Rustam Shah Mohmand
A general election in India, the world’s largest democracy, is now underway. Millions of people are set to choose their representatives in a free and transparent election that should be the envy of most developing countries.
Notwithstanding some cases of violence (most recently in West Bengal), the election process has been largely orderly and peaceful considering the vast swathes of area, a huge population, difficult logistics and the emotional responses generated by thousands of candidates vociferously campaigning and hurling accusations against each other.
900 million voters will elect a total of 545 members for the lower house of parliament casting their votes in thousands of polling stations across the country. It has been a hotly contested election. The ruling Bhartia Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi has made a strong pitch for the emergence of a nationalist India with Hindutva as its core ideology. It has made an impact in large parts of the country, particularly in the north. The philosophy of a revitalized Hindu nationalism will win seats for the right-wing BJP but it will cause incalculable damage to the wider goal of India’s unity and its ideals of pluralism and democracy.
BJP is pitted against a number of regional alliances, comprising small parties with strong local bonds and a resurgent Congress party which is desperately seeking to stem the tide of the BJP’s populism and expose its deep contradictions after its own humiliating defeat in the 2014 election. Congress, claiming to fight for the soul of India, has tried to present to the electorate an alternative vision that encapsulates some of BJP’s economic doctrines but with liberal views to attract not only the minorities but also the more emancipated and moderate Hindus.
But Congress has failed to garner the support of regional alliances. This will emerge as a critical factor in this election. Both Congress and the BJP will lose seats to the regional alliances, and the regional parties will go on to assume significant importance in the formation of governments both in the center and the states.
Instead, it appears the Modi magic is working — based on his campaign’s anti-minority stance. Just as US President Donald Trump appealed largely to the white majority of the US electorate, Modi has made a strong impression on India’s majority Hindu population.
It is clear from Modi’s triumphalism that February’s Pulwama militant attack in Indian-administered Kashmir where 44 Indian soldiers died, in many ways turned the tide for the BJP, adding to its appeal and the credentials of the right wing government.
Pulwama could not have come at a more appropriate time for Modi. From that point on, the BJP began to assert its anti-Muslim rhetoric even more vigorously, rallying support for its hard-line posture towards minorities. Before Pulwama happened, Congress seemed more favored to win with a strong showing in a number of state elections. That decisive tilt began to ebb as Modi cashed in on the optics after Pulwama, and was suddenly viewed as the more robust leader.
The results of the election will be closely watched in Pakistan. The Imran Khan-led government in Islamabad will make renewed efforts to begin serious talks about ending its long and bloody confrontation with India, now that there is a convergence of perception about peace among Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership. Irrespective of who forms the government in Delhi, Pakistan will hope to turn a new page despite formidable obstacles.
For Pakistan’s leaders, it is important to come to terms with hard realities. The dream of Kashmir becoming an independent state might never be realized. Any re-demarcation of lines could trigger huge de-stabilizing movements for autonomy across India and that prospect is an alarming one. But just short of Kashmir’s independence, there are opportunities for greater autonomy.
Despite differences on Kashmir, the two countries must take steps to bolster bilateral trade — which, according to the World Bank carries $37 billion worth of trade potential — deepen cultural exchanges and expand ties in sectors like education and agriculture.
Pakistan will be looking forward to establishing meaningful contacts with whoever assumes power in India, and even if the BJP returns to power, there is every likelihood that Modi will reach out to Pakistan to start a dialogue.
One should not forget that it was after all, a BJP Prime Minister — Atal Bihari Vajpayee — who came to Lahore in 1999 to sign the Lahore declaration, a nuclear-control and governance treaty that pledged to carry the peace initiative forward.
(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)