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Implications of BJP Victory in General Elections-View from Bangladesh

Paper No. 5711                                         Dated 28-May-2014

By Kazi Anwarul Masud

BJP victory in the Lok Sabha elections has signaled a tectonic shift in the domestic politics of India.

Hindustan Times observed "The result is the biggest landslide in 30 years, and the first time since 1984 that a single party has a majority in the Lok Sabha".  The question is why Congress which has ruled India for most part since its independence has won only 44 seats as against BJP's 282 and if one considers the allies--UPA and  NDA-- the number of members is 59 versus 336.

It has been said that the rising public anger as a result of the UPA’s policy paralysis, stalled economic growth and  the series of corruption scandals, created a desire  for change especially among young Indians who see  Modi as a leader symbolizing their expectations of fast economic growth unshackled from red tape and corruption. Paradoxically though ever-greater numbers of people are embracing electoral democracy, rage against it is also rising — led by a fast-growing cohort of semi-educated but prospect less urban youth, economically disenfranchised and politically marginalized.

Some analysts taking an optimistic view feel that Modi can transform the Indian economy and India can become a middle-income country under his watch in the next 15-20 years.  So his focus is going to be economics. They believe that the Indian economy is capable of the double digit growth rate could come to India what Deng Xiaoping was to China. To accept such a proposition one has to believe that the UPA administration achieved very little in the last ten years.

But among top achievements of Dr. Man Mohan Singh is that India enjoyed a period of social harmony, a not insignificant achievement for a nation whose fractured religious communities - and castes - have often clashed. While he belonged to the minority Sikh community  recent research  indicates that the strong growth registered in his first term starting 2004 - thanks to the sound economy he inherited from the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government -  contributed to social peace as people focused on improving their lives. But growth had slowed significantly in his second term on the back of his government's policy paralysis and persistently high inflation.

Sadly, his last two years saw average economic expansion of less than 5 per cent, bringing to the surface once again the acid label of "Hindu rate of growth". Unfortunately he failed to over-rule his finance minister who slapped a retrospective tax on key multinationals such as telecoms giant Nokia, scaring away investors. Daily The Hindu in an editorial wrote that "His credentials as the architect of the 1991 reforms were an important factor in his being chosen prime minister, yet the promise that his elevation held remains only partially fulfilled."  Dr. Singh could have fared better but for the diarchy, though denied, that existed in the administration of the country. 

In 2009, his government was returned to power with a larger majority because people saw in him an honest and competent administrator, the very qualities the voters looked for in the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Narendra Modi. Rather than using this victory to assert himself, and put his own stamp on government, Dr Singh allegedly yielded to his coalition allies and the Gandhi household, which determined key decisions for him, including his Cabinet line-up.  Baru, his former media adviser, reveals in a recent book that Dr Singh told him he had reconciled to the fact that "there cannot be two centers of power". The consequences have been lethal for not only his image, but his government and party as well. Perhaps it is fitting then that the last word on Dr Singh should come from a senior politician of the rival BJP. "The Prime Minister goes out with dignity and grace,"  Arun Jaitley, now Finance Minister in Modi government  and formerly leader of the Opposition in the Upper House, where Dr Singh, too, is a member, said in a blog post. "He will remain an elder statesman and a man of credibility to guide the nation. Only if he had stood up at the right time and disagreed, he would have been regarded with still greater honor."

A celebrated economist, Dr. Singh entered politics at the height of the 1991 economic crisis when late Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao inducted him into the government as Finance Minister. Together they lifted the economy out of the balance of payments crisis and then paved the way for the economic reforms on which no successive government has looked back.

A technocrat who had occupied various positions including as Reserve Bank Governor and Secretary General of the South-South Commission, he had earned a name for probity and integrity that made him the automatic choice for Sonia Gandhi when she decided to renounce the post of Prime Minister. Taking over as Prime Minister from the NDA government in the aftermath of the 2002 post-Godhra riots and a surcharged communal atmosphere, Singh's administration brought in a sense of balance in the situation.

Notwithstanding pulls and pressures from allies, especially the Left parties, Singh displayed considerable determination to go ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal and to end the sanctions regime against India even unmindful of the threats to his government. A renowned economist, his governments also delivered a robust 8.5 percent GDP growth for most of his tenure but the scams--2G, CWG and Coal block allocations--and the resultant policy paralysis of the government stymied his performance.

In 2014 elections the UPA and Congress in particular were practically annihilated by the "Modi Wave".

Washington Post's Simon Denyr writes of the frustration of Dr. Man Mohan Singh as he watched impotently as reforms stuttered to a halt, growth slowed and corruption gnawed at the nation’s heart. His strengths, his honesty and economic competence, became the mirror images of his government’s greatest failings. Sumeet Ganguli in an article in Foreign Affairs (August 20 2011) gave some details of corruption in India. He wrote: graft has long wracked India's public life and society, running the gamut from small-scale bribes to the police in exchange for dispensing with traffic tickets to massive payoffs to politicians and political parties to acquire complex weapons systems. The country's citizens have frequently complained about this malaise but have rarely, if ever, resorted to organized public protest to register their frustration and anger about this pervasive phenomenon. On the whole, they have stoically accepted its existence as part of India's social and political landscape.

The explanation for the sudden surge in public anger over and impatience with corruption is twofold. At one level, India's fitful embrace of market-oriented policies beginning in the early 1990s has ended some forms of mid-level corruption. For example, the eclipse of what the noted Indian economist Raj Krishna sardonically called the "license-permit-quota raj" -- the labyrinthine set of regulations of industrial licensing, permit requirements, and production quotas -- has actually reduced opportunities for bureaucratic graft and corruption. Businessmen and industrialists no longer have to bribe bureaucrats at state and national levels to obtain most such clearances.

That said, corruption has moved into other spheres. Three recent cases are illustrative. The first involved the offering of 2G spectrum rights to a number of unexceptional mobile-phone firms at undervalued prices. According to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the scandal cost the exchequer $39 billion. The second involved the sale of some prime, government-owned land in Mumbai to high-ranking retired military officers, even though the land was ostensibly intended for the widows of officers who had lost their lives in the fourth Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1999. The third episode dealt with the 19th Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi last October. Once again, another CAG report has confirmed fears and allegations of widespread fraud, mismanagement, and the blatant padding of contracts.

The people particularly the young got fed up and used their votes to teach the government a lesson.  The beneficiary of this democratic awakening is, ironically, a man who seems to set little store in the checks and balances of democracy, who ran a state where dissent was suppressed and the media  cowed. By voting for Modi, many Indians hope to end years of underachievement under desperately weak leadership. Under his rule, Gujarat’s economy grew more than 10percent ? a year and corruption has been kept in check. Poverty has fallen faster than the national average, electricity and clean drinking water are being delivered to villages and girls’ dropout rates from school have dropped.

Jagadish Bhagawati and Arvind  Pangarya of Columbia University argue that India's strategy of fuelling growth with market-based policies and eradicating poverty by "growing the pie rather than slicing it" holds lessons for other developing countries. They add that the proportion of the population below the poverty line in India decreased 17 per cent in two decades, from 44.5 per cent in 1983 to 27.5 per cent in 2004-2005 is due to the centrality of growth in reducing poverty.   

But the Washington Post observes that   to many liberal Indians, Modi represents an assault on their nation’s founding ideals. Yet to many young people, desperate for opportunities to match their vaulting aspirations, the riots of 2002 seem like the dim and distant past, while Modi’s emphasis on governance and development offers hope for a brighter future.

India and the outside world can only hope that the country’s new administration will reflect Modi’s considerable strong qualities more than his equally outstanding failings. He has a record of hostility toward journalists and their questions and rarely grants interviews. Worse, he has cultivated an autocratic style in government and, as head of the BJP, systematically purging critics and potential rivals.

At worst, a Modi government could erode India’s robust democracy and exacerbate religious tensions that in recent years have abated. But India’s political culture is resilient and resistant to such extremism. Though critics had similar worries when the BJP’s first government took office in 1998, they were mostly not borne out.

The Obama administration, which in February broke its freeze-out of Modi, is right to bet that he will follow through on his promise to build the economy rather than picking sectarian fights. Brookings Institution (shaping the emerging world) feels that India faces a defining period. Its status as a global power is not only recognized but increasingly institutionalized, even as geopolitical shifts create both opportunities and challenges. India experienced rapid growth through participation in the existing multilateral order—now its development strategy makes it dependent on this order. With critical interests in almost every major multilateral regime and vital stakes in several emerging ones, India has no choice but to influence the evolving multilateral order if it is to sustain its own interests.

In such a situation can India ignore the brilliant expatriate Indians who in an open letter to the British paper Independent (22nd April) expressed fear of a victory by Narendra Modi for democracy, pluralism and human rights in India?  The intellectuals criticized the authoritarian nature of Modi's rule in Gujarat, further evidenced by the recent sidelining of other senior figures within the BJP. This style of governance can only weaken Indian democracy. They added that the Modi-BJP model of economic growth involves close linking of government with big business, generous transfer of public resources to the wealthy and powerful, and measures harmful to the poor. Though the intellectuals did not say it the Gujrat model conjures up the path to unashamed crony capitalism. That is why those thousands of crores of rupees of doubtful provenance poured into the coffers of Modi’s campaign, just as Krupp and Thyssen funded every step of the march of the corporal from the Beer Hall Putsch to the German Chancery. Hitler repaid them with the biggest bonanza ever. "A Modi victory would likely mean greater moral policing, especially of women, increased censorship and vigilantism, and more tensions with India's neighbours".

Such a failure of moral character and political ethics on the part of Modi, the intellectuals felt, was incompatible with India's secular constitution, which, in advance of many constitutions across the world, is founded on pluralist principles and seeks fair and full representation for minorities. Were he to be elected prime minister, it would bode ill for India's future as a country that cherishes the ideals of inclusion and protection for all its peoples and communities.

But then majority of the Indians chose to ignore such a dystopian scenario for India and decided to give Narendra Modi thumbs up to lead the country in a decisive manner. Since wishes are not horses some apprehend that this election polarized the two major parties to such an extent that the BJP cast itself as the party of Hindutva, while the Congress was made the party of Muslims. Such religious polarization is detrimental not only to democracy but to development. The proponents of Hindutva Indian argue that Muslim mindset is still rooted in victimhood, prioritizing physical safety, security of life and property (rightly so) and the protection of a social identity.

The Muslims complain that India a democracy, to which they contribute much with their presence and participation, is not yet fully articulated and understood.  It is hard to find a political leader at any level of government, but especially at the national level, who could present the positive face of the Muslim community and their role in nation building. It seems unfair that even after 67 years of independence, one has to speak for the country’s largest minority, made up of more than 170 million Indians. So comprehensive seems to be the desire to turn a new national leaf that voters did not mind Modi’s advocacy of vote catching which sometimes crossed the line of secularism.

Some felt that the Modi vote was an unadulterated communally polarized vote and there was no secret that the minorities, especially the Muslims, were deeply apprehensive of a Modi victory and did everything possible to defeat the BJP.  This is the first time since 1952 that the minorities have not counted in determining as to who rules in New Delhi. This disquiet cannot be brushed aside as a “secular” overreaction. After all, Modi’s indebtedness to the RSS bosses is all too real. Had it not been for their indulgence and influence, Modi would not have won the baton race within the BJP.

The daily INDIAN EXPRESS of MAY 17th   opined that "In a moment of national pique, the country has given unlimited mandate to a limited man. Consequences will follow, sooner or later". While Congress leader Mani shankar Ayar (dying light of freedom) said that the campaign has shown the incoming prime minister insisting that for any Hindu, India is his rightful home, thus equating India with Hindudom and reducing to sufferance those who regard India as their home but not Hinduism as their religion.

Some critics have been harsh to the extent to state that Godhra was to Modi what Marinus van der Lubbe’s attempt to set fire to the Reichstag was to Hitler. Harvard Professor Nathan Glazer (Democracy and Deep Divide-Journal of Democracy- April 2010) points out the threats to democracy posed by   social divisions that are essentially formed by birth and are inerasable: race, ethnicity, religion and native language. He cites three cases of USA, Canada and India and tries to explore how these countries have endeavoured to solve these divisions through democratic means. in India grave divisions in caste, religion and languages continue to threaten the common thread of Indianism which has also been translated by a section of the people as Hindutva that considers Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs to be adherents of indigenous Indian religions but excludes Muslims and Christians as outside the pale of Indianism though representatives of both communities have and continue to adorn high political, judicial and administrative posts in India. Muslims in particular are at a disadvantage due to unresolved problem with Pakistan on Kashmir and the belief of the opposition Bharatya Janata Party that Muslims cannot be good Indians as theirs is an outsider religion and culture.

According to Nathan Glazer influences of democracy have been able to moderate these divides and bring forth a measure of stability, more active in the US, firm in Canada but shakier in India. Brahama Chellany a leading strategic thinker and an analyst of international geo strategic trends compares Shinjo Abe's return in  late 2012, after six years of political instability, reflecting  Japan’s determination to reinvent itself as a more competitive and confident country with  Narendra Modi’s election victory reflecting Indians’ desire for a dynamic, assertive leader to help revitalize their country’s economy and security. Like Abe, Modi is expected to focus on reviving India’s economic fortunes while simultaneously bolstering its defenses and strengthening its strategic partnerships with like minded states, thereby promoting regional stability and blocking the rise of a Sino-centric Asia.  

Understandably Narendra Modi having been Chief Minister of a state is ill equipped with expertise in foreign affairs. But then there is no dearth of talents around him and importantly the people he appoints as External Affairs Minister, National Security Advisor and in the Foreign Office establishment. His first act to invite the Heads of State/government of SAARC has been well received. After initial hesitation believed to be getting green signal from the Pakistan army that virtually runs foreign policy Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has agreed to attend. But caution has been sounded that disputed topics are unlikely to be discussed.

Some hawks in India opposed to the invitation because of attack on the Indian consulate at Herat in Afghanistan they believe could not have been mounted without assistance/ approval of ISI was ignored for which both Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif  are to be commended. BJP's election manifesto pledges to revise the country's nuclear doctrine, whose central principle is that New Delhi would not be first to use atomic weapons in a conflict.  Unveiling its election manifesto, the party gave no details, but sources involved in drafting the document said the "no-first-use" policy introduced after India conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998 would be reconsidered.  Arch-rival Pakistan, which responded within weeks that year by conducting tests of its own, does not profess "no first use". Richard Boucher, who was the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia when the United States negotiated the Indian civil nuclear deal, said scrapping the no first strike policy would "not (be) a smart move" by the BJP." In fact, the threats to India - terrorist groups and conventional border disputes - can't be dealt with by nuclear threats. India's nuclear strategy ain't broke, so don't fix it.

Ashley Tellis, a senior associate of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington and a former official of the U.S. National Security Council, said it was still unclear what revision of the doctrine would entail."The new government should review the doctrine for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that much has happened regionally since it was promulgated. Ashley finds it difficult to convince himself that India actually comes out ahead by giving up its "no first use" policy - if that's what revision entails."

Dan Twining, a former State Department official and now a senior official of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said India had stood out among big powers with its no first use policy. Twining said former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had explained in 1998 that India first tested nuclear weapons in response to a growing threat from China, which had since grown further."So a new BJP government ... would be in keeping with party tradition - and arguably with India's national interest - to review nuclear policy by considering one that would leave all options open for India to defend itself," he said.  The no-first-use policy was based on a premise that India would retaliate so massively against a nuclear strike that an enemy would not contemplate such a move in the first place.

However, a source who advises the BJP said there has been significant debate in recent years about being bound to the policy given the advances of Pakistan's nuclear capability. Pakistan, however, does not appear to be bothered by any such review by BJP of its nuclear doctrine. Pakistan's nuclear inventory may have already overtaken that of its neighbour, and it has claimed progress in miniaturisation of weapons for use on the battlefield. Interestingly BJP manifesto states its intention to ignore big power interests and focus on Asia via the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) instead.

A Narendra Modi-led government would seek solutions to most of its problems – cross-border terrorism, narcotics trafficking, climate change, infrastructure development – in its own neighbourhood. Besides Narendra Modi has been advised that in the region, addressing relations with Bangladesh is a less glaring but important foreign policy initiative that the Modi government can take. It will be easy as well as significant to take the relationship to a higher level because the Sheikh Hasina-led government has, in recovering the secular ethos of its own liberation struggle, already restored trust to relations with India and been responsive to our concerns on terrorism. This warmth is intact despite Modi’s denunciation of illegal immigration from Bangladesh – especially the unprecedented characterization of Hindu migrants as “our brothers” who will be extended citizenship rights, while illegal migrants (Muslims) ostensibly brought to India for vote-bank politics must return to Bangladesh.

So far, it has not been possible to deal constructively with the issue of illegal migration. On the one hand, previous Congress governments in New Delhi and Assam, and Left-wing governments in West Bengal, deliberately obfuscated the problem. On the other hand, Bangladeshi governments, especially those led by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), insisted that not a single person from their country had illegally gone to India. Initially, the discord in the relationship was due to the anti-India stance of the military governments that followed the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1974; they refused to acknowledge India’s contribution to the Independence of Bangladesh. BNP-led governments have, in the past, harbored anti-India separatist groups such as ULFA, and Islamic terrorist groups like HuJI, even sometimes characterising them as “freedom fighters.” But the Hasina government has courageously extradited high-profile terrorists such as Arabinda Rajkhowa (ULFA).  Frustration exists in Bangladesh over the non-delivery if Land Boundary Agreement that was to be ratified by the Indian Parliament and the signing of the Teesta Agreement already agreed upon by Sheikh Hasina and Dr Man Mohan Singh. Given the fact that Bangladesh has secured India from terrorists using our territory as a transit passage to India it would make sense to make Bangladesh one of the first countries on Modi’s foreign itinerary that will underline the importance India attaches to its neighbors, as well as send signals to countries like Nepal and Pakistan that a more positive dynamic is possible bilaterally and for the region as a whole. (Courtesy - Gateway House article by Ambassador Neelam Deo -

Of other countries in SAARC Atal Bihari Vajpayee successfully insulated Indian diplomacy from domestic political pressures. In the face of the extremely difficult regional and international circumstances that confronted him, Vajpayee successfully developed new options for India on the three most difficult diplomatic accounts — the United States, China and Pakistan.

With Vajpayee taking the difficult initial steps with these three countries, Dr. Man Mohan Singh had a much easier time engaging them. After a great start with the three countries during 2004-05, Singh struggled to finish what he had inherited from Vajpayee. Part of the problem was that Singh did not have the full backing of the Congress party, which was reluctant to embrace the new possibilities for India on the global stage and was wary of making big moves towards the US, China and Pakistan. Sonia Gandhi’s apparent lack of strategic convictions was compounded by her eagerness to appease coalition partners.  How far this policy of appeasement will continue would be seen in the coming days as both the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Kerala have declined to attend the swearing in ceremony of Modi as Prime Minister protesting the presence of Sri Lankan President Rajapakse at the function. Earlier in Geneva India had abstained from voting in favor of a UN Resolution calling for investigation of alleged genocide by Sri Lankan troops during the war with the Tamil separatists. Pakistan poses a more difficult proposition.

South Asia expert Stephen Cohen (Shooting for a century) observes that Pakistan’s identity as an Islamic state still threatens Indian pluralism, and when it is given muscle by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, it becomes a domestic political problem for India, leaving aside the ambivalence of some Indian Muslims. For Pakistanis, the notion of a perpetual conflict means finding a way to live with a more powerful and still-threatening neighbour, strengthening the one technology that assures Pakistan that India will not seek a military victory—nuclear weapons—while searching for a way to overhaul the economy. From an orthodox Pakistani position, normalization will come if and when India backs off on the key symbolic and strategic issues that have been there for sixty-five years, notably Kashmir.

The second response that Cohen received—largely from some Americans and Indians—is that Pakistan is a fatally wounded state trying to meet the challenges of the modern era. Normalization will have to be postponed indefinitely. With China relations will be competitive but not explosive. Minxin Pei  an expert on governance in the China, U.S.-Asia relations, and democratization in developing nations who  currently serves as the director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College, and is a former senior associate with the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has observed  that in Beijing, Modi’s victory has been greeted with polite official congratulations but subdued media commentary. One obvious reason is that the announcement of India’s election results unfortunately coincided with the violent anti-Chinese demonstrations in Vietnam that killed two Chinese workers and destroyed factories owned by South Korean and Taiwanese businesses. (The demonstrations took place after China moved an oil rig into a disputed area in the South China Sea.)Additionally, Beijing has a longstanding policy of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, thus making it a taboo for officials to comment on events such as India’s elections.

The Chinese government would be watching Modi carefully and trying to decipher his strategic intentions towards China. If there is enough evidence to lead them to conclude that Modi’s China policy is fundamentally antagonistic, they would respond in kind. But before that happens, they will do their best to avoid any overt display of hostility — however concerned they may be with Modi’s stance on China.

Regarding the US despite the visa ban imposed earlier should not deter Narendra Modi to develop the strategic relationship already in place between the two countries.

And in the case of Russia it has been a time tested friend of India and the two countries have multifarious bonds in different sectors. In short all analysts would have to let some time to pass before the trend of Modi government in both domestic and foreign policies can be projected. More so as India will continue to play a global role in international affairs.