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Indian election

Shahid M Amin

ELECTION for the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Indian Parliament, is being held from April 11 to May 19, 2019. The votes will be counted on May 23. There are 543 seats in Parliament, and 272 constitute the majority for formation of Government. About 900 million voters will be voting on seven different dates. The main contest is between Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP and Rahul Gandhi of the Congress. But both major parties are fighting along with coalition partners: BJP under National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and Congress under United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which is a combination of centre-left parties.
BJP emerged as a major Indian political party in the last 20 years and has been in power since 2014. It is a rightist party which, behind a thin secular veneer, stands for Hindu nationalism. It thrives on anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments. Narendra Modi has come to dominate BJP so much that this election, like the previous one, is more about his personality. In 2002, he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat State where an anti-Muslim programme took place that he did little to stop and might well have encouraged. He was blacklisted for years and denied a US visa. But this ‘feat’ also endeared him to Hindu extremists. Modi is a life-long member of RSS, the Hindu militant organization. His anti-Muslim leaning is shown by the fact that in the last election, not a single Muslim was given the BJP ticket. Modi was also credited with having boosted Gujarat’s economy. It was this background that elevated him to the office of Prime Minister. There were expectations that during his tenure, he would transform India’s economy and would provide strong leadership in India’s global ambitions. A Modi cult grew that gave him a kind of superstar status and the Modi ‘wave’ was seen to be winning elections. Since then, he has lost some of his popularity through draconian measures like demonetization. The Indian economy has also slowed down. Many moderates who supported him in the hope that he would bring economic prosperity are no longer with him. Even senior BJP leaders like Advani are disenchanted with him: but he remains the Party’s main vote-getter.
On the other hand, the opposition Congress Party has made something of a recovery. Its leader Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the family of Jawaharlal Nehru, founder of modern India, seems more dynamic and offers a healthy contrast to Modi, thriving in his antiquated Hindu mythology. The Congress has just come out with a poverty alleviation program, promising “the world’s largest minimum income scheme” to 50 million of India’s poorest families. The BJP accuses Congress of being soft on Pakistan. At a recent rally, Modi said that Congress was “hatching a conspiracy to destabilize the country” and its election manifesto was “a document of Pakistan’s conspiracies.”
In addition to the Congress, Modi faces big challenge from a consortium of regional parties, Mahagathbandhan (meaning massive alliance). Local parties remain popular in South India and Bengal. BJP is mainly strong in northern India, including the Hindi belt. Many opinion polls are predicting that in this election, BJP will fail to win an absolute majority i.e. short of 272 seats, but it would still be the single largest party. However, in such a case, the opposition parties could work out a ruling alliance.
It is against this background that Modi has sought to play the Pakistan card. A Kashmiri suicide bomber in Pulwama provided the excuse for raising a war fever of such proportions that there were calls for revenge against Pakistan. Flexing his muscles, Modi promised to carry out some kind of punitive action. That came in the nature of a claimed surgical strike inside Pakistan at Balakot on February 26. This created euphoria in India and has probably boosted electoral support for Modi. However, Pakistan hit back the very next day: its aircraft went inside Indian-occupied Kashmir during daytime and dropped bombs near military targets. In a dogfight, two IAF jets were shot down and one Indian pilot captured by Pakistan.
Though India has stood by its narrative, Pakistan has proved its claim with the help of evidence, whereas India has failed to do so. There are growing critics in India itself who are accusing Modi of prevarication. In fact, the misadventure against Pakistan has provided a handle to the opposition parties in India to score points against the Modi government. Throughout the crisis, Pakistan has shown restraint and called for dialogue whereas the Modi government has been bellicose. The international community has been alarmed at the prospect of war between two nuclear-armed states. The US and many other countries applied pressure on India to ease tension.
In this context, the latest development is the disclosure by Pakistan Foreign Minister Qureshi on April 7 that there are reliable intelligence reports that India is planning some kind of military action against Pakistan in the next few days. It cannot be ruled out that Modi might still be influenced by his election strategy. However, since the Indian military action on 26 February was counter-productive, there is little logic in India wanting to repeat that mistake. Still, Pakistan must remain vigilant to protect its security. The government has done well to share this intelligence with other countries with a view to seek their intervention to thwart any such Indian military adventure.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.