All change in India

In the London underground in the United Kingdom, at a certain point an announcement comes over declaring “All Change.” This indicates a temporary clearing of the train, and this is what would seem to have happened in the Indian general elections held recently. The Congress Party, under the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was dramatically swept out of office by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or National Democratic Alliance, that party winning a substantial majority with 282 of the parliamentary seats to the Congress Party’s 44.

The reputed anti-Muslim reputation of the BJP, which some expected to keep a reasonable number of Congress supporters within its fold, apparently had no effect on the apparent pre-election burgeoning of support for the BJP, the BJP leader Narendra Modi utilizing as his main strategy the acknowledged success, in terms of economic progress, of his rule in the state of Gujurat. Modi focused on the lack of energy and ideas of the Congress, and Manmohan Singh in particular, emphasizing that the government had run out of ideas or strategies particularly in more recent years.

Manmohan Singh, who had led the country since the 1990s, first as Finance Minister and then as Prime Minister, had raised the rate of economic growth to a persistent 7.5% per year, but, particularly since the global economic slowdown in 2008 and after, seemed to have been unable to induce a revival, in the face in particular of persistent youth unemployment.

The Congress, apparently, also depended on a widespread perception of Modi and the BJP as purveyors of anti-Muslim sentiment, in a country which, though essentially Hindu, has a substantial Muslim population. But Narendra Modi chose to focus on his reputation as a bringer of economic growth to his state of Gujurat, and essentially running a secular campaign based on American advertising and propaganda techniques. And with his 31% of the votes cast, giving the party an absolute parliamentary majority of 52%, his strategy was obviously successful.

What was also interesting in this regard was an acknowledged lacklustre performance on the part of Rahul Gandhi, expected to succeed Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister and therefore continue the mantle of Nehru-Ghandi rule. And though, given the vagaries of politics and the uncertainty around a slowing economy the situation would appear difficult to predict, there appears to be a growing belief that the unimpressive performance of Rahul Gandhi could well signal the end of the dynasty.

The smooth transition in India, and the comfortable and widely based majority that the new government has achieved, has been obviously welcomed by the Western powers, some of which may well have been, and indeed may still be wary of the BJP and Modi’s reputation for a provocative anti-Muslimism. India’s relations with Pakistan and Bangladesh, both Muslim-oriented states, are at best, normally tense, but the Manmohan Singh government has tended to seek a degree of normality.

In that context, it has frequently been said, in the run-up to the elections, that a Congress win might have been preferable to the Western powers, with the United States in particular perceiving Pakistan to be, presently, in a tenuous political situation, and Afghanistan as in a kind of no-man’s land, with the departure of American forces coinciding with elections in that country, at a time when the present President of the country has seemed to be somewhat recalcitrant to the Americans.

It is interesting then, that in response to the election result, President Obama immediately issued an invitation to Mr Modi to visit the US in the near future. This continues a build-up of more positive relations with India that President George Bush displayed, taking a relatively quiescent attitude to India’s determination to have some degree of nuclear-capability competence.

President Obama too, in the context of his announced policy of an American pivot to Asia, will already have been advised that maintaining a strategic balance between a China flexing its muscles in terms of its policies towards Asian states, and an India which has had boundary problems with China, and no doubt sees itself as an emerging economic giant in Asia (one of the BRICS along with China), is advisable. And that this requires a consistently positive approach towards India, even though it will now be led by one who could well be less sympathetic to Muslim issues (it has been observed that there are no Muslim Members of Parliament in the BJP majority, though Muslims make up 14% of the Indian population).

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