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India’s up-coming general elections: Which choices?

India’s “natural party of government” is the Congress Party; it has created the Republic, it has ruled it for most of the time and it still is the one with the widest representation in the country. Its critics, however, consider it as “no longer legitimized for government”. They say Congress is the main cause and the main profiteer of corruption. Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi leads the oppositional Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, into the forth-coming general elections. Gujarat is said to be the fastest growing State economy of the Union; Modi is said to be the most effective State leader, and to be non-corrupt, and his party, the BJP, of all other Indian parties, comes closest to a nation-wide representation behind Congress. His critics, however, say that his involvement in the bloody Gujarat persecution of Muslims in 2002 makes him “not legitimized for government” on the national level. Who then is left to run for office on the national level, let alone to run the country? Over recent years, the Republic’s politics is characterized by a growing atomisation of the landscape of political parties. Over the years, Congress has come down from a dominant absolute majority position to its current reduced strength, which allows the party just to lead a fragile coalition government with unreliable partners. The forthcoming election campaign will ascertain the experience that political parties in India are “by nature” unreliable, unreliable for their electorate and unreliable for their coalition partners. So, the safest bet, again, on the out-come of the general elections will be a coalition government, but one whose leader and whose composition are impossible to foresee. Will it be a Congress-led coalition, a BJP-led coalition or a non-BJP, non-Congress alternative? Regional parties, just as ethnically defined parties, are exploring which coalition combinations may promise more, promise more not for the people’s well-being, but for the parties’ advantages. As coalition partners are inter-changeable, not just during election campaigns, the coalition prospects have something of a “déjà-vu”. Party slogans will be suggesting more social benefits or social justice (which is not the same) or less corruption and more rule of law (which is not the same). This, too, is not new. In a direct electoral race between Congress and BJP, secularism will be more of a dividing topic, at least rhetorically. Historically, Congress stands for the principle of secularism as opposed to communalism. BJP is said to have an anti-Muslim bias, which would put them in contradiction with constitutional secularism. In the eyes of the wider public, however, the two competing parties do not differ with regard to the comprehensive suspicion of corruption. With a growing middle class, expectations of transparency are also growing. This is an effect of globalisation. Under the heading of corruption, criticism has become a political force. In 2011, Anna Hazare went on hunger strike for better legislation against corruption. This has triggered political movements and parties which are going to take part in general elections with a clear vision of challenging the whole political class irrespective of individual parties. One of those movements is Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, the party of the common man. Last December, he successfully channelled the sense of public disgust with mainstream parties in Delhi elections and almost won the Delhi Assembly elections in last December by beating Congress and its incumbent Chief Minister and finishing just three seats short of BJP’s result. The AAP’s result was such an unexpected overwhelming success that Kejriwal had to take office as Delhi’s Chief Minister. He is prepared and preparing to challenge the two big and the rest of the political class in a nation-wide campaign. Serious fight against corruption and for decency in politics will have a completely new weight in coming general elections. Whether it will be able to succeed and win new majorities country-wide, is doubtful; the movement is too young. Hopes for parties like the AAP to turn the whole political landscape upside-down are still not realistic. Even strong showings in several States do not generate a Parliamentary majority in the Centre so fast. Thus, in the face of crumbling support for Congress, the main profiteer will most likely be the BJP. Does this mean that India wants as its new Prime Minister a man, whose “natural” electorate excludes the Muslims and other non-Hindu minorities and who himself is seen as responsible of the Gujarat riots against Muslims in 2002? At least and for the time being, these are the reasons why foreign governments and political observers still single him out and avoid dealing with him. But elections will be decided by Indians, not the outside world. BJP’s Narendra Modi, currently the relative front-runner among competing parties, can be a relative winner. Whether he will be the clear winner of a Parliamentary majority in the Centre so as to get the constitutionally undisputed mandate to head India’s new government, will depend on the very difficult masterstroke to convince large parts of the non-Hindu electorate that his capacity to successfully fight corruption by far outstrips his communal inclinations. If Indians are prepared to leave behind “old stories” of anti-Muslim crimes for the benefit of a future without corruption, then the international community will oblige. Democratic legitimacy obliges as “noblesse oblige”.

7th March 2014 / Philippe Welti

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