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India: Changing Identities

When India got its independence from Britain 70 years ago this week, it was founded as a secular democracy – secular because it acknowledged the status and rights of Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other religious minorities as equal to those of the Hindu majority. Mahatma Gandhi, the great hero of the independence movement, was a devout Hindu, but he was murdered by a Hindu fanatic for defending Muslim rights after Partition.

It was one of the most fortunate assassinations in history, because Hindu radicals had been using Pakistan’s declaration that it was a “Muslim state” to demand that India be declared a “Hindu state”. After Gandhi’s murder, Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, was able to round up tens of thousands of Hindu extremists and exploit popular reverence for Gandhi to nail down India’s identity as a secular state.

India is still a democracy, but a portrait of one of the men who conspired to assassinate Gandhi now hangs in India’s parliament. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, leads the BJP (Indian People’s Party), which was created as the political wing of the RSS (National Volunteer Organsation), a Hindu supremacist paramilitary organisation. And secular is now spelled “sickular” by the Hindutva trolls on Twitter.

Hindutva is Hindu exceptionalism of the kind that gives rise to the trope that “to be Hindu is to constantly take offence.” It sees India as a “wounded civilisation” because it has spent most of the past thousand years under the rule of various foreign invaders (hardly a unique experience), and proposes to remedy that with a highly simplified, almost kitch version of politicised Hinduism.

It’s just another brand of populism, in other words, but its chief Indian proponent, Narendra Modi, must deal with far deeper divisions in society than his American counterpart, Donald Trump. He is a much more disciplined man, however, and he does not waste his time in tweeting insults and picking fights with random people.

Modi is relentlessly focussed on economic growth, and in particular on raising the living standards of the lower-middle-class Indians who are his strongest supporters. But to get and keep the parliamentary majority that would let him carry out his programme he must appeal to a broader audience.

For more than half a century India got along with the secular principle that religion is a private matter, but Modi supported a national ban on cow slaughter (many states already banned it) when he took office. More recently he banned the slaughter of buffalo as well. So it’s hardly surprising that “cow protection” vigilantes have been attacking people suspected of trading in beef; half a dozen have been beaten to death in the past couple of years.

Modi supports the ban because high-caste Hindus (the group from which the BJP draws most of its support) believe that cows are sacred and must not be eaten. However, lower-caste Hindus, the so-called Dalits (untouchables), do eat beef, and they make up about a quarter of India’s voting population. This poses a serious political problem for the BJP.

Muslims, who dominate the beef and leather trades, make up another 14 percent of the voters, but Modi doesn’t worry about losing their votes because they were never going to vote for the BJP anyway. He cares very much about the Dalit vote, because they are the key to making the BJP the natural party of government.

Modi won a landslide majority in 2014 in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament), but he did it on only 31 percent of the popular vote. The first-past-the-post system regularly delivers such lopsided results. But the Rajya Sabha (upper house or senate) is elected by the state legislatures, where Dalits are often quite prominent politically. The BJP will never get a majority in the senate without Dalit support.

So Modi walks a tightrope on the issue of sacred cows, promoting their protection to appeal to his upper-caste voters, while weakly condemning the murder of butchers and leather workers by “cow protection” vigilantes (who are backed by the RSS, the BJP’s parent organisation).

Indeed, Modi’s whole take on Hinduism is quite ambivalent. Two years ago, for example, talking about health care in India, he got off track and started talking about the elephant-headed god Ganesha: “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”

It is certainly not Hindu orthodoxy to suggest that Ganesha was a chimera created by ancient plastic surgeons. On the other hand, the idea that India led the world in plastic surgery a few thousand years ago will appeal to the more naive Indian nationalists. It’s a bizarre mixture of ideas, but not untypical in populist politics.

The bottom line, alas, is that the “sickular libtards” are in retreat, the religious minorities are being marginalised, and the people who define India as a “Hindu country” are in charge. It’s too early to say that this is an irreversible change, but it’s a radical departure from the country’s founding values. It’s still a democracy, but it’s starting to look a lot more like Pakistan.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Indeed…politics”)

India and China: The Tortoise and the Hare?

Soon after winning an absolute majority in the Indian parliamentary elections, prime minister-elect Narendra Modi promised “to make the 21st century India’s century.” If he can avoid tripping over his own ideology, he might just succeed.

“India’s century” is a misleading phrase, of course, because no country gets to own a whole century. It wasn’t ever really going to be “China’s century” either, although China is a huge country whose economy has grown amazingly fast over the past three decades. What Modi meant was that India, the other huge Asian country, may soon take China’s place as the fastest growing large economy – and it might even surpass China economically, in the end.

At first glance this seems unlikely. India’s GDP is currently less than a quarter of China’s although the two countries are quite close in population (China 1.36 billion, India 1.29 billion). Moreover, the Chinese economy’s growth rate last year, although well down from its peak years, was still 7.7 percent, while India’s grew at only 4.4 percent.

But China’s growth rate is bound to fall further for purely demographic reasons. Due partly to three decades of the one-child-per-family policy, the size of its workforce is already starting to decline. Total population (and hence total domestic demand) will also start to shrink in five years’ time. And this doesn’t even take into account the high probability of a financial crash and a long, deep recession in China.

India’s growth rate has also fallen in recent years, but for reasons like corruption, excessive regulation and inadequate infrastructure that are a lot easier to fix. And the reason that Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won by a landslide was precisely that voters thought he would be better at overcoming these obstacles to growth than the worn-out and deeply corrupt Congress Party.

Modi did NOT win because a majority of Indians want to pursue divisive sectarian battles that pit Hindus against India’s many minorities, and especially against Muslims. That has always been part of the BJP’s appeal to its core voters, but its new voters were attracted by Modi’s reputation as the man who brought rapid development to the state of Gujarat, which he has ruled for the past thirteen years. They want him to do the same thing nationally.

They over-estimate his genius: Gujarat has always been one of India’s most prosperous states, and the local culture has always been pro-business. It was doing very well even before Modi took power there. Nevertheless, he might well be able to fulfill the hopes of his new supporters, for he arrives in New Delhi without the usual burden of political debts to special interests.
The BJP’s absolute majority in parliament means that Modi will not be constrained by coalition allies like previous BJP governments. This could lead to a leap in the Indian growth rate if he uses his power to sweep aside the regulations and bureaucratic roadblocks that hamper trade and investment in India. He also has a golden opportunity to crush the corruption that imposes a huge invisible tax on every enterprise in the country.
Unfortunately, his extraordinary political freedom also means that he will find it hard to resist the kind of sectarian (i.e. anti-Muslim) measures that the militants in his own party expect. He cannot use the need to keep his coalition allies happy as an excuse for not going down that road. Nobody knows which way he’ll jump, but it might be the right way.

Even some Muslims in Gujerat argue that Modi has changed since he failed to stop the sectarian riots that killed around a thousand Muslims there in 2001. Moreover, the election outcome makes it clear that a considerable number of the country’s 175 million Muslims must actually have voted for him. If he can keep his own hard-liners on a short leash, everybody else’s hopes for a surge in the economic growth rate may come true.

What might that mean over the next decade? It could mean a politically stable India whose growth rate is back up around 7 or 8 percent – and a China destabilised by a severe recession and political protests whose growth rate is down around 4 percent.

While neither political stability in India nor political chaos in China are guaranteed in the longer run, by 2025 the demography will have taken over with a vengeance. China’s population will be in decline, and the number of young people entering the workforce annually will be down by 20 percent and still falling. India’s population will still be growing, as will the number of young people coming onto the job market each year.

That will give India a 3 or 4 percent advantage in economic growth regardless of what happens on the political front. In the long run both countries may come to see their massive populations as a problem, but in the medium term it looks increasingly likely that India will catch up with and even overtake China in economic power.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“They…interests”; and “Even…true”)

Indian Election

By Gwynne Dyer

An Indian election is a marathon, not a sprint. The voting will start in a month’s time, on 7 April, but the voting will move around the country on nine phases, ending on 12 May. Then the votes will all be counted – there are 814 million eligible voters – and the result will be known on 16 May. But a lot of people think they know the result now: Narendra Modi of the BJP will be prime minister, and India will swing hard right.

The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party – Indian People’s Party) is a socially conservative, Hindu nationalist party that has only had one full term in national office, in 1998-2004. That time, it led a broad coalition that restrained its more extreme sectarian impulses. This time, however, many Indian observers claim to detect a “Modi wave” of support that might carry the BJP into power on its own. That would certainly make for interesting times.

Narendra Modi is best known for two things: the remarkable economic growth and relative freedom from corruption of his home state of Gujarat, and his alleged complicity in the massacre of more than 1,000 Muslims during religious riots shortly after he became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001.

The prosperity of Gujarat is obviously a political asset for him. The problem is that the his alleged religious extremism is also an asset in the view of some of his potential supporters. Indeed, that is probably why Modi has never expressed any regret or offered any apologies for the riots, an omission that many see as disqualifying him for high political office.

One such is Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister for the last ten years, who said when announcing his retirement in January: “It would be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the next prime minister. If by a strong prime minister they mean you preside over the massacre of innocent citizens on the streets…I do not believe that is the sort of strength this country needs.”

But the ruling Congress Party is weighed down by corruption scandals and slowing economic growth, and Congress’s candidate for prime minister is none other than Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather have all held the job in the past. But Rahul’s political ideas seem half-formed, his rhetoric struggles under the burden of words like “empowerment”, and he is seriously lacking in novelty value.

Hence the “Modi wave.” The BJP currently leads Congress by a wide margin in the opinion polls: a January poll gave it 34 percent of the vote, almost twice as much as it got in the last national election in 2009. Voters prefer Modi to Gandhi as prime minister in virtually every state – and among 18 to 25-year-old voters the BJP outpolls Congress almost two-to-one.
So the pundits are speculating on how a BJP government would behave if it were led by Narendra Modi and had no need of coalition partners. There is no precedent for that. Last time the BJP government was a complicated coalition led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a poet and intellectual of moderate views, and none of its more extreme nationalist and Hindu positions got translated into actual policies.

If it were different this time, then India would be moving into unknown waters, and the possibilities would be as alarming as they were extreme. But that may just be Indian journalists trying to inject a little more tension and excitement into the story. The reality is probably rather less exciting.

34 percent of the vote is much better than the BJP got last time, but it doesn’t get you a majority in the parliament. In fact, it leaves you about fifty seats short of a majority, which tumbles you back into the real world of coalitions and deals, and having to put aside your cherished sectarian goals in order to make the deals work. Just like last time, even if your name is Narendra Modi.

Getting to 50 percent of the vote is almost impossible for any political party in the Indian political system, because a good deal of the vote always goes to regional and local parties that are quite separate from the big national parties. It’s especially hard for the BJP, because it’s hard to imagine that any of the 13 percent of Indians who are Muslim would vote for the BJP.

There are 39 parties in the current parliament, and there may be even more in the next one. Most of them would be willing to join a coalition government in return for concessions on whatever local or regional issues they or their voters care about, but they will also have red lines that must not be crossed or they will leave the coalition.

Assuming that the outcome of the election does leave the BJP as the biggest party, but without an overall majority, those red lines will probably confine Narendra Modi to relatively moderate policies on religious issues. If not, then India is in for a wild ride, and at the end of it the country may no longer be known for its tolerance.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“One…needs”; and “Getting…BJP”)

Sonia Gandhi

18 May 2004

Sonia Gandhi: Throwing It All Away?

By Gwynne Dyer

The past few days must have been very frightening for Sonia Gandhi: death threats from racists furious at the defeat of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will have been flooding in, and she has already seen both her mother-in-law and her husband assassinated by extremists. But the time for her to decide whether she was up to the job of leading India was in 1998, when she accepted the leadership of the Congress Party, which was discredited by factionalism and corruption, and took on the task of rebuilding it.

For all her shyness in public, she did that job effectively, and then she led a revived Congress back to power in the biggest free election ever. The main reason that people, especially poor people and minorities, were willing to give it another chance was the fact that they saw her as the symbol of the old Congress Party that led India to independence, served the poor, and was dedicated to preserving a secular, open, multicultural society. To change her mind at the last minute and reject the prime ministership was a betrayal of their trust — and she may have thrown away more than that.

No doubt her son and daughter had a part in persuading her to step aside and let another senior Congress Party member become prime minister in her place: Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have already lost their father and their grandmother to assassins, and they don’t want to lose their mother too. The crash on the Bombay Stock Exchange, the biggest one-day decline in 129 years, also played a role, though that was driven not by lack of faith in Sonia Gandhi but by worries about the fact that a Congress government would have to depend on Communist votes to survive.

The man who now becomes prime minister instead, Manmohan Singh, will certainly calm nerves at the BSE: in 1991-96 he was finance minister in the earlier Congress government that ended central planning, privatised some state corporations, and finally put the Indian economy on a high-growth trajectory. He is free of the taint of corruption, and as India’s first minority-group prime minister (he is Sikh), he still symbolises the victory of multicultural tolerance over the BJP’s intolerant Hindu exclusivism. But the stock market panic could have been calmedsimply by bringing him back as finance minister — and he isn’t the symbol that was needed.

While much else has been going right in India in recent years, one thing has been going terribly wrong. For the past six years, behind the engaging and genuinely well-meaning facade provided by the BJP’s official leader, outgoing prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Hindu supremacists who populate the party’s upper reaches have been busily undermining the foundations of India’s secular society.

The most spectacular recent manifestation of its Hindu-first, anti-minority policy was the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, which had the tacit support of the BJP state government, but more insidious for the long run was the deliberate attack on the education system. Wherever the BJP’s writ ran, school textbooks have been systematically rewritten to represent Hindus as a victimised and downtrodden majority and to portray Indian Muslims and Christians as somehow foreign and disloyal to the real, Hindu India. (You can also now get a university degree in Vedic astrology.)

This subversion of India’s long tradition of tolerance and openness to a diversity of faiths and cultures was not just damaging Indian society and undermining democracy. It was bad for the rest of the world, too, because it matters a great deal whether the India that takes its place as one of the world’s Big Three powers over the next generation (the other two will be the US and China) is a tolerant secular democracy or a sectarian, ultra-nationalist state with a huge chip on its shoulder. The attitudes of the generation who will run that India are being shaped in the schools now.

The voters’ rejection of the BJP was a hopeful sign, but now Congress has to deliver. Sonia Gandhi shows no signs that she is a great administrator, and several other senior Congress politicians could probably do the job of keeping the economic miracle going while bringing some real help to the neglected poor as well or better than she would. But she is the indispensable symbol of the multicultural, tolerant India that must now be restored after the long BJP assault. That is vitally important in itself, and it is also the only common goal that binds all the parties of the coalition together.

Not having Sonia Gandhi as the prime minister is a blow to that common goal and quite possibly to the cohesion of the coalition. She has listened to her “inner voice,” but it looks like a lack of respect for the millions who voted Congress only and precisely because they felt that she embodied the idea of a modern, secular India that cared for its people and made no distinctions between them on the basis of race, religion, language or caste.

There is even speculation that she never really intended to become prime minister at all, and was merely lending her name to help revive the Congress Party. If that it true, it shows genuine contempt for the voters,and such actions are eventually punished in politics. The Congress government will survive, at least for a while, and it may even do some good work, but it has just lost the respect of the people who voted for it.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The man…secular society”)