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India's carnival of democracy: The ride is starting

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COMMENTS

18 March 2009 09:44

Electioneering is underway in the world’s biggest democracy, so it’s high time we trained The Interpreter’s eye on Indian domestic politics. The government, an unwieldy Congress-led alliance under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, faces challenges from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and an increasingly powerful range of regional and caste-based parties, which would need to craft their own shaky coalition to form government.

The voting, to be conducted in five phases from 16 April to 13 May, will occur at a time of great uncertainty: the economic fallout from the global economic crisis; renewed India-Pakistan tensions and fears of terrorism following the Mumbai attacks; uneasy and shifting loyalties in parliament following the rocky passage of the US-India nuclear deal; and a heightened cacophony of political participation, even by Indian standards, thanks to a media revolution, from satellite television to new media.

But rather than begin with a survey of the myriad actors in this carnival of democracy, let’s cut to the chase and look today at a not-so-secret weapon in the arsenal of the main opposition party, the BJP.

Any foreigner interested in – and worried for – the future of India should read this profile of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, one of the nation’s most successful political figures. The article, by the Atlantic Monthly’s Robert Kaplan, poses the critical question of whether Modi’s brand of politics amounts to fascism.

Modi has two chief claims to fame: he has presided over great success in economic growth and efficient governance; and it was on his watch in 2002 that Gujarat experienced one of the worst waves of ethnic violence since India’s partition, with perhaps 2000 Muslims being killed by Hindu extremists. There remains bitter debate in India over whether and to what extent Modi and his government may have been complicit in these terrible events, even if only through lack of intervention.

Modi will not, it seems, be leading his party into this year’s polls. That is a job for the octogenarian L K Advani. But we can expect to see Modi rolled out as a party mascot in those places where his track record will hold special appeal. And, regardless of how the BJP fares this year, there is every chance that Modi – and/or powerbrokers in his party – will foster ambitions of making a tilt for New Delhi in 2014.

For now, I share the assessment in Kaplan’s article that there is too much of a Hindu-chauvinist stigma attached to Modi’s reputation – not least because of the legacy of 2002 – for him to have much success as a coalition-builder. And these days no Indian party can command enough of a core constituency to rule nationally in its own right. 

But these are not new insights: they have long been common wisdom in India’s commentariat, and do not account for major disruptions the economic crisis may bring. In other words, the judgment that Modi will never become India’s prime minister — or that, to do so, he would need to moderate his politics beyond recognition — will warrant regular re-checking over the next five years.

Two final asides on Kaplan’s piece. I met Modi in 2001 (shortly after his little-known study tour of Australia, sponsored by the Australian Government) and saw little of the charisma Kaplan describes. But maybe, like a lot of seasoned politicians, he conserves it for when he needs it. Second, the first time I tried to read the article online, I found the Atlantic Monthly website down, and contacts in India reported the same experience. Which makes one wonder if Mr Modi has some highly IT-savvy fans who don’t think all publicity is good publicity.

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