For those of who don’t know, there’s a definite sense of post-electoral euphoria in India. I described earlier why the Indian National Congress Party lost its place in government; they are, at this point, a fairly disliked entity and their ouster has triggered understandable public celebration.
So who now has stepped into the light? The BJP, more particularly Narendra Modi, their Prime Minister Designate and the man around whom their entire campaign was built, now dominates the Indian news cycle. Indeed it’s strange to those familiar with American politics, but Indians generally don’t see candidates around whom entire elections are run. The INC for example has a long-standing policy not to officially name a Prime Minister until after an election.
Despite these traditions, the reasons Modi arose are far easier to understand. “It’s the economy, stupid,” James Carville’s infamous 1992 byline, couldn’t be more appropriate to this election. Modi, Gujarat’s Chief Minister since 2001, is renowned for Gujarat’s economic progress during his tenure. Dubbed the “Gujarat Model,” the state’s economic policy focused heavily on fostering a friendly business environment that could draw in investment both from domestic and foreign sources: lower tax rates, more accommodating regulatory policy, investment incentives, etc. Its second plank is an emphasis on development projects, mostly vast infrastructure and construction efforts that include things like power generation, power distributional systems, roads, bridges, dams, etc. In short, Gujarat’s model is a textbook case of modern “neoliberal” prescriptions for economic growth. It’s also matches the BJP’s preferred economic policies, generally dubbed as “pro-business” and center-right because of their emphasis on increasing growth rates to draw in investment capital. The INC, on the center left as it were, has a stronger preference for social welfare programs that they believe should adjust growth to be more equitable. Which brings me to my next point.
Gujarat has drawn in large amounts of business investment, tackled various infrastructure problems, chief among them being electricity, and generally been hailed across India for its sound economic management (a direct contrast to depictions of the Congress record eh?). But the Gujarat record is not without criticism and ironically draws similar complaints to other areas where these “neoliberal” policies have been tried. The main criticisms generally concern the distribution of wealth (the charge being that the policies disproportionately help the rich and upper middle class), and a lack of progress on key social indicators such as health and education.
In the current context, this ongoing academic economic debate (think Amartya Sen vs. Jagdish Bhagwati) between growth and social programs is moot. Modi won the political debate when he won the election. And unlike the last American election, economic ideology was never the central focus; both the BJP and the INC’s economic policies use varying combinations of development projects, social programs, and private investment. Changes in government generally indicate a new or adjusted combinations of these variables alongside previous best practices. Prime Minister Vajpayee (BJP) built his economic platform on Prime Minister Rao’s (INC) initial reforms and subsequently had his better efforts continued under the now departing Prime Minister Singh (INC). The difference between political debates on the economy in India versus those in the United States is not really one of ideology for now; it is one of competence, corruption, and governance. The INC stood no chance against Modi, a man who the electorate saw as superior in each of these three categories.
So why the fuss? Genuine concerns exist about Modi and to understand them, you must understand his party and recent Indian history. Basic South Asian history in most American classrooms will generally mention the partition between India and Pakistan as the basis for modern Indian politics. In the political vacuum that followed, the INC took control of Indian politics for the next six decades. However, following Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial turn in 1975, India saw the initial signs of brewing opposition. Between 1977 and 1980, a coalition called the Janata Party, led by Prime Ministers Moraji Desai and Charan Singh respectively, formed a government from the political fallout caused by the Emergency. Both it’s rise to power and eventual doom came because it was a coalition of parties from across the political spectrum; one of its notable constituent parties was the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), a Hindu Nationalist group that had formed back in the 1950s. When the Janata government fell, the BJS ended as a formal organization and would go on to become today’s BJP, eventually forming its first major government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee a decade and a half later in the 1990s following the failure of numerous Congress-associated coalitions.
Both the BJP and its predecessor are associated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a national volunteer organization in India with a stated Hindu nationalist philosophy. Think of boy scouts with a far more ideological and militant focus that also spreads its activities and membership into adulthood. Like the INC, they’ve existed since the British Raj and, while outwardly neutral in politics, their membership has always been aligned with the more nationalistic parties. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Narendra Modi, and a nunerous other BJP leaders are all members of the RSS.
This is where Western concerns start to arise. While entirely separate as an organization entity, the BJP draws much of its ideological influence from organizations like the RSS and is also an outwardly Hindu nationalist party. Vajpayee’s government never held an absolute majority in parliament but Modi has been granted a mandate that BJP stalwarts of decades prior could only ever dream of. His campaign focused largely on economic policy, sound governance, etc. but it’s still up for debate how much his party, the RSS, or his base intend to focus on these controversial issues.
- A Uniform Civil Code. The BJP opposes India’s peculiar legal system that grants separate religious and ethnic communities the right to use their own personal law in areas like marriage for example. They wish to replace this system with one civil code that covers every single community. It’s certainly a necessary eventuality and one that the Indian constitution specifically recommends; however concern has arisen the effect on India’s minority communities. Other’s retaliate by pointing to the aftermath of the Shah Bano case in 1985 as proof that India needs a Uniform Civil Code.
- Hindutva. This phrase, associated with a kind of Hindu cultural nationalism, identifies the BJP’s desire to advance and promote Hindu culture and interests. Potential Hindutva influence could pervade education policy, national monuments, the structure of any new civil codes, etc.
- Ayodhya. Ayodhya is a famous city in Hindu mythology. In 1992, a mob destroyed the Babri Mosque which they claimed was built on holy ground. Ever since, there’s been a land dispute regarding whether Muslims would get to rebuild a mosque or if Hindu sects could build their desired Ram Temple. The BJP has expressed support for the Hindu elements in the past.
The Ayodhya case in particular caused riots in many parts of India and was blamed for contributing to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat that took place at the beginning of Modi’s tenure. These riots resulted in the retaliatory killing 1500 Muslims for the killing of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya. Modi was heavily criticized for his response, complacency, and potential responsibility during the riots by human rights activists, foreign NGOs, and by the international community. The British and American governments even banned him from receiving travel visas to their respective countries (a ban which was lifted in the wake of the 2014 elections).
Eventually, the Indian Supreme Court determined there was not enough evidence to indict Modi for what happened in Gujarat. Clearly, the Indian electorate also felt the same; the efforts of the INC and the Gandhi family to go after the BJP for communalism, inciting sectarian divisions, and the abandonment of secularism failed miserably. So why did I mention it?
I did so because the BJP, owing much as it does to Narendra Modi, now has to answer two questions: will this new government address India’s economic problems and how much will it be influenced by the BJP’s Hindu nationalist elements? Modi’s personal history and huge impact on this race signifies the broader debate surrounding these key questions. It would therefore be impossible to fairly describe the position of India’s new, politically powerful, government without mentioning controversies that could arise when the post-election euphoria inevitably dies down.
There was one final purpose. As much as 2014 realigned Indian politics, it did not create a blank slate. This primer cannot make guesses on what the new government will do; it is here to serve as a reference for analyzing those actions. It was far more difficult to write than part two if only because the BJP hasn’t had a record to be judged by for ten years. But I hope it will grant some familiarity with the issues that pervade modern Indian politics to those who’ve only ever had to read Western sources.
It has been my pleasure to write it for you and if it allows you all to more easily comprehend Indian news, I’ll be satisfied. Make sure to keep track of the news as May 26th, the day the new government officially comes in, approaches.
P.S. This isn’t the last you’ve seen of our articles on India. We’ll be welcoming our newest writer, Steven, next week. He’ll be joining me in exploring various aspects of Indian politics from an editorial perspective. I’ll be on break for the next two weeks so make sure to give his work the warm welcome it’ll deserve!