Saturday, May 16, 2009

Indian Elections: A victory for secularism in a land of many gods

This first sentence from The Telegraph, a renowned publication from the eastern Indian city of Calcutta pretty much summed up my own reaction to the Indian election results:

“The idea of India — a vibrant, secular, plural, resurgent nation that can transcend its myriad differences and complexities to reaffirm an essential unity of purpose — received a resounding victory today as the world’s largest electorate shed the politics of extremes and delivered a decisive mandate to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.”

This road to victory wasn’t always clear, however.

As Ananya Vajpeyi explains, over the past few years the world’s largest democracy has become increasingly undemocratic, one where minorities and marginal groups are struggling to survive, and where election campaigns are based on divisiveness along religious lines.

Many candidates from the conservative nationalist party, the BJP, which represents the Hindu and Sikh communities of India, have invoked hate speeches against Muslims in order to further their campaigns. One such contender, who went far enough to say that he would “cut the heads of Muslims;” was jailed for a month before charges against him were dropped.

Of course, this is not entirely new to Indian electoral campaigns. Politics of identity, regionalism and religiosity is but natural in a land where so many different creeds populate what would be the American equivalent of a block in a cosmopolitan city. However, despite the depth of diversity that exists in the subcontinent, India’s national campaigns have been relatively secular in the past, even if not at the communal or individual level, certainly at the political party level.

One of the laudable things about Indian elections – and this was true up until the late nineties – is that campaigns were rarely exclusionist in terms of certain groups of the population, castes or religions, perhaps owing to the myriad number of small – but by no means insignificant – political parties that exist in the country’s political landscape. But in the aftermath of the religious animosity engendered by the Gujarat riots of 2002, the Mumbai blasts, and more recently against Christian groups in the southeastern state of Orissa, this has changed.

People from minority religions have been marginalized, in some states being forced to flee to other regions, and Hinduism, which has historically been celebrated for being exceedingly tolerant of other religions, has been used for political reasons by the BJP, whose acronym literally translates to “party of the people,” but which really is the Hindu nationalist party. In some regions of the country the recent terror attacks and increasing resentment toward Muslims have led to the popularity of pro-Hindu political leaders.

Robert Kaplan raises this very point in last month’s issue of The Atlantic, characterizing Narendra Modi, head of the western Indian state of Gujarat as the possible “new face” of India. Celebrated for his ruthless efficiency and his incorruptible personality (a rarity in a country where every other government official has at the very least a bribery charge against him), Modi’s lesser-touted characteristic is his intense hatred of Muslims. Modi is said to have perpetrated the infamous riots of 2002, where more than a thousand people were killed.

In the midst of religious and political unrest in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan, political stability and religious tolerance in India becomes that much more important.

As Kaplan eloquently articulates,

“ the influence of an economically burgeoning India now seeps both westward and eastward, to the Iranian plateau and to the Gulf of Thailand (the borders of viceregal India and its shadow zones a hundred years ago), it can grow only as a force of communal coexistence, a force that rests on India’s strengths as the world’s largest democracy. India, in other words, despite its flashy economic growth, will be nothing but another gravely troubled developing nation if it can’t maintain a minimum of domestic harmony.”

The route to that domestic harmony – at least for now, is the re-election of the pan-Indian, less marginal, more moderate, exceedingly progressive Congress party with Manmohan Singh at its helm. This mandate did not just signal a victory for religious tolerance in India, but was also a referendum on an increasing desire for social equality in a country where slums continue to grow along the feet of towering skyscrapers.

Singh, who is credited with the liberalization of the Indian economy in his role as Finance Minister in the early nineties, and the country’s resultant economic boom, was criticized by aspiring, free-market advocates just a couple years ago for appealing to business leaders to exercise restraint, regulate executive pay, and allow more demographic representation among employees.

A graduate of Cambridge and Oxford, Singh has no doubt been a free-market advocate for much of his life. But as Prime Minister, owing to an alliance with the socialist-leaning Leftist party, but more importantly - pragmatism in a land that houses 456 million people below the global poverty line - he has displayed a strong commitment toward the social and public sectors and insisted on providing economic security, health benefits, and greater representation to the underprivileged.

The task is certainly cut out for Singh and his party if they plan to deliver on their promise of balancing economic growth with social equality, but getting elected is a step in the right direction.