India cast its first votes for the 2014 general elections in the northeastern state of Assam Monday morning April 7 with one party in the fray invoking President Barrack Obama's name to defend the indefensible. The world may not wonder what is going on in India, but the results of the current election could have wide-ranging consequences that will affect non-Indians everywhere.
The story behind the Obama invocation could have been waved away, had the context not been so ominous. The two main rival parties in the battle are the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ruling Congress Party (INC). The BJP has declared the name of its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi - who is the sitting chief minister in the western state of Gujarat, where anti-Muslim criminal actions by right-wing Hindu forces in 2002 resulted in uncounted deaths and destruction of properties and livelihood. The Modi administration is alleged to have been in collusion with the majority Hindu forces.
Ever since the country has been polarized along communal lines. In assessing Modi as the prime minister of India in a month's time, The Economist has said, "He is an autocratic loner who is a poor delegator. That may work at state level, but not at national level - particularly when the BJP is likely to come to power only as part of a coalition. A man who does not listen to the counsel of others is likely to make bad decisions, and if he were prime minister of India, and thus had his finger on the button of a potential nuclear conflict with Pakistan...." Even in its latest profiling, The Economist says, "Mr Modi had helped organize a march on the holy site at Ayodhya in 1990 which, two years later, led to the deaths of 2,000 in Hindu-Muslim clashes. A lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group in whose cause he has vowed lifelong celibacy, he made speeches early in his career that shamelessly whipped up Hindus against Muslims." The journal warns, " 'Dog-whistle' politics is deplorable in any country. But in India violence between Hindus and Muslims is never far from the surface."
While party manifestos are released well ahead of the polls, the BJP released its on the first day of voting. The manifesto talked of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya, where a mosque was razed to the ground in an attempt to build a temple on the site in 1990. While BJP leaders talked of development, the manifesto actually demonstrated that "Hindutva" lurked just under the skin for this pro-Hindu party. Foreign policy was not spelled out.
While the BJP has lambasted The Economist for taking advantage of the religious divide, Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi last week met the Shahi Imam (head priest) of Delhi's biggest mosque and sought his support for the ruling Congress. His dictum is followed across the country and does influence voters in states like Assam and Kerala, bordering Bangladesh and with significant Muslim population. Bangladeshis migrate into India illegally through porous eastern borders for better livelihood opportunities, and the BJP and its allies have opposed this vehemently for the last two decades. Since the 1930s, Hindu-Muslim riots are instant flashpoints, whatever the "reason." The most recent took place in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh (in a tiny place called Muzaffarnagar), last year.
It is said that who wins the majority seats in Uttar Pradesh (UP) rules India in New Delhi. UP also has a considerable Muslim population. The lower house of parliament for which elections are being held has 543 seats. Modi, heading the BJP poll strategy panel, has put his "Man Friday" Amit Shah - a man out on bail for crimes related to communal violence - in charge of UP (80 seats). In a campaign speech very close to riot-affected Muzaffarnagar, just two days before polling began, Shah called for consolidation of all Hindu votes for BJP and Modi, saying, Hindus should seek "revenge." This had the Congress and other parties complaining to the Election Commission that conducts the massive exercise and has a "model code of conduct in place." A case has been registered against Shah even as senior BJP leader Ravishankar Prasad sought to justify the call by playing a video clip of Barrack Obama and insisting that the use of the word "revenge" by Shah was not unusual, as the US president, too, had used the word during an election campaign in Ohio.
In many ways, the BJP has sought to emulate the US election process. This is not restricted to just naming a prime ministerial candidate before the results. It has used social media extensively, plus radio and FM channels and television channels, and has moved the debate to the middle-class affluent sections, though it has not succeeded yet in changing the British system India follows and has not been able to get into the "primaries" mode of selection.
Moreover, no one really knows what Modi's foreign policy is or economic policy will be. The BJP candidate for the South Delhi seat, Ramesh Bhaduri, in a campaign speech last week, said, Modi "PM ban kar naa sirf Pakistan ko thokega, balki America ko bhi thokega...." (It is necessary for Modi to become PM as he will not only teach a lesson to Pakistan but to the USA too.)
With this kind of "conversation" between voters and candidates, India watchers are wary of what the Modi regime would mean in foreign relations and who his foreign minister would be. If Modi becomes PM, not only will the US have to "recognize" him, it will have to reconsider its entire policy framework vis-à-vis India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As an Islamic state, Pakistan will only increase hostilities toward a resurgent "Hindu" India. An aggressive anti-Muslim India will just add fuel to the simmering India-Pakistan fire of hostile relations based on religious-communal premises. The Pakistan Taliban, media reports say, are waiting to reclaim Afghanistan once international forces withdraw from there and they are no friends of India, a party to the Afghan peace process. Nor are they friends of Russia. A right-wing India would mean greater chances of regional conflict. This can be a matter of concern internationally, given that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. In the context of Afghanistan, with India-friendly Hamid Karzai no longer president, how the India-Afghanistan relationship will fare is unknown. (An election in Afghanistan puts a new president in office in the country where the success of the democratic election process is in large part due to India's process assistance and opposed by the Taliban.)
In the context of the "war against terrorism," Hindu India sees all of its "terrorists" as coming from Islamic Pakistan and Bangladesh, and as "Muslims," be they Pakistani, Bangladeshi, American or Indian, and the "death penalty" is the only solution this "Hindu" India sees for all "Muslim" terrorists. The BJP has been at the forefront of advocating death penalties, be they for "terrorists" or "rapists." Europe's position on the death penalty is well-known, and "Hindu" India will look to the US for support on this issue.
The Indo-US nuclear deal (2008-9) also makes India an important US ally.
US Ambassador Nancy Powell resigned two weeks ago from her India job, at a time when Indo-US relations were not at their best, following the arrest of an Indian diplomat posted to the US. One of the reasons attributed to Powell's resignation is said to be her refusal to engage with Narendra Modi. Britain, Canada and European countries all restored communication with him two years ago, while the US has been seen as a ''reluctant'' diplomat, making peace with Modi only last month. Now, of course, the grapevine says, it will be Rajiv Shah, a Gujarati-American close to Obama who will be sent as envoy, once the Modi government takes office. How US-India relations work out for the next five years will be important in view of the US troop drawdown in Afghanistan. India is also one of the US's biggest arms purchasers and is going to remain one.
India has always been a friend of Russia; India's bulk armaments are provided by Russia. US-Russia relations souring over Crimea and the US threat of sanctions has not really worked in India because India will not support sanctions against Russia and Russia will always have Indian wheat. How this equation works has to be carefully watched. Russia is an important Indian ally on Afghanistan also.
So far, BJP leaders' public utterances against China, India's biggest northern neighbor, have not been friendly. While the Congress-led government has for the last ten years maintained a live-and-let-live policy, repeated Chinese incursions into India's north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh have been a major issue. Chinese damming of rivers originating in Tibet, which are the main source of water in most of north India and Bangladesh, is yet another point of friction. The Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, at the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and its development zone, is a major Indian security worry - as are China's friendship with Pakistan, Chinese satellites and the PLA's cyberwar capabilities.
India's relations with Sri Lanka have not been good ever since the extermination of the separatist Tamil militants on this tiny island nation south of India. India abstained from voting on a US-sponsored UNHRC resolution on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka at the end of March. The latest resolution was much tougher, calling for an independent investigation into alleged human rights violations in the island nation. The rights violation probe is supported by the US and Europe. China is whole-hearted in supporting Sri Lanka's "Sinhala" government, while the presence of large Tamil voting blocs in India has made India wary, but unable to support the US and Europe on the rights issue. The world needs to watch for the stand the Modi government takes on China and Sri Lanka.
While these foreign policy issues are already tricky, India's high foreign debt and imports policy are also major concerns. The BJP manifesto says it welcomes foreign direct investment everywhere except in retail. The BJP has also been talking of compelling the return to India of "Black Money" stashed away in foreign countries, tax havens and foreign banks, especially in Europe. How far a Modi government will really push this is another thing to watch.
At the moment, India's economy is intricately tied to foreign debt, yet another reason why countries in Europe and the US need to keep a keen eye on the Modi government's economic policy. Narendra Modi's real test will be whether he can draw foreign investment into India, which can create and provide jobs to millions. This is something every country in the world will watch. One hundred million young voters will be demanding a hundred million jobs, to say the least. Moreover, India has been deluged with job-seeking immigrants from neighboring and other countries. Modi's test will be how well he can walk the tightrope democratically.