When he was campaigning across India in the leadup to his overwhelming victory in the 2014 general election, prime minister Narendra Modi often proclaimed that development, more than Hindu nationalism, would behis government’s priority.
Indeed, throughout this spring’s local election campaigns in five states across India, Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) emphasized development, economic reforms and defended the November 2016 ‘demonetisation’ effort, all neatly summed up in the slogan — sabka saath, sabka vikas, essentially ‘all together, development for all.’
It worked: the BJP easily won elections in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, and it did well enough to form new governments in Goa and in Manipur. (In the fifth state, Punjab, the BJP has a negligible presence as the junior partner of a Sikh-interest party that last week lost a 10-year grip on power).
But the Modi brand of ‘toilets over temples’ seemed to change Saturday, when the BJP announced that Yogi Adityanath would serve as Uttar Pradesh’s new chief minister.
The 44-year-old Adityanath, a local priest who dresses in saffron robes, has been a member of India’s parliament since 1998, representing the Gorakhpur district in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
He will now lead a sprawling north Indian state of over 200 million people; indeed, a state more populous than all but five countries worldwide. Uttar Pradesh, sometimes marred by religious violence in the past, and it’s somewhat poorer than the average Indian state. In fact, its per-capita GDP is lower than every other state in India (except for impoverished, neighboring Bihar) and barely more than one-third that in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
Though many of the BJP’s supporters are motivated by Hindutva — the idea of bringing Hindu nationalism and Hinduist morals and precepts into government, the Modi wave of 2014 (and 2017) rests on the idea that Modi can implement the kind of economic reforms and development policy to make Uttar Pradesh more like the relatively prosperous Gujarat.
To that end, many Indian commentators expected the BJP to call upon an experienced statesman to head the new government in Uttar Pradesh. Home minister Rajnath Singh, who briefly served as the state’s chief minister from 2000 to 2002, or the younger communications and railways minister Manoj Sinha, both of whom are among the most popular and successful members of the Modi government, typically topped the list of potential leaders.
By contrast, Adityanath doesn’t have a single day of executive or ministerial experience. He is a controversial figure, to say the least. In his first day as chief minister, he spent more time talking about shutting down slaughterhouses, a top priority for Hindu nationalists who believe that cows are sacred creatures, than about the nuts-and-bolts policy details, despite promising that development would be his top focus.
If anyone had doubts, it’s clear now that Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has a clear grip on his country.
When Modi swept to power in 2014 by capturing the biggest Indian parliamentary majority in three decades, he did so by unlocking key votes in Uttar Pradesh. Ultimately, Modi owed his 2014 majority to the state, which gave him and the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) 73 of its 80 seats to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament.
Nevertheless, it was a surprise last weekend — even to Modi’s own supporters — when, after seven phases of voting between February 11 and March 8, officials reported that the BJP won over three-fourths of the seats in the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly. That’s a landslide, even in the context of a state where voters like to see-saw from one party to the next every five years. The BJP victory marked only the fourth time in history (and the first time since Indira Gandhi’s victory in 1980) that a single party won over 300 seats in the UP legislative assembly, and it bests the earlier BJP record (221 seats in 1991) by just over 90 seats.
A referendum on demonitisation
The victory in Uttar Pradesh, one of five state elections for which results were announced on March 11, amounts to a massive endorsement of Modi (less so of the BJP). Though the 2019 elections are over two years away, the victory will give Modi some comfort that he will win reelection. For now at least, the Uttar Pradesh victory shows just how far behind Modi the opposition forces have fallen.
With over 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in the country and, indeed, it’s home to more people than all but five countries worldwide.
In some ways, Modi’s staggering victory in Uttar Pradesh this spring is even more spectacular than his 2014 breakthrough. After all, Modi was defending a three-year record as prime minister that hasn’t been perfect. Despite winning the biggest parliamentary majority since 1984, the protectionist wing of the BJP has slowed the pace of Modi’s economic reforms. It was only last November that Modi successfully completed a years-long push to reform the goods and sales tax — a landmark effort to harmonize state levies into a single national sales tax, thereby lowering the costs of doing business between Indian states. Those obstacles still exist, as evidenced by the truckers lined up at state borders for hours or days on end.
For all the supposed benefits of the November 2016 demonetisation plan, its rollout was cumbersome, with the sudden removal of 500-rupee and 1,000-rupee bills from circulation in a country where 90% of all transactions are cash transactions, most of which involved the two ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes (equivalent, respectively, to $7.50 and $15.00 in the United States). Though Modi hoped the abrupt step would stem corruption and retard the flow of illicit ‘black money’ that’s evaded taxation, the move also inconvenienced everyday commerce and trade, as ordinary and poor Indians struggled to transition to the new system.
So the state elections — in Uttar Pradesh as well as Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa — were referenda on Modi’s reform push, in general, and demonetisation, in particular.
Modi passed the test, as voters gave his government the benefit of the doubt — and he did it on his own, with the help of his electoral guru, Amit Shah, a longtime aide to Modi during Modi’s years as chief minister in Gujarat and the engineer of the BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and, since 2014, the BJP party president.
So personalized was Modi’s campaign that the BJP didn’t even bother naming a candidate for chief minister. So the BJP won a three-fourths majority in India’s largest state without ever telling voters who it intended to serve as the state’s top executive. Speculation initially revolved around Rajnath Singh, the 65-year-old home secretary who once served as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh from 2000 to 2002 and who is himself a former BJP president. But But 57-year-old communications and railways minister Manoj Sinha, who was born in Ghazipur and represents the city in the Lok Sabha, is also a leading contender. Modi and Shah are expected to make a decision by Saturday. Continue reading Modi sweeps state elections in Uttar Pradesh in win for demonetisation→
For the better part of a week, exit polls showed that Tamil Nadu’s chief minister Jayalalithaa, both beloved and scandal-plagued, was in trouble of being rejected by voters.
But when election officials announced the results Thursday for the May 16 state elections, her governing AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) instead won a resounding victory. It proved the staying power of one of India’s most enchanting regional leaders, despite her temporary, nine-month suspension as chief minister that followed a 2014 a conviction on corruption charges, and despite disastrous flooding late in 2015 that affected the Tamil capital of Chennai and that killed over 400 people throughout the state.
None of those problems seemed to matter to Tamil voters, who returned the AIADMK to power, five years after Jayalalithaa returned to power at the state level and two years after she nearly routed both regional and national parties in India’s parliamentary elections.
Despite the pollsters’ last-minute spook in Tamil Nadu, none of the results announced Thursday in spring elections across five states offered much of a surprise. But the voting, across five states, from India’s northern border with China down to its most southern tip, which incorporated, in aggregate, a population of over 225 million Indians, was as close to a ‘midterm’ vote as prime minister Narendra Modi will get.
Regional parties are stronger than ever
In the spring’s two biggest prizes — West Bengal and Tamil Nadu — voters delivered resounding victories to regional leaders like Jayalalithaa and West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
The resilience of regional parties, often more tied to personality or class patronage than to a set of policies or rigid ideology, shouldn’t have been a surprise. Following the spring voting, 15 Indian states are now governed by chief ministers from regional or left-wing third parties. Last year, Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) suffered humiliating setbacks both in Delhi and in Bihar, the former to clean-government guru Arvind Kejriwal in the latter to a regional party alliance headed by chief minister Nitish Kumar, one of a handful of politicians in the country with a better record on economic growth and development than Modi himself. Continue reading Three lessons about the state of Indian politics from spring election season→
India’s prime minister Narendra Modi can breathe a sigh of relief about this spring’s state elections: in none of the three biggest prizes (Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal) is his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) a local presence.
That means, if nothing else, Modi and his allies will not be blamed for yet another state-level electoral setback of the kinds that his party suffered in Delhi and in Bihar last year (though elections in Assam are expected to be fiercely contested by the BJP).
Since mid-April, elections have been underway in five states, the results of which will be announced Thursday, though exit polls are already giving Indians an idea of who might triumph.
In West Bengal, the biggest state-level prize of India’s spring elections, a popular chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is attempting to hold onto power just five years after ending 34 consecutive years of communist rule. Voting took place in six phases between April 4 and May 5.
Between 1977 and 2011, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), a left-wing splinter group from what was then India’s main communist party, governed the state as part of the Left Front (বাম ফ্রন্ট) coalition. By most accounts, communist rule in West Bengal wasn’t incredibly successful in boosting growth, despite a sweeping land reform and other efforts to boost nutrition and anti-poverty measures.
In the 2011 election, Banerjee (pictured above), known simply as ‘didi‘ (‘sister’ in Bengali), won power in a lopsided victory. Banerjee, who began her career in the Congress Party, formed the All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC, সর্বভারতীয় তৃণমূল কংগ্রেস) in 1997. Going into the elections, she and her allies controlled 227 of the 294 sets in the legislative assembly as a result of the last election’s rout.
In the current election, the Left Front formed a rare electoral alliance with the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), struggling for relevance after its national defeat in the 2014 elections and the erosion of its power at the state level both to Modi’s BJP and to regional parties like Banerjee’s AITMC. Despite the fact that Congress and the West Bengal communists appeal to very different constituencies, the alliance has worked out better than perhaps expected.
Ironically, exit polls also show that Congress is set to lose power to communists when the results are announced for the May 16 elections in Kerala, the far southwestern state where Congress and the communists, with wildly different views on economic and social policy (in Kerala as well as in West Bengal), have vied for power for decades. Continue reading Banerjee eyes reelection in West Bengal state election results→
Nearly two years ago, when Indian voters swept Narendra Modi into power, it was all supposed to be about development.
Modi, the former Gujarati first minister, led the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) to a dizzying landslide on the promise that he would be the energetic 21st century CEO of India, Inc. He repeatedly emphasized that his administration would prioritize toilets over temples, that a Modi-led government would be far more interested in promoting economic growth, human development and policy reform than in policing the religious norms of the Hindu nationalists so influential in the BJP.
But by the standards of Modi’s own 2014 campaign, he’s failing.
His efforts to enact business-friendly land reform (essentially, giving the Indian government stronger rights to eminent domain) was curtailed by farmers, Rahul Gandhi and even opponents to Modi’s own right flank.
An attempt to enact a Goods and Services Tax bill, which would harmonize a single tax rate across India’s state borders, is also flailing (for now) in the upper house of the Indian parliament. Officially, the economy grew in 2015 by 7.5%, but there’s reason to doubt those numbers.
Of the most important elections in 2015, it’s a safe bet to argue that three of them took place in Greece: the January parliamentary elections, one insane roller-coaster of a referendum in July and another snap parliamentary vote again in September.
So what is the world to do in 2016, when no one expects Greeks to return to the polls? (Though, Athens being Athens, it’s impossible to rule the possibility out.)
Fear not. The new year will bring with it a fresh schedule of exciting elections on all seven continents, including in the United States, which after a marathon pair of primary campaigns, will finally choose the country’s 45th president in November 2016.
But following American politics only begins to scratch the surface.
At least two world leaders in 2016 will put ballot questions to voters that could make or break their careers (and legacies).
New governments could emerge from elections in Taiwan, the Philippines, Morocco, Georgia, Peru, Jamaica, Ghana, Zambia and Australia.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy will either advance or flame out in his bid for a French political comeback in 2016.
Semi-autocratic leaders in Russia, Uganda, Congo and Vietnam will seek endorsements from their voters while hoping that the veneer of elections doesn’t unleash popular protest.
An opaque series of votes in Iran could determine the country’s future Supreme Leader.
A mayoral election in London (and regional elections outside England) could reshuffle British politics with an even more important vote on the horizon in 2017.
One very special election could change the international agenda of world peace and global security altogether.
After five rounds of voting that ended on Thursday, the results of Bihar’s state elections were revealed last Sunday, handing a surprisingly strong victory to chief minister Nitish Kumar — and a correspondingly disappointing defeat to prime minister Narendra Modi that’s caused ripples nationally and ripped the aegis of invincibility from Modi’s political cloak.
With 104 million people, Bihar has a population twice that of Myanmar/Burma, whose elections have been received with far more international coverage. Though it’s not even India’s most populous state (it ranks third), Bihar is home to more people than all but 11 countries in the world. It’s here, in one of India’s poorest states, that a regional election drew into conflict three of India’s most colorful and powerful politicians and where two distinct (and imperfect) visions of India’s development have clashed, with a result that will have national implications for India’s future.
To understand the real significance of the Bihari election, it’s worth taking a step back to understand the decade-long posturing between Modi and Kumar. Bear with me.
A tale of two visions of ‘vikaas’
The first of those two visions belongs to Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) so overwhelmingly won national elections in May 2014. That was just as true in Bihar as it was elsewhere in India, where the BJP took 22 of the state’s 42 seats in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of the Indian parliament. In part, Modi was selling a vision of development and economic progress based on the ‘Gujarati model’ that he laid claim to after 13 years as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. The Modi approach involved a top-heavy approach to government and economic boosterism that found Modi jetting to China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates to cajole foreign development to his state. Though Gujarat’s economy has always been among India’s stronger performers, there’s no doubt that Modi’s zero-tolerance approach to corruption and attention to strong infrastructure, including some of the best roads and power generation in India, has been successful. Despite the Hindu-Muslim riots that left over 1,000 Muslims dead shortly after Modi took office in 2001, Modi’s 2014 campaign slogan of ‘toilets, not temples’ rang true — he was a man more interested in bringing good roads and clean water to his country than giving voice to Hindu nationalism, or at least that was the promise of his campaign.
But there was always another model, and that’s Kumar’s Bihari model.
Ultimately, it was this model that won the day in this autumn’s elections — a five-phase spectacle over the course of nearly a month, between October 12 and November 5. When the results were announced, Kumar’s Mahagathbandhan (‘Grand Alliance’), a coalition between his own Janata Dal (United) (JD(U), जनता दल (यूनाइटेड)) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD, राष्ट्रीय जनता दल), the party founded in 1997 by former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, won a clear mandate, far larger than anyone had expected in what was thought to have been an incredibly tight race.
The Kumar-led alliance won 41.9% of the vote and 178 seats in the state’s 243-member Legislative Assembly, while Modi’s alliance won just 34.1% of the vote and 58 seats, far more lopsided than anyone had predicted.
Kumar’s story — and his relationship with the BJP — is complex.
Except for a short period between May 2014 and February 2015, when he briefly stepped aside after his party’s loss in India’s national election, Kumar has served as Bihar’s chief minister since 2005, and for most of that time, he was an ally of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Kumar took over a state known as something of an economic basketcase. Even today, Bihar has a far higher poverty rate than much of the rest of the country. When you think of overpopulated and underdeveloped India, you are probably thinking of Bihar or somewhere very much like it. In contrast to Bangalore or Mumbai or even Modi’s Gujarat, Bihar’s hopes never lied in the kind of sexy development that comes from foreign investment. But over the course of Kumar’s tenure as chief minister, he has managed some of the highest GDP growth rates in the country (including an average GDP growth rate of 10.6% between 2005 and 2014) and an 8% reduction in poverty. Like Modi in Gujarat, Kumar focused on infrastructure, including better roads. But he also turned to greater social welfare spending and his record on poverty reduction is far stronger than Modi’s Gujarati record.
But perhaps Kumar’s greatest governance success came from reversing the sense of lawlessness that characterized Bihar under the leadership of his predecessor (and now coalition partner) Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Becoming chief minister for the first time in 1990, Yadav reigned over what became known nationally as a ‘jungle raj,’ a state of wild corruption, economic malaise and violent criminals riding roughshod. In 1997, when he was implicated (and eventually convicted) for accepting kickbacks in an animal husbandry scheme known as the ‘fodder scam,’ he stepped down in favor of his wife, Rabri Devi, who intermittently ruled as chief minister until 2005. At the same time, Yadav founded a new breakaway party form the Janata Dal, the RJD.
The two remained enemies for the better part of a decade and a half. As the RJD became a byword for petty corruption (even today, 49 of the 80 incoming state legislators have pending criminal cases), Kumar promised a new approach that transcended religion and caste, nominally an ally of the BJP, while Bihar’s green shoots emerged in the mid-2000s onward.
In 2013, as it became apparent that the BJP and the NDA favored Modi to lead the alliance into the 2014 elections as a prime ministerial candidate, Kumar withdrew from the alliance. He did so mostly because of Modi’s role in the controversial 2002 communal violence and riots in Gujarat. Just as the BJP was about to win the most massive victory in Indian history, Kumar walked away from the alliance, in no small part over secularism. One suspects that it also had to do with Kumar’s disappointment in not leading the alliance himself. But for years, Kumar has refused to let Modi’s campaign in Bihar, and his disapproval of Modi’s record had been on record for years.
How the ‘Grand Alliance’ stole Bihar back from Modi
The 2015 Bihar elections were supposed to be one of the great triumphs on Modi’s path to consolidating the BJP’s power, and the prime minister campaigned throughout the state early and often at the advice of his chief strategist, Amit Shah.
But something went awry.
In contrast to the ‘toilets, not temples’ mantra of his 2014 campaign, the BJP got bogged down in an attempt to use communal issues, like eating beef, to fire up its Hindutva base in India, a step that seems to have backfired. Despite Modi’s popularity, the BJP might have benefited from grooming a local charismatic figure that could have led the party’s efforts in Bihar. Through the campaign, it was never quite clear who would become chief minister had the BJP won the election, unlike the ‘grand alliance,’ which made clear that Kumar would carry on as chief minister if elected. Unlike Modi, just 18 months into his tenure as India’s prime minister, Kumar has a decade of proven results as chief minister. It’s not crazy to think that Bihar’s voters are sophisticated enough to support Modi nationally and Kumar locally.
Yet one of the reasons that the BJP did so well in the 2014 national elections in Bihar was that the JDU and the RJD were divided. Though the Nitish-Lalu alliance has generated its fair share of wariness, given the 15-year rivalry between the two figures, the coalition between the JDU and the RJD made it much easier to unite Muslim supporters (in a state where over 15% of the population is Muslim) and the disadvantaged Yadav caste.
Joining forces wasn’t easy for Kumar, whose good-governance agenda has little in common with the RJD’s pocket-lining. But the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), previously the governing party of India, engineered the coalition between the two parties and joined up as the third, by far weakest, partner of the alliance in Bihar. Rahul Gandhi may be a ghost when it comes to contemporary Indian politics, and aside from its overrated role in bringing Kumar back together with the corruption-tainted Lalu, has been entirely absent from the Bihar campaign (as in Delhi, where Arvind Kejriwal delivered a whopping defeat to Modi earlier this year).
Lalu, as a politician, is one of India’s greatest showmen. He toured every corner of Bihar state, and he used the campaign to attack the hardliners who have dominated headlines in India for their Hindu nationalism since Modi took office. It worked, and his party (the RJD) won more seats than Kumar’s JD(U). He’ll expect something in return for that victory, and it might be more than just a space in Kumar’s next cabinet for his two ambitious sons.
The consequences for Modi’s government and the road ahead
There’s no doubt that the Bihar electoral rout is the worst political crisis since Modi took power nearly 18 months ago. Modi’s enemies in his party, including the old guard that he sidelined two years ago, have now called into question the highly centralized approach that Modi has taken to India’s government.
But as much as the Bihar elections represent a loss for the BJP and for Modi personally, it’s not fatal. Though it’s true that Modi’s government has gotten off to a slow start as far as reform goes, he has more than enough time to right the course. The next Indian general election will not take place until 2019. In the meantime, he should double down on reform. Despite the fact that many BJP parliamentarians are protectionsist, he should push full speed ahead with a reform of the national goods and services tax that will harmonize rates and rules across state lines. As far as regulation goes, this isn’t a Thatcherite rupture, it’s low-hanging fruit. Land reform and steps to reduce graft, make government more transparent and businesses more efficient would be welcome. As far as development goes, Modi would do well to copy Bihar’s program of providing free bicycles to girls and incentives for primary and secondary education.
He might even work with Kumar in the weeks and months ahead to merge the best of both models, two sides of the same pro-development coin. Nothing would get Modi’s government back on the path of ‘toilets, not temples.’ That’s especially true with a tough set of state elections coming in 2016 and 2017. No one expects Modi and the BJP to sweep Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, where local parties rule supreme. But the 2016 election in Assam is winnable, and the fight for Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous (and still quite impoverished) state in 2017 will be fierce. A loss there will not doom Modi’s chances in 2019, but an embarrassing loss just might.
Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, who served as his country’s (chiefly ceremonial) president from 2002 to 2007, died today at age 83 after collapsing while delivering a lecture to students at the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong.
Abdul Kalam was often nicknamed ‘the people’s president,’ and with good reason — he is being remembered fondly today across the political spectrum:
India mourns the loss of a great scientist, a wonderful President & above all an inspiring individual. RIP Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.
As a leading engineer, he was the face of India’s nuclear weapons program — making him a living embodiment of an accomplishment that immediately bolstered India’s standing in the scientific community and on foreign policy. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honor, in 1997 and, with the success of India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998, he became India’s ‘missile man’ before he became its ‘people’s president.’
Abdul Kalam was also an independent voice as India’s president. A Tamil Muslim, he was elected as president in 2002 in the wake of the anti-Muslim riots that so tarred the record of Gujarat’s first minister and now, prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Abdul Kalam belonged to no party — he’s the last truly independent to have been elected to the presidency. Moreover, he stood up to prime minister Manmohan Singh by initially rejecting a 2006 bill that would loosen rules on holding ‘offices of profit’ — the new law followed Sonia Gandhi’s resignation from several positions deemed to be offices of profit. Gandhi has served as the president of the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) since 1998, including its decade-long stint in power between 2003 and 2013.
He used the office of the presidency to great effect at home and abroad — and though he’s been described as apolitical, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued in The Indian Express in 2007 that he conducted his presidency as the consummate politician:
Kalam was engaging in politics in the deeper sense of the term: he had an unerring instinct for what the people were looking for, he never criticised but only proposed alternatives, he levelled distinctions between people not by lowering the elite but by raising the aspirations of masses, and he relentlessly called attention to the fact that the Office was a means not an end. It is always possible to probe further into his motives and compromises. But he succeeded not because he was apolitical but because he had a sense of what people want in a politician: the capacity to project a future full of possibilities with conviction and sincerity.
Nearly a year after Narendra Modi won a landslide victory in India’s parliamentary elections, it sometimes feels like Modi is governing the world’s largest democracy unopposed.
To some degree, that’s true, because his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी), won so many constituencies that no other party emerged with enough seats to become the official opposition in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of India’s parliament.
That was an especially humiliating result for India’s traditional ruling part in the post-independence era, the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), which was swept from power after presiding over a decade of accelerating corruption and stagnating economic growth.
But as Modi prepares to fight for a land reform bill that would make it easier to acquire farmland for development and to build new industrial corridors, better transport links, and other infrastructural improvements that are central to Modi’s goal of greater economic development, urbanization and modernization, Rahul Gandhi has returned from a two-month sabbatical to lead the movement against the land reforms. He was set to travel to Punjab today to attack a bill that’s attracted widespread opposition among India’s farmers. Gandhi, anxious to pit Congress on the side of India’s poor, is waging an uncharacteristically energetic battle to become the leading figure in what could be the first major hurdle in Modi’s reform plans.
Less than a year after his resignation in the wake of a strategic miscalculation, a break with India’s conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) over its decision to anoint Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014, Nitish Kumar is back as the chief minister of Bihar state.
It’s not every day that Patna, Bihar’s capital city, becomes the epicenter of Indian domestic politics. But the return of Kumar (pictured above) heralds the comeback of one of India’s most wily politicians, a potential national rival to Modi, and one of the most capable policymakers in India today. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kumar’s ‘Bihari model’ is in some ways superior to Modi’s ‘Gujarati model’ when you look at the development gains that Bihar state made under Kumar’s nearly decade-long tenure as chief minister from 2005 to 2014.
Kumar’s return comes no less than nine months before regional elections are due in Bihar, one of India’s most important states that will now be shaped widely as a standoff between Kumar and Modi.
With nearly 104 million people, it’s India’s third most populous state. Bordering Bangladesh on its far eastern corner, Bihar has a predominantly Hindi-speaking, Hindu-practicing population. But 16.5% of the population consists of practicing Muslims, making it an especially diverse state in terms of religion.
Don’t underestimate how important the state is — and how important its further development could become. Bihar is home to more people than the entire country of The Philippines or Vietnam or Egypt, and it’s only at the beginning of what could be a longer trajectory of rising economic growth.
For now, Kumar is taking a gentle stand with respect to Modi, pledging to work with India’s new prime minister for Bihar’s benefit. But Kumar will not be renewing a one-time alliance between the BJP and Kumar’s own party, the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U), जनता दल (यूनाइटेड)).
Once a leading player in the BJP-dominated National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Kumar pulled the JD(U) out of its alliance with the BJP when it became clear that Modi would lead the alliance through the 2014 elections. That was a difficult proposition for Kumar, whose party attracts a significant share of votes among Bihar’s Muslim population. Modi’s reputation among Muslim Indians remains fraught, in no small part over Hindu reprisals for the burning of a train of Hindu pilgrims. Those riots, which took place in 2002 in the first months of Modi’s tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister, led to the deaths of nearly 1,000 Muslims. Critics argued that Kumar, instead, wanted to be the BJP-led alliance’s candidate in his own right, and observers point to long-standing antipathy between Modi and Kumar, as veteran writer Sankarshan Thakur writes in The Telegraph:
The two men have duelled infamously on the national stage and the prickly needle between them became the sole cause of the collapse of the JDU-BJP alliance in Bihar and the crises that have dogged the state to this day. The Modi juggernaut had decimated Nitish in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and caused him to resign. Nitish has displayed a near-pathological aversion to Modi, refusing even to bring the Prime Minister’s name to his lip. His return as chief minister raises the charming prospect of the two men having to come face to face and engage as leader of nation and state.
Bihar’s regional elections, due before November, will be the most important political test for Modi’s strength since his election last year. The BJP’s recent loss in regional elections in the National Capital Territory of Delhi to the anti-corruption Arvind Kejriwal must certainly give Kumar hope that he, too, can unlock the means to defeating Modi. For their part, the BJP, under the leadership of former Gujarati minister Amit Shah, will pull no punches in its attempt to wrest Bihar away from Kumar, giving it a key foothold in northeastern India. If Modi and the BJP succeed in Bihar, they will have a credible shot at winning 2016’s elections in West Bengal — the fourth-most populous state in India and, like Bihar, both much more Muslim and much poorer than the rest of India. Continue reading Nitish Kumar returns to front-line Indian politics→
When the former (and now future) Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal challenged Narendra Modi for a seat in the Indian parliament from the symbolically and religiously important city of Varanasi last spring, it was a sign that Kejriwal, days after resigning from Delhi’s 49-day government, maybe bit off more than he could chew.
He lost. Badly.
Furthermore, instead of securing a national perch in Delhi, where Kejriwal (pictured above) and his newly formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, literally the ‘Common Man’ Party) found such success in the 2013 Delhi regional elections, the party instead won none of the seven seats up for grabs to the lower house of the Indian parliament. The AAP managed to win four seats in Punjab only because of voter disgust with the corruption of the ruling Sikh nationalist party in that state.
Kejriwal’s decision to resign as chief minister, just 49 days after forming a minority AAP-led government to wage a national campaign looked like a disaster. The AAP, like many third parties, was largely swept aside by the Modi wave that gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) a landslide victory.
After Delhi’s government reverted to president’s rule, it seemed like the BJP would easily sweep to power there too, especially after winning regional elections last October in Maharashtra, the home of Mumbai (Bombay) and the second-most populous state in India.
Today, however, with the announcement that the AAP swept up an unexpectedly strong victory in voting on February 7 (winning 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi legislative assembly), it’s no longer risible to think about Kejriwal competing on the same platform as Modi. Voters have given Kejriwal, whose AAP is barely two years old, a second chance to carry out his agenda of anti-corruption good governance. It’s the first time since Modi’s remarkable national victory last spring that any figure or group has decisively defeated the BJP at any level of Indian politics.
Remember that in the landscape-shifting December 2013 elections, the AAP won just 28 seats, four fewer than the BJP. It governed in an awkward alliance with the Indian National Congress (भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) that, under former chief minister Sheila Dikshit, had governed Delhi for 15 years and, increasingly, became synonymous with corruption and incompetence.
In the latest vote, Congress won no seats at all to Delhi’s legislative assembly. The party is still reeling after its massive rejection last spring. Congress won so few seats nationally that it cannot even appoint the leader of the opposition in the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा). Since its defeat, there’s no sign that the Nehru-Gandhi family shows any sign of realizing that it must fundamentally change in order to regain the electorate’s trust. There’s no sign of any rising stars in the party from outside the family — if Rahul Gandhi proved uncharismatic and uninspired in 2014, it’s conceivable that his sister, Priyanka Vadra, might be the right answer for 2019.
But given the uninspired leadership of the quasi-monarchical Gandhi family, Kejriwal has a real chance to eclipse Congress and build a new, populist force for the secular center-left in India, attracting votes from all castes and religions whose votes are no longer tied to the independence movement of the 1930s and 1940s. That’s provided that Kejriwal can, in the years ahead in Delhi, deliver on his promise of less corruption, better services and greater safety, especially for women. (Critics will note that there’s plenty of Hindu traditionalism lurking beneath the surface of the AAP movement, but that’s just as true for Congress as well or for any Indian party that wants to compete in a country where four-fifths of its population practice Hinduism). Continue reading Forget the Gandhis. Kejriwal is now India’s true opposition leader.→
On February 7, when Delhiwallas go to the polls to vote for candidates for all 70 seats in the Vidhan Sabha (विधान सभा) — the union territory’s Legislative Assembly — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, literally the ‘Common Man’ Party) has another opportunity to prove it knows how to remake politics.
The AAP’s leader Arvind Kejriwal has promised to end corruption and improve the lives of the poor. Hanging in the balance are several fundamental political processes: ongoing efforts to chip away at corruption, an unprecedented movement to combat violence against women, and the possibility that an alternative vision of politics may find support among voters.
Opinion polls indicate a tight race, with party leaders from both prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) and the AAP trading barbs and accusations of rules violations. After a rough 2014, AAP is attempting to concentrate strength in Delhi and demonstrate that it can govern. AAP has sought to contest as many seats as possible, build a widespread political movement in Delhi, and train and equip activists who can exploit social media to generate precise and effective messaging. Even if AAP loses, will politics be the same?
The AAP campaign labors in the shadow of its brief administration a year ago. In a serious upset in December 2013, Delhi voters elected Kejriwal by a considerable margin to his New Delhi constituency seat, and handed AAP the reins to the city, albeit dependent on outside support from the previous governing party, the Indian National Congress (भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस). After only 49 days, however, Kejriwal resigned: he had promised to do so on principle if lawmakers failed to pass the Jan Lokpal, a parliamentary bill that would mandate an independent ombudsman to curb corruption.
Most Delhi voters and political analysts I conversed with during last spring’s election season asserted that Kejriwal’s resignation was no way to change politics. This was perhaps borne out by AAP’s electoral humiliation in the national vote in April and May 2014. Spreading itself thin, the fledgling party won just four seats out of over 400 it contested. Meanwhile, the BJP gained 51.9% of all seats and a comprehensive mandate.
Still, it is those ’49 days’ that both haunts and enlivens the AAP campaign. Kejriwal has apologized to supporters for reneging on the opportunity to lead the Delhi government. While he lost significant political capital by staking his leadership on the bill, Kejriwal now knows that he must play the political game for real. He has tried to demonstrate that in less than just two months, the concrete initiatives that AAP put in motion were on the right track, including establishing an anti-corruption hotline and 5500 new auto rickshaw permits. Rahul Kanwal thinks this could be an asset:
The poor actually liked those 49 chaotic days. That was when electricity and water bills had halved and the neighbourhood cop and bijliwala were too scared to ask for bribes. The day Kejriwal’s government fell is the day the ravenous agent of the state was back on the poor man’s door asking for his monthly hafta.
While the #49DaysNostalgia lends an air of experience to today’s AAP effort, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as Kejriwal likes to say. The question is whether voters are willing to support AAP after its two serious missteps in 2013 and 2014. At least three major issues are at stake. Continue reading Kejriwal’s AAP looks for second chance in Delhi vote→
The most incredible thing about US president Barack Obama’s most recent three-day trip to India, which began today, is that Indian prime minister Narendra Modi can pull off such a sincere welcome less than six weeks after citing Russia as India’s top defense partner, even as he and Obama would later announce a new US-India nuclear energy deal.
Has any world leader had such a strong first nine months in office from a geopolitical strategic perspective?
Keep in mind that Modi, barred from the United States for nearly a decade due to his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat, was not always particularly keen on strengthening relationships with the United States. Instead, on the basis of his work promoting Gujarat, it was always more likely that he would look to China, Japan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, where he wooed investment to his own state. With his emphasis on turfing out the corrupt and ineffective leadership of the Gandhi family, and with relatively little commentary on India’s foreign policy, no one expected Modi to build so many bridges in such little time.
Within just nine months, Modi has been the guest of honor at a state dinner at the White House, and he packed Madison Square Garden, filled with tens of thousands of North Americans of Indian descent thrilled to hear from India’s most powerful leader in three decades. By all accounts, Modi and Obama have developed a strong working relationship, unique for an American president who isn’t particularly known for his chemistry with world leaders.
Today, however, Modi has the grin of a prime minister, who, despite a decade as a pariah throughout much of the West, now revels in being suited by everyone — not just the United States and Russia, but China, Brazil, Japan, Europeans, Africans. In foreign policy, Modi is running a positive-sum game. What other countries in the world could manage to nurture such close relationships, strategic and otherwise, with Russia and the United States simultaneously? (Serbia, maybe? The United Arab Emirates? The list isn’t incredibly long.)
Modi, whose social media use has been nimble, was quick to post a photo of his warm welcome for Obama early Sunday morning. But one look at his Facebook and Twitter feeds, which often border on the campy side, show that he doesn’t just delight in Obama — in 2015 alone, he’s featured shots with German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, Israeli agriculture minister Yair Shamir, Astrakhan provincial governor Alexander Zhilkin, Iranian presidential adviser Akbar Torkan, Canadian immigration minister Chris Alexander, Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski, among many (many) others.
Voters in two of India’s largest states elected regional assemblies last week on October 15 — in Maharashtra and Haryana.
In both cases, the conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) will take power of state government for the first time in Indian history in what was the first major electoral test for prime minister Narendra Modi (pictured above), who swept to power nationally in May after promising to bring a new wave of economic prosperity, reform and good governance to India.
In Maharashtra, India’s second-most populous state, with over 112 million people, and home to Mumbai, India’s sprawling financial and cultural center, the BJP won a plurality of the vote and the largest number of seats in the 288-member regional assembly, where it will form a coalition government with either its longtime ally, the far-right, Marathi nationalist Shiv Sena (शिवसेना) or a more intriguing option, the center-left Nationalist Congress Party (NCP, राष्ट्रवादी कॉँग्रस पक्ष), which unexpectedly offered to support a BJP government shortly after the results were announced on October 19:
In Haryana, a state with just 25.4 million people, which forms much of the hinterland of New Delhi, the BJP won an outright majority of seats in the 90-member legislative assembly:
There are at least four narratives about what happened in these two absolutely pivotal state elections, the first since India’s national election cycle in April and May. Keep in mind that, together, the two states have a population of 137 million, larger than Japan.
The first narrative confirms the BJP’s political dominance in the honeymoon period of the Modi era. The second narrative is its direct analog, the post-independence nadir of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the chief opposition party, the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस).
The third narrative, with almost as much national importance as the first two, is the rift between the BJP and its longtime ally, Shiv Sena, and the possibility that Shiv Sena will be shut out of the next Maharashtra government.
The fourth and final narrative has to do with India’s third parties, especially as the election relates to the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, Common Man Party), which didn’t even bother contesting the Haryana elections and may soon lose its one-time grip on Delhi’s government. Continue reading Four lessons as Modi wave extends to Maharashtra, Haryana→
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi took power less than five months ago, but he’s already made five major world visits, including to Japan, to the BRICS summit in Brazil and this week, Modi is sweeping through an action-packed five-day visit to the United States.
His current visit to New York and Washington has the air of triumph about it, and his speech to nearly 19,000 fans at Madison Square Garden certainly marks one of the very few times that a foreign leader has drawn such genuine support from an American audience. It’s all the more amazing, given that for much of the last decade, the US government refused Modi a visa to travel to the United States, due to his questionable role in the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots, which took place four months after Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat state.
India’s foreign relations with major world powers like the United States, Russia and China aren’t always easy, and its relationships with other south Asian neighbors, especially Pakistan, can often be downright frosty.
Nevertheless, there are at least two reasons why Modi has such a strong opportunity to maximize India’s role on the world stage today — and none of it has to do with India’s economy, which is growing far slower than it needs to sustain truly transformational gains.
The first is the world’s growing multipolarity, which must seem especially multipolar from New Delhi’s view. Neighboring China is poised to become the world’s largest economy within a decade. India also has longstanding ties with Russia dating to the Soviet era that are now especially relevant as Russian president Vladimir Putin reasserts his country’s might in its ‘near-abroad.’ That makes cooperation with India, the world’s second-most populous country, a strategic advantage for any major power, and it gives India considerable leverage.
The second is the nature of Modi’s election in May. With 336 seats in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of the Indian parliament, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) has the strongest majority and boldest mandate than any Indian government since 1984. While no one knows whether Modi can use that strength to revitalize India’s public sector and institute reforms to boost its private sector, the magnitude of his victory forced the world to take notice. If, as Modi promises, he can introduce robust economic reforms, a more liberalized Indian economy could birth a lucrative market of over 1.25 billion consumers, especially if Modi can lift India’s poor into a middle-class standard of living.
When Modi appointed Sushma Swaraj (pictured above earlier today with Modi, former US president Bill Clinton and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton), the former leader of the Lok Sabha, as India’s new external affairs minister, it was a gesture of respect for an ally of the BJP old-guard leaders, such as LK Advani, who have largely been pushed aside in the Modi era. But it should have also been a sign that Modi, known for his micromanaging style, would take a hands-on approach to foreign policy.
Given the emphasis that Modi placed on good governance and economic reform, it might be surprising that he’s spent so much time in his first five months on international relations. Modi has so far been cautious on economic policy — for example, his first budget in July featured far more continuity than rupture, disappointing some of his booster.
So what do five months of Modi’s foreign policy tell us about what we might expect over the next five years?
Plenty — especially on the basis of his international efforts as Gujarat’s 13-year chief minister.