An election in India ignites old enemies

While India remains, formally at least, a secular republic, the last few years have seen that ideal become increasingly far from reality

Ned Donovan

The air in Delhi is so toxic that living there is said to be equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day. But it is not just pollution that hangs heavy in the air of India’s capital. This month sees the beginning of the country’s complex seven-phase general election, the first since prime minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014.

While India remains, formally at least, a secular republic, the last few years have seen that ideal become increasingly far from reality. Muslim terrorism and insurgency wrack the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir — tension inflamed by the territorial claim of neighbouring Pakistan. Meanwhile, in the Hindi-speaking belt of the country, religious battles over temples, cows and caste have seen an alarming increase in violence and scores of deaths. Other parts of India face issues as wide-ranging as recent milk shortages in the south, caused by a bizarre craze for film fans covering posters of their favourite actors with dairy products, and a Maoist insurgency gripping the east.

With opinion polls suggesting a very tight contest, it is no surprise that the upcoming election has already become a fevered battlefield of issues and personalities, with sides taking every opportunity to capitalise on their successes and the failings of their rivals.

Modi’s BJP and its allies are battling to retain control of the country’s parliament after spending five years in government busily activating the nationalist soul of devout Hindus.

Their tactic has been to convince believers that the forthcoming election is part of a war to retain Hindu values. As a  result, tensions have been so inflamed that once-friendly neighbours have been pitted against each other in violent religious disputes.

The BJP’s main rival is the Indian National Congress Party and its coalition partners, which controlled India for much of the 20th century from independence in 1947 onwards. But in 2014, Congress won only 44 seats out of 543 in the country’s lower house — its worst ever performance.

The party is traditionally seen as the most favourable towards India’s non-Hindu minority and promotes India’s secular status. Its candidate for prime minister is 48 year-old Rahul Gandhi, the half-Italian great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal “Pandit” Nehru.

Much of the BJP’s success comes from the activism of its volunteer wing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was founded in the 1920s and, according to contemporary writers, soon adopted techniques of the Nazi Party, right down to accusations of beating up political opponents and adopting a uniform of khaki shorts — now replaced by brown trousers. The RSS’s second leader even went so far as to ponder whether a campaign similar to the Holocaust could be used to dispose of India’s non-Hindu minorities.

Despite several bans over the last century, the group is now the largest voluntary organisation in the world, with more than 550,000 members. The RSS provided thousands of devoted campaigners to the BJP in the last election and is constantly on the prowl to fight back against negative comments directed at Modi or his government on social media.

For much of Modi’s term, it was regarded as a given that the 68-year-old bachelor would be comfortably returned to power. But over the last year polling has indicated that the election is likely to result in a hung parliament in which the BJP is the biggest party but where a Congress-led centre-left coalition could still take power. Despite Modi having adopted several disastrous economic policies, Gandhi has failed to capitalise on them. Instead, he and his party have been mired in corruption and graft scandals dating from Congress’s 47-year period in power.

Modi, meanwhile, has seen his support ebb away thanks to two key issues. The first stemmed from a draconian attempt to combat dark money and the black market. In November 2016, with less than four hours’ notice, Modi declared all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes — equivalent to about £6 and £12 — void, sending the country into chaos as people scrambled to exchange the notes for new ones before they became worthless.

The policy is believed to have failed, with more than 99 per cent of the voided banknotes being redeemed. The fiasco wiped out 1 per cent of India’s GDP and caused the loss of more than one million jobs, according to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy. One unplanned positive was a huge boost to digital banking and paying for services using mobile apps.

Similarly the Goods and Services Tax, introduced in 2017 as another attempt to foil black market trading, also proved counterproductive. It caused a further loss of jobs, according to the All India Manufacturers’ Organisation, and resulted in more under-the-counter cash transactions in a bid to avoid the tax.

A report by the National Statistical Commission (NSC) earlier this year said unemployment in India was at a 45-year high. The government claimed the NSC’s report was in fact only a draft, and that a much more positive final copy would be produced, leading to the resignation of the commission’s chairman and no final report emerging.

Outside the cities, there is a long- running issue of farmer suicide — making up more than 10 per cent of the country’s recorded suicides — thanks to low food prices and high interest rates on debt. While the suicides are not a new phenomenon, Modi’s plans to deal with it through government subsidies have been criticised by the opposition, which has promised a programme of farm debt if elected — a policy the BJP considers an impossible gimmick. However, much of the BJP’s support comes from the countryside, which is why Congress sees agrarian distress as a key vote winner. But while such economic concerns would in most countries be of primary concern in any general election, corruption and graft is regarded as a far more prominent and deep-seated issue that goes to the heart of the election. Many in India see the issue as an all-pervasive stranglehold that prevents India becoming the true world superpower they believe it should be.

While modern India is a far cry from the “Licence Raj” — the elaborate system of regulation and red tape that characterised the post-colonial era — business development is still hampered by a culture of bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork that allows officials plenty of opportunity to supplement their salaries. Critics say the system also places too much power in the hands of companies and tycoons favoured by those in power.

The most obvious example is the ongoing “Rafale Scandal” stemming from the purchase of several dozen Rafale fighter jets by the Indian Air Force from France. A key part of the contract was handed to Anil Ambani, one of India’s richest men and a favourite of Modi from his time as chief minister of Gujarat, which led to accusations of cronyism.

In a bid to detoxify the issue, Modi’s government has reignited the decade-old “Choppergate” controversy, in which the Congress-led government bought helicopters for senior politicians from AgustaWestland in a multi-million deal said to have involved huge kickbacks to Congress politicians and officials.

Religion, too, can be added to the mix. One of the most divisive issues in northern India has been the treatment of cows, venerated as sacred in the Hindu faith.

In recent years, the slaughtering of cattle and the consumption of beef by non-Hindus has been targeted with aggressive new laws. In addition, vigilante mobs have lynched those they see as “cow murderers”, often incorrectly.

Modi and his party have assiduously taken advantage of “cow politics”, claiming that if Congress was elected, cows throughout the country would be killed and exported in return for Muslim support at the polls.

Similarly, the BJP has become involved in controversy over a plot of land in Delhi believed to be the birthplace of the important Hindu god Ram. Problematically, the supposed birthplace is also the location for a mosque, igniting a furore over whether a temple to Ram can be built on its site.

In 1992 Hindu nationalists illegally demolished the mosque, but since then the land has remained vacant awaiting an official ruling on what to do next. The BJP have continually promised that if they are returned to power, they will allow the temple’s construction, enraging the country’s Muslim minority who believe it is a prime example of India straying from its secular founding principles.

On top of all this, the thorny issue of Kashmir was propelled front and centre with the death of more than 30 members of Indian paramilitary forces in a suicide bombing by a Muslim terror group. India blamed Pakistan, stating the group was supported and funded from within its Muslim neighbour’s borders and directly linked with the country’s security services. The charge was strenuously denied by Pakistan’s government, led by former Test cricketer Imran Khan.

The flashpoint climaxed with a retaliatory strike by Indian aircraft on Pakistani territory that led to one Indian pilot being shot down and captured, and a similar tit-for-tat strike the next day by Pakistan on India. Despite the pilot’s release and a relatively amicable conclusion to the crisis, the detente between the two countries since Khan’s election promptly froze.

In India, the tensions saw innocent Kashmiris and Pakistanis across the country attacked and abused by Indians out for revenge, in scenes similar to the communal violence in 1984 against Sikhs after the assassination of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

There are concerns that tensions are running so high that regardless of the result of the forthcoming elections, unhappy supporters of the losing party may take to the streets.

While strong action against Pakistan inevitably boosts Modi’s support among patriotic wavering voters, it continues to undermine one of the most fragile and volatile regions in the world.

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