary, though it is vague on what this would actually involve. Party sources involved in its drafting also indicated that India may consider revising its “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons and would get tougher on both China and Pakistan. But excessive attention to campaign rhetoric risks overstating the actual change that a BJP-led government would bring. Some seasoned analysts have actually been struck by both the absence of inflammatory language by Modi and the BJP on issues like Pakistan as well as the lower profile of Hindu nationalism relative to economics in the BJP’s campaign compared to previous elections. Others say that some of the election proposals are simply red meat designed to appease party hardliners and right-wing voters at the polls and will not actually be pursued. And while much ink has been spilled about Modi and the BJP, even a victorious BJP would need to form alliances with other key parties to form a national government, as has been the case in India since 1989. Coalition politics, combined with fierce Congress opposition, would both give Modi a lot less control than the micromanaging he was used to in Gujarat and make passing some of the BJP’s more controversial domestic proposals more difficult. This Indian election, as one of the country’s prominent commentators Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, appears to be more about projecting hopes than reasoning from facts or the past. The fierce “anything but Congress” sentiment reflects a sense that anything would be better than the present reality, and much of the conversation has revolved around the change the election might bring. But if one looks beyond rhetoric and individual personalities, structural and political realities suggest that India’s election may ultimately end up ushering in more continuity, rather than the change so many crave. Prashanth Parameswaran is a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and a Pacific Forum CSIS nonresident fellow based in Washington, D.C. He has previously worked on Asian affairs at several think tanks including the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). You can follow him on Twitter at @TheAsianist. Photo: Party flags of the Bharatiya Janta Party, Mumbai, India, April 5, 2009 (Al Jazeera photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).

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