Elections are now underway in India and will be for the next month. While the particular method employed in the world’s largest parliamentary democracy may strike American as unusual, the system has largely worked. If underlying social schisms are not addressed, however, that may soon change.
The voting started April 16 and will run through May 13, with the results to be announced three days later. Preceding in four phases throughout the country, some 714 million people will cast their vote to decide on the outcome. From the plethora of parties that now dot the political landscape, the dominant players include the Indian National Congress (INC), Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), Bhahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Left (including the CPI or CPI-M), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP).
This is India’s 15th general election. Noisy election rallies, fiery speeches – and, vitriolic statements – will, yet again, test the strength of democracy in India. So far, the democratic glue has been tight enough to hold it together. This phenomenon continues despite historic fears that the country would break into many sub-regions, or perhaps, even come under military rule. India has defied such prophecies and continues to stay united.
However, India’s ethnic and religious fault lines tell a different story. Ananya Vajpeyi, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, says “the idea of India was never to exclude… and oppress minority communities of any description,” yet, as we have recently witnessed, minorities have been singled out by political actors. In a volatile region, with different ideologies at play, the ramifications of this election will not only be domestic, but also regional given the varying outlook of each party. Take for instance, the subtle – or at times, blatant – anti-Muslim stand of the BJP, or the anti–US policies pursued by the Left.
Appeasement of communities along religious lines has ingrained itself into the political apparatus; exploiting each community as a vote bank has long served to polarize people into different segments. The focus remains strong on India’s 170 million Muslims. Thus, in the wake of extremist ideology brewing strong from conflicts in West Asia, mistreatment of India’s Muslims, the failure to develop a cohesive identity, only seeks to sharpen the divide and challenges India will face post this 2009 election battle.
In the run up to this year’s election campaign which started last week, Varun Gandhi of the Bharatia Janta Party (BJP) made headlines for the wrong reasons. His hate speeches against the Muslim community have forced India’s Election Commission to take action against him. Ananth Kumar Hedge, also a member of the BJP, tuned into the spotlight for his harsh views on Muslims. In a recent speech, he was quoted as saying, “if Muslims continue to behave like this, it’ll become difficult for them to celebrate Id-ul Milad.”
During the tenure of Indira Gandhi, Ramchandra Guha, a prominent Indian writer, points out, “Congress bosses asked heads of mosques to issue fatwas to their flock to vote for the party; after elections, the party increased government grants to religious schools and colleges.”
Such rhetoric may not be new to the Indian electorate, but over the years it has strained ties between communities and within India’s social fabric, dominated by a Hindu and Muslim populace. This is especially prevalent in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. Muslims paraded around the Gateway of India displaying their patriotic credentials and outrage over the incident. With a turbulent and amputated history, India’s Muslims have long been ostracized and struggle to maintain an acceptable “working identity.” Although recognized efforts have been made by private sector, it will be increasingly important for the Indian government to give Muslims – and, other minority communities – the sense that they have a stake in India’s welfare.
Further exposing the fault lines of Indian diversity were attacks on Christians in Orissa late last year. This is not the first time the Christian community has been targeted in India. Hindu mobs have been accused of rampaging through villages, “damaging churches and leaving dozens killed.” The violence in Kandhamal District, Orissa, is testimony enough.
The Godhra riots, in Gujarat in 2002, where over 2000 people, mostly Muslim were killed, is still a vivid memory to many. Narender Modi, the state’s Chief Minister, who is accused of being complicit during the riots, is being touted as the alternate Prime Ministerial candidate for the BJP. Segmentation of communities, communal policies will serve as fertile ground and ripe propaganda to radicalize and distance minority youth from mainstream society.
With the frequency of attacks on minorities growing, it brings into relevance the argument: has the Indian government failed in building a cohesive – all encompassing – identity for the people of India? India’s democracy, much hailed to the world as the most successful experiment, has its underlying weaknesses. For over 60 years this experiment – with its ebbs and flows – has worked, but not without its failures. However, in the fast changing regional and global dynamic – importation of the Israel – Palestinian issue to India’s mosques, the insurgency threat emanating from Pakistan – are Indian politicians aware of the danger of their divisive politics?
All this rhetoric continues in the backdrop to India’s other problems. In a recent set back to the elections, the Maoist insurgency which operates in Central India killed 10 policeman during the first week of voting. They claim support from the poor and downtrodden. Despite recent strides on the economic front, India’s economic boom has not reached everywhere. Maoists have an established and consolidated presence with a force of 22,000 soldiers. It is claimed, by the Indian intelligence agencies, that the Maoists have loose associations with other militant networks in Kashmir and Nepal. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledges that the Maoists represent the “greatest internal security threat to India.”
As each party vies to boost its ‘secular’ credentials and campaigned on platforms to ‘end poverty’, the debate remains wide open to see who will emerge as the country’s formidable front runners post the elections. In an era of unwieldy coalition politics, what India’s parliamentary democracy will sow is anybody’s guess.
Habeeb A. Noor is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.