To speak or comment about Narendra Modi as a Pakistani citizen can have its implications. The backlash is expected in the form of one being censured for adopting an anti-Indian bias or by pointing out Modi’s alleged links with the Gujarat Pogroms in 2002, which has been described by Martha Craven Nussbaum (2008) in the Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, as a form of “ethnic cleansing involving the complicity of the state government.”
Yet the BJP’s ‘electioneering’ and the rhetoric which has been used to garner public support brings out an interesting dynamic to Indian politics in the lead up to the 2014 elections this year, which has raised quite a few eyebrows. The tone was set, when Amit Shah, the general secretary of the Bharata Janata Party was banned from campaigning on the premise of making remarks, which had stirred tensions amongst the Muslim minority and polarized opinion in the largest democracy in the world. Yet developments just weeks later, gave observers plenty of reasons to be befuddled over campaigning, in a country which is struggling to translate its tainted past into an secular outlook which could benefit their chances at the polls and their international image.
As a young journalist covering election campaigning in 2013 in my home country, I noticed that pressing issues such as rampant corruption, widespread unemployment and the crippling energy crisis were central themes adopted by the left, right and center of the political spectrum, in a nation which was about to witness its first democratic transition in its history. Occasional altercations, were also about mild ‘point scoring’ between the contesting parties, of which the notable ones were the skirmishes of the center-right PML (N) and the PTI, over dynastic politics, accusations of corruption and mismanagement. Similarly, the Pakistan People’s Party, which suffered its worst defeat since the 1997 elections kept on appealing to the sacrifices rendered by the deceased Benazir Bhutto (another secular leader) with promises to cater to the disgruntled masses with a more comprehensive performance in terms of economic development which had eluded them since 2008. Similarly parties in the center right of the spectrum such as the PTI, alluded to protecting minority rights enshrined in its ideology, where there was no reference or bland targeting of the active Christian or Hindu population in the country, for garnering grass roots level support. Yet when one considers the BJP’s manifestos and how they manage to stir public emotion in a nation riddled with economic woes, it begs the question as to why Pakistan fails to get the credit it deserves for displaying remarkable political maturity, with sectarianism and terrorism being rampant.
The BJP as the largest opposition in India is expected to make massive inroads against the INC in the upcoming elections. Yet what could or should amaze election observers and human rights activists is whether Narendra Modi and his close aides would continue to toe the stronger foreign policy line or resort to ‘Pakistan bashing’ for the 16th Lok Sabha in the world’s most populous democracy to gain public support, or adopt a different line of action. Interestingly, critics which considered Pakistan’s ‘rightist’ disposition as far as its politics are concerned suffered a massive set back when election manifestos came to the fore; given that there was little to no reference to capping India’s regional designs. From Nawaz Sharif’s claim of reclaiming lost ground after the PML N performed stupendously during their short, uninterrupted tenures in power, to Imran Khan’s promise of eradicating corruption and facilitating the creation of a welfare state; not one manifesto centered on curbing Indian influence in the region or stirring discord amongst the minorities sects, as an electioneering tactic. For this reason alone, Pakistan’s political parties should be given credit for dishing it out over issues plaguing the nation, rather than arousing public sentiment against India or minorities to garner votes.
With the emergence of Arvind Kejriwal (a popular candidate by the way in Pakistan, for his populist views) and his ‘Aam Admi Party,’ a third force in Indian politics had emerged. The party’s manifestos centered on eradicating bureaucratic corruption which has plagued India’s rise in the international arena, and increasing its popularity by appealing to the disgruntled masses which were left out of the INC spectrum during the latter’s tenure. Yet, Kejriwal’s stance on Indian held Kashmir in January was met with severe castigation from the BJP leadership which cited any revocation regarding unbridled powers to the Indian military in the region as contrary to India’s national interest, which had severely damaged the AAP’s vote bank.
Similarly, in an unrelated development, Azam Khan, a senior member of the Samajhwadi Party was banned by the ECI from campaigning after his statements of lauding Muslim efforts for the nation’s cause was considered as stirring ‘religious sentiment.’ Ironically, this ban was kept in place despite BJP’s Shah managing to get a reprieve for coming up with remarks rendered offensive to the minorities. The secular orientation of election campaigning in light of such realities can thus be questioned, based upon affiliations, alliances and rhetoric oozing from the stakeholders in this 2014 showdown.
Contrary to popular belief, much of Pakistan’s religious parties have not enjoyed the local support that many right wingers in the country believe they should have deserved. Throughout the nation’s history, there has been a preference for clientele considerations and overcoming economic woes particularly in recent times when the PPP’s socialist orientation could not live up to its billing since they were elected into power in 2008. Many observers could argue that Modi’s economic performance in Gujarat which has enabled it to have a higher per capita GDP than the national average, yet falls short in improving the human development of the state, is one of the prime factors which would be cited by average Indians to vote for the BJP, despite the horrendous 2002 Gujarat episode. Yet at the same time one wonders as to why election campaigning from a party with a tainted past is failing to adopt an approach which lays criticism from the radical left to rest, i.e. refrain from targeted, verbal attacks on minorities and the process of Pakistan bashing.
It remains a mystery, but what is clear is that the difference in campaigning sheds light on the dynamics of Indian and Pakistani politics prior to the elections and on the disposition and clout of right wing parties in both countries. Much to Pakistan’s credit, in the nation’s first ever democratic transition in 2013, there was plenty of maturity in terms of refraining from using the ‘religious’ or ‘India’ card to gain popular support. According to secularists, this is precisely what nations largely ‘secular’ in their political landscape and disposition are known to do.