By springtime, the trail for the 2014 general elections in India already is going cold. There is no heat and dust, although the granddaddy of polls - of 700 million people of a single country - is barely two months away. We have been quiet since January, letting the politics play out before commenting further on an election that will give the world's largest democracy its next government. The surprise has been that instead of the political parties attacking each other, pot shots are being taken at the media, as though injuring the messenger will, in some way, defeat the opponent.
The current thinking is that the Narendra Modi-wave and Modi's aggressive campaign will steer him to the post of prime minister of India in May 2014. The incumbent prime minister from the ruling Congress Party, Manmohan Singh, already has announced his retirement from politics. So, the only face of the ruling party at the moment is its Vice President Rahul Gandhi, who, all predictions suggest, will not be able to steer India's oldest political party to victory in 2014. Unless, of course, the people of India decide to take matters in their hands and vote to keep Modi out.
Even the United States thinks Modi will come out on top. In 2005, the United States had denied Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Modi a visa because of his alleged involvement in anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002 and "severe violations of religious freedom" in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where Modi is at present chief minister. Modi has a huge fan following among nonresident Indians. Modi has been interacting with them through video-conferencing, because he cannot visit the USA.
As Modimania grows, a worried United States has been trying to get into Modi's good books, with Ambassador Nancy Powell finally meeting the maverick Modi on February 13 in Gandhinagar, the state capital - after at least three requests were turned down, according to sources close to Modi. Powell, the media says, was presented a bouquet of roses by Modi, signaling all is forgiven. This, after the European Union a few months ago came forward to open dialogue with Modi in a bid to legitimize his rise to power. Before the Powell meeting, representatives of the US Congress, Aaron Schock, Cynthia Lummis and Cathy Rodgers had met Modi. Schock is considered a friend of Gujarat and had made a statement in the US House of Representatives congratulating Modi after his third victory in the state assembly elections. Powell visited an NGO, a petroleum university and the state's opposition leader, but this tokenism did not detract from her one-point agenda - make friends with Modi.
Meanwhile, reiterating that "the US does not take positions in elections of any country," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki argued that Powell meeting Modi was not an example of the United States taking a position on Modi. "We don't take positions. So no, it wouldn't be a reflection of that. It is just a reflection, as I've stated a few times, of us reaching out to a range of individuals from different backgrounds, different political affiliations, which we do in countries around the world," Psaki said. The State Department also reiterated that Modi was "welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant." The Indian media don't think Modi will seek any "review ... like any other applicant." He is not any other applicant. India is waiting to see Modi invited to the White House as prime minister of India.
The United States and China are the two countries whose opinions matter in India. While Modi won over the United States, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate annoyed China by saying, "China should shed its expansionist policy and forge bilateral ties with India for peace, progress and prosperity of both the nations." On an election campaign in the eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh on February 22, Modi added, "Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and will always remain so. No power can snatch it from us. People of Arunachal Pradesh didn't come under pressure or fear of China." China claims Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet and the exchange is part of a long-standing dispute over the 4,000 kilometer-long Line of Actual Control between China and India, where India accuses China of encroachment. China was prompt in responding to Modi. Sunday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters: "You mentioned expansionism by the Chinese side. I believe all of you can see that China has never waged a war of aggression to occupy an inch of land of other countries." The media, naturally, is keenly watching Modi's take on the world, before the elections actually catapult him to power.
Modi's dream, however, still remains elusive, although an ABP Nielsen survey said last week that the BJP, his party, could get as many as 236 of the 543 seats for which elections are being held. The party would need 272 seats to get a simple majority in Parliament. The spanner(s) in the wheels of the Modi juggernaut have been many, actually. The BJP has never had simple majority. It always has had many small regional parties as allies to help it reach the magic number. They are together called the National Democratic Alliance. What has rattled the BJP was desertion by JDU, a 17-year-old ally from the eastern state of Bihar. This week, JDU leader Nitish Kumar, joined the left parties to set up a coalition of 13 regional parties that promised the electorate to keep far away from the BJP and the Congress Party. As if this were not enough, the new kid on the bloc, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has accused the BJP of buying up the media.
Of course, AAP is said to have taken away a chunk of anti- incumbent (read anti-Congress) votes from the BJP. AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal became Delhi's chief minister on December 28, after thinking it over for a month after his party won 28 of Delhi's 70 state assembly seats in a November election. The BJP had won 32 seats, but had no majority in the house. Kejriwal, however, resigned on February 14, placing Delhi under President's Rule until the general elections. Kejriwal now has set his goals on the national stage, getting his party ready to contest the parliamentary elections in April. AAP definitely will cut into the BJP's votes. Kejriwal, in a scathing attack on the media, recently said all television channels and newspaper have been "bought" by the BJP and the Congress Party to ensure he got no coverage.
Kejriwal is not the only one. A former army chief, General V.K. Singh, said to be close to the BJP, in an attack on a major media house, called journalists "presstitutes" who wrote a story on the movement of Army units, causing concern to the government. The Editors' Guild of India said, "it is distressing" to find a person like Singh using the term "presstitutes." It added, "The tendency to attack or abuse the media is not restricted to the newer players and leaders of established parties are not immune to it either." The guild appealed to political leaders and public figures not to resort to "vague, unsubstantiated charges of corrupt motives and abuses when refuting, questioning or criticizing the media and keep the public discourse civil and within reasonable bounds."
But this did not deter India's incumbent Home Minister from the Congress Party, Sushilkumar Shinde, from saying on Sunday, "The intelligence wing is under me, so I know from where such activities are launched, and I watch them. ... Now we have decided to stamp out such trouble-mongering mentalities from this country." The Home Minister threatened to "crush" the electronic media, alleging a section of it was unnecessarily provoking the Congress by indulging in "false propaganda" against it. He later said, he meant not newspapers and television, but "social media." Taking advantage of the opportunity, the BJP has turned into a great defender of the freedom of the press. Amidst all this wishy-washy focus on the media, no party, nor the regional satraps desirous of a third front, nor the Congress, BJP or AAP have so far championed any real issue of concern to people, and not one relevant issue is likely to creep into anyone's manifesto. Corruption still takes a backseat to communalism; good governance to religious and caste politics.