Elections in India

What I wrote for a German audience — and what I could have written for Indian readers
Opinion23.03.2017Dr. Ronald Meinardus
Ronald Meinardus on elections in Uttar Pradesh

For a foreigner, writing about Indian politics is challenging. In case the readers are foreigners like me, there’s very much explaining to do. If the audience is Indian, there’s a chance they tell me to mind my own business — particularly if they don’t like what I say.

In this case, I’m not concerned that would happen. I was invited to share my thoughts on the outcome of the recent elections after a short “dialogue” with a friend at Centre for Civil Society who had picked up my tweet that I’d write about the topic for a German site.

So thanks for the invite.

Of course, I wrote that commentary in German. As usual, the text became rather long. In an effort to do justice to the complexity of the topic, it filled six pages.

I had titled the draft “Modi über alles”, which could translate into “Modi above all”. The editor changed that into “Despite the cash chaos, Modi triumphs in regional polls”. Call it spin, the media back home like to hype up a story; the word “chaos” whether justified or not may be instrumental here.

Now what?

Instead of writing a whole new story, I thought of walking you through my line of argument of the German “original”.

I started off highlighting the importance of Uttar Pradesh for India’s politics. After sharing some numbers, I mentioned that the campaign agenda was overshadowed by national themes, not least the demonetization issue.

The anti-BJP forces were keen to exploit that issue, I write, but this plan didn’t attract extra votes. How is that? I explain this with what I term “collective masochism” of the Indian masses, the willingness to endure hardship when it is for a perceived common good — in this case the eradication of corruption. This willingness was skillfully exploited by the master of oratory Narendra Modi.

After concluding that demonetization did no harm to the BJP, I spill much ink about caste-politics in the elections. This is not to say I understand this very (if not exclusively) Indian matter in detail (I assume only a few foreigners do). However, only a blind man could overlook that caste considerations were not a decisive element in the electoral strategies of all parties — particularly in UP.

It’s not easy at all to explain what that means in practice to a European; I conclude that the BJP was particularly savvy in putting together a winnable alliance.

Next, I quote Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who I saw on TV stating that his party had defied caste and stitched together what he called a “rainbow coalition”. I found that impressive — but not convincing.

At this stage, I make the point that not a single of the 325 MLAs is Muslim and that marginalization of this sizeable minority is nothing new for the Hindu nationalist party. Therefore, I comment, Indians who believe in the constitutional principle of secularism question whether the Prime Minister is actually speaking for all citizens.

Throughout, I emphasize that Modi and his party are basically without a serious challenge. My leitmotif: The BJP’s superiority has been triumphantly confirmed and extended. This — I argue — is also the result of the weakness of the opposition. I make special reference to the Congress Party, assuming that many readers in Germany know about the historic role of India’s Grand Old Party. I call Congress a “family business” which seems incapable of reform. I go on with a paragraph about AAP which had hoped to expand and become a progressive alternative to Modi on the national level but failed to meet the expectations.

I end with an outlook — a common way to wrap up a story — and write that after the UP-vote the parliamentary elections of 2019 have become almost a foregone conclusion. If not — and here lies a big caveat — the opposition gets its act together and unites. However, and these are my final words: For this, I see no indication.

Such is my offer to the German audience. Had I written about the same topic for Indian readers, the text would have been very different.

I would have left aside much of the basics which for the reader is common knowledge. This would have made space for more personal opinion and also sharper political analysis.

Some of the timely topics come to my mind, issues that are hotly debated in the myriad opinion pieces in the English language press, many of which I enjoy reading:

What does the expanding dominance of the BJP imply for the secular claim of India’s republic? Related to this is the concern of liberally minded individuals that political spaces are shrinking in the wake of increasingly aggressive nationalism. This is a development we see also in other parts of the world. Combined with the rise of populism, this is bad news for liberals and other friends of individual freedom.

Another angle I could write about in the context of India’s electoral politics is the persona of Narendra Modi in relationship to what’s going on in the United States. I find comparisons of Modi and Trump problematic and have yet to see compelling evidence of their similarity. But as an idea, the topic is great!

Writing for an Indian audience, I would have ended on a positive note. Not only, because I tend to be a diplomat more often than not. I have a high regard and much respect for India’s democracy. Again and again, I am fascinated to witness how this singularly diverse society manages to settle differences in a democratic institutional manner. The key to this success and stability is the inclusiveness of the democratic process highlighted at election time. In the end of the day, democracy only works if the citizens appreciate that it is a win-win-proposition for everyone.

In my eyes, Narendra Modi’s biggest challenge will be to refute with deeds (and not only words) that his government aims at improving the lot of all citizens — irrespective of sectarian identities.

This commentary was orginially published here.