Democracy’s Biggest Ever Exercise: Nationalism Redux?

On the 7th April, something quite remarkable began: nothing less than the single largest exercise in self-determination ever to occur, the largest general election in the history of the planet.  Ladies, and Gentlemen: the Indian general election!   More than 800 million eligible voters, 543 elected seats, the highest ever spending on an election (excepting the 2012 US election), 9 phases of votes and a voting schedule of several weeks, the results being announced on the 16th May. Turnout is expected to be very high, and the contest is between diametrically opposed forces in India: the secular, incumbent Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi of the historic and influential Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and the Hindu-Nationalist opposition Bharata Janata Party (BJP), led by Gujarat Chief Minister Nahendra Modi, son of a tea seller.  The rise of the BJP as force in Indian politics reflects two trends: Hindu-nationalism and right-wing neo-liberal economics.  Whether the two can be reconciled is a question that is being asked of India, and the BJP are putting forward their case.

Image courtesy of Narendra Modi's official Flickr account, ©2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Narendra Modi’s official Flickr account, ©2013, some rights reserved.

Due to the fact that this is the largest polity in the world, the largest number of seats for a lower house, and the fact that there are so many issues that face Indians across the sub-continent, the main parties face a challenge.  These main parties, as is usually the case the first-past-the-post system used in the Lower House (the Lok Sabha); will require small regional and issue-based parties to form a coalition government.  If either side gains a plurality they will be able to get into power, even if they do not garner an absolute majority.  However, the BJP is the runaway favourite to win, or at least make a plurality.  All their election promises may not be able to be fulfilled if they enter a majority, but a large section of them will be.

Regarding foreign, economic and political policy towards Pakistan, the BJP appears to have something of a split personality.  It is a Hindu nationalist organisation, the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant right wing Hindu organisation, which considers India a homeland for Hindus and espouses a simplified, militant version of the Hindu faith.  It is also a political party and a political force to be reckoned with, which has the support of both business elites in India and Hindu small business owners, who are its major constituency.  While the latter may be broadly supportive of the nationalist agenda, the former are not.

Witness the conflicting messages on FDI and the economic future of India put forward by the BJP.  One of the major tenets of RSS and BJP ideology is Akhand Bharat, or “Undivided India”, an expression both of the wish to politically and territorially integrate the entire sub-continent, but also a desire, influenced the Gandhian ideal of swadeshi, or self-reliance, to limit foreign influence on what is considered the holy soil of the land. This is exactly what FDI, according to some ideologues, reverses. The new policy, however, is for FDI in all sectors barring multi-brand retail, the lifeblood of the BJP voter base.  While this may not endear the populace to the BJP, it is an obvious paean to the ideals of the business elite,[1] who dislike the current state’s discretion model.  This is in direct contrast to the Congress, who want to open up FDI in all sectors; and the Aam Aadmi Party, a new anti-corruption party that opposes FDI at almost all levels, but especially in retail.

The BJP also claim they want to up enforcement of intellectual property rights and patents, which will endear them to the World Bank but might be a stumbling block for India’s thriving software industry and generic drugs manufacturers.   At the same time, with an incredibly long-running Maoist insurgency in the east of the country (which has already attacked voting staff[2]), and a strong Left presence in the government, is how much will neo-liberalism appeal to both the masses of India, and the hard core of Hindu-nationalists?  The much-vaunted “Gujarat Model” which Mr. Modi orchestrated in his tenure as chief minster there, which included general neo-liberalisation of FDI and other economic structures, may have benefitted Gujarat, but it was planted in good soil. To try and grow the same orchard in the rest of India may prove fruitless, and even dangerous.  While GDP may have risen during Mr. Modi’s tenure, income and wealth inequality also rose in Gujarat, according to Save the Children.[3] If the BJP fails to deliver on its economic promises, especially getting GDP growth up to a level where the economy can employ millions of new entrants each year, it will not go well.  Having let the forces of globalisation loose in India, it may face a backlash within its own nationalist ranks, as well as in the electorate.  It is a gamble, but one that might just pay off.  As India ups its trade, and allows foreign investment in its crumbling infrastructure, its burgeoning and growing middle class might just grow that much bigger. India represents a huge market, and investment opportunity, for foreign companies.

However, there is another gamble on the BJP’s cards with regard to Pakistan and Kashmir. This is what might be called the constant elements of Indian foreign policy.   Even its foreign policy motto “Nation First, Universal Brotherhood” has two conflicting messages.  The business elite want rapprochement with Pakistan, but the Hindu nationalist elements of the party would brook “no flinching on the issue of Kashmir”[4], so there is no telling which way they would go.  However, ‘Two aides to Modi told Reuters in the run-up to the vote that if he becomes prime minister, India would get tougher in territorial disputes with China and more robust with Pakistan over attacks by Islamist militants based there.’[5]  This is coupled with an assertion in the manifesto, to reconsider article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which grants special status to Kashmir state: if the BJP tries to fully integrate the state, it will go well for the rhetoric of the nationalists, but it will infuriate both the Pakistanis and the Kashmiris, who view their different status as an expression of their identity, and would probably lead to even greater central control of Kashmir, another grating issue.

Further exacerbating relations with Muslims and Pakistan is an assertion that the BJP will consider the ground at Ayodhya, one the holiest sites in Hinduism, for the building and consolidation of a temple over the remains of a mosque.  The site is of particular importance to the BJP as it is holy to Lord Ram, and the profession of his godhood is one the central ideas of the RSS.  This was the place of the dispute that in 1992 resulted in more than 2000 deaths in inter-communal riots across the country when Hindu-nationalists tore down the mosque.

A final point of contention is in nuclear policy, which has garnered a lot of media attention.  The BJP have said they will “revise and update” India’s strategic nuclear doctrine.  This is important as India, at the moment, stresses a “no-first use” policy, while the Pakistanis, their major nuclear rival, do not.  While this could merely be nationalist rhetoric, it could be a signal to Islamabad to fear India more, and to reign in the more rogue elements of its military and intelligence services. The threat remains the existential nuclear insecurity brought by a Hindu-nationalist government, while the reward will be the conclusion of the Most Favoured Nation trade talks on hold during the election.  The example of history, with the previous BJP administration from 1998-2004, shows a large degree of nationalist rhetoric before the election, but once they got into power, peace talks with Pakistan showed the most progress since the 1970s, until the Pakistani military incursion at Kargil.  The BJP want to forfend any military action by the Pakistanis, in order to satisfy their business interests, but still maintain a strong, nuclear-tipped rhetoric to appease their nationalist supporters.

The BJP will probably win this election and they will bring with them uncertainty, but also a much needed change from the stultifying effect of a decade of Congress’ rule.  They might sweep through and revitalise India; equally the nationalists might have their way.  Either way, nationalism is ascendant in India and nobody knows for sure what that means now.  It could be the shining future promised, or equally it could be a hideous monster from the past.