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Abdul Kalam, India’s popular former president, has died


Photo credit to The Hindustan Times.

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.India Flag Icon

Abdul Kalam was often nicknamed ‘the people’s president,’ and with good reason — he is being remembered fondly today across the political spectrum:

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.

Rahul Gandhi returns to Indian politics — but does anyone care?


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.India Flag Icon

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.

Nevertheless, there’s some question whether he or anyone in his family is best suited to lead the Modi-era opposition. Continue reading Rahul Gandhi returns to Indian politics — but does anyone care?

Four lessons as Modi wave extends to Maharashtra, Haryana


Voters in two of India’s largest states elected regional assemblies last week on October 15 — in Maharashtra and Haryana.India Flag Icon

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:

mahrastra october 14maha 2014

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:

haryana state 2014 haryana 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

Photo of the day: Manmohan Singh in defeat


From Scroll.in comes this piercing photo of former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in January, four months before the landslide election that delivered to Singh’s ruling Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) its worst defeat in Indian history.India Flag Icon

Raghu Rai, a photographer and journalist, captured images of both Singh and India’s current prime minister Narendra Modi for his new book, The Tale of Two: An Outgoing and An Incoming Prime Minister.

The photos of both candidates are compelling, but the shots of Singh are particularly so, coming after a decade as prime minister that most Indians (and non-Indians) consider disappointing.

An economist by training, Singh made his international reputation as the finance minister in the government of P. V. Narasimha Rao between 1991 and 1996, spearheading the most thoroughgoing set of economic liberalization reforms in India’s post-independence history.

When Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, demurred from taking the premiership after Congress won a surprise victory in the 2004 parliamentary elections, she turned to Singh instead, boosting hopes that India might enact further reforms, especially with respect to liberalizing foreign development. It also gave India its first leader from the Sikh community.

But those economic reforms never happened, which voters didn’t seem to mind in Congress’s first term. After all, the economy was still growing at breakneck speed and Indian voters hadn’t become acquainted with the dozens of scandals (e.g., Coalgate, the 2g spectrum scandal) that would come to define Congress’s second term, which Singh and Gandhi won easily enough in 2009 under the steam of India’s stellar growth.

Continue reading Photo of the day: Manmohan Singh in defeat

India’s election results: Modi wave largest mandate since 1984

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The results are now (largely) in for what will certainly be one of the biggest election dramas of the decade.India Flag Icon

Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister, has led the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) to its best-ever victory. In India’s post-independence history, it’s the first time that the BJP — or any party — has won an absolute majority other than the  Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस).

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RELATED: In-Depth: India’s elections

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Conversely, the Congress, the party of Indian independence and the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, has suffered its worst defeat in the history of independent India. After a decade of rule, party president Sonia Gandhi and her son, party vice president Rahul Gandhi, face a long wilderness in the Modi era.

Here’s the latest on results, via NDTV:


The BJP, by itself, will hold 284 seats, which gives it an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा). Together with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it will hold 340 seats. That represents the largest mandate that any governing coalition has won since 1984, when Congress won over 400 seats under Rajiv Gandhi, who was waging the fight after his mother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her SIkh bodyguards in the wake of Sikh riots.

It’s hard to describe just what a massive landslide this was, but this NDTV map of all 543 constituencies give you a good idea:

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Continue reading India’s election results: Modi wave largest mandate since 1984

India Lok Sabha elections: Phase 9


Today marks the final phase of India’s election marathon.India Flag Icon

Voters in 41 constituencies will elect their members of the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the 545-seat lower house of the Indian parliament. After today’s voting, exit polls should give Indians (and the rest of us) the first indications of what the results might be, though they have been vastly wrong in the past. The official final results will be announced on Friday, May 16.

In particular, it’s the biggest day of voting in two of India’s most populous states. Uttar Pradesh will elect 18 of its 80 seats today, and West Bengal will elect 17 of its 42 seats. In addition, Bihar will elect its final six legislators.

In West Bengal, a state of 91 million Indians, chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s local All India Trinamool Congess (TMC, সর্বভারতীয় তৃণমূল কংগ্রেস) is set to win the biggest share of the vote after sweeping to power in the state’s 2011 elections and, in so doing, sweeping a 34-year communist government out of office in West Bengal.

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RELATED: Mamata-Modi spat takes center stage in West Bengal

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Nonetheless, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CP-I(M)) and the Left Front (বাম ফ্রন্ট) are expected to win a large share of the vote as well.

That leaves India’s two national parties, the governing, secular Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) of Rahul Gandhi and outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh, and the conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी)  of chief minister Narendra Modi, both unlikely to make many gains in West Bengal.

Both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar will provide more fertile territory, especially for the BJP, which needs to win most of the 122 seats in those two states to have a chance at winning a majority government in the Lok Sabha.

In what might be the most watched constituency in India, Modi is battling Arvind Kejriwal, the former chief minister of Delhi, in the city of Varanasi (formerly Benares). Lying on the shores of the Ganges River, the city is known as India’s holiest, and it’s in the heart of Uttar Pradesh.

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RELATED: Did Kejriwal err in resigning position as Delhi’s chief minister?

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Kejriwal emerged as one of the most popular politicians in the country after his showing in the December 2013 elections in the National Capital territory. His newly formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, Common Man Party) took power for 49 days, instituting popular policies from water and power subsidies to hotlines for reporting bribery. Kejriwal resigned, however, in February, when the territorial legislature refused to enact his jan lokpal bill that would have instituted mechanisms for reducing corruption.

Since leaving office, Kejriwal has led a national campaign for the AAP, hoping that he can recreate the same electoral magic nationally that he did six months ago. But there’s a general sense that Kejriwal made a mistake by resigning, and that his national campaign attempts to do too much in too little time. There’s a chance that it will backfire so much that the AAP might not even win a majority of Delhi’s seats to the Lok Sabha.

But in Varanasi, Kejriwal has waged an electrifying fight against Modi, who chose to contest  both the Varanasi constituency and in the Vadodara constituency in his home state of Gujarat. Continue reading India Lok Sabha elections: Phase 9

Mamata-Modi spat takes center stage in West Bengal


In today’s final phase of India’s six-week national elections, attention has increasingly shifted to West Bengal, which will elect the final 17 of its 42 seats in the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा).India Flag Icon

But even as he tries to sweep the rest of the country, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) will find precious few votes in West Bengal.

As far as that goes, neither will his national rival, the secular Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), which has governed India for the past decade under the leadership of party president Sonia Gandhi and prime minister Manmohan Singh.

That’s because, like so many of India’s states these days, West Bengalese politics is dominated by entirely regional forces.

Between 1977 and 2011, West Bengal featured the longest consecutive communist government in elective history — under the long-serving chief minister Joyti Basu, from 1977 to 2000, and his successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, from 2000 to 2011. For 34 years, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M) ruled West Bengal as the largest party of the Left Front (বাম ফ্রন্ট) coalition.

That all changed with the 2011 state assembly elections, when Mamata Banerjee (pictured above), known simply as ‘didi‘ (‘sister’ in Bengali), swept to power in a lopsided victory. She and her allies now control 227 of the 294 sets in the legislative assembly. Banerjee, who began her career in the Congress Party, formed the All India Trinamool Congess (TMC, সর্বভারতীয় তৃণমূল কংগ্রেস) in 1997.

Banerjee quickly joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and became railways minister in the BJP-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. She re-aligned herself with the Congress Party in   2009 as part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and once again served as railways minister, this time under Singh.

She returned to West Bengal for the 2011 state campaign, leading the TMC to its overwhelming victory. As chief minister, Banerjee has emerged as one of the most powerful players in Indian politics, and while she may not have lived up to high expectations that followed her victory three years ago, she’s generally seen as a relatively honest public servant and she’s worked to improve health and education programs throughout West Bengal, traditionally one of India’s poorer states on a per-capita basis.

It’s difficult to place Banerjee politically. At the state political level, she and the TMC are ideologically to the right of the Left Front, naturally, and at the national level, Banerjee has allied with both the major parties. It’s perhaps most correct to say that Banerjee is a populist, veering left or right as convenient for her political future or for West Bengal’s relationship vis-à-vis the central government.

But an alliance with the BJP seems unlikely as Modi and Banerjee has increasingly traded harsh barbs on the campaign trail.

Much of the explanation lies at the intersection of religion and politics. Modi is trying to maximize Hindu support in West Bengal, but also in the voter-rich states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and elsewhere in the ‘Hindi belt.’ Banerjee, for her part, is increasingly trying to unite Muslim voters in West Bengal, which comprise over one-quarter of West Bengal’s 91 million residents.

Modi has attacked the West Bengal state government for its handling of the Saradha Group financial scam that defrauded 1.7 million Indians, mostly in West Bengal, of up to $6 billion. Earlier this month, India’s supreme court referred the current investigations to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation amid signs of political interference. Modi has also taken a hard stand against Bangladeshi illegal immigrants. Last week, Banerjee pushed back, calling Modi a ‘donkey,’ and chastising him as the ‘butcher of Gujarat’ for his alleged role in deadly riots there in 2002.

Why is this all so important?  Continue reading Mamata-Modi spat takes center stage in West Bengal

India Lok Sabha elections: Phase 8


If you can believe it, today marks the one-month anniversary since the first polls opened in India’s gargantuan nine-phase general elections. India Flag Icon

Today, with 439 members of the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा) already elected, India is now just two election days away from completing the voting process. Results will be announced on May 16 — just nine days from today.

The eighth phase adds 64 more seats to the total.

Uttar Pradesh

Fifteen seats will be selected in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the biggest prize of the election, with 80 seats.

The most watched contest is in Amethi, something of a Nehru-Gandhi family heirloom:

  • It was first won by Sanjay Gandhi, the son of longtime prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1980.
  • When Sanjay died in an airplane crash, his brother Rajiv Gandhi held the seat from 1981 (including as India’s prime minister between 1984 and 1989), until his assassination in 1991.
  • Rajiv’s Italian-born widow Sonia Gandhi held the seat from 1999 to 2004, though she is running today in the adjacent Rae Bareli constituency.
  • Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, has held it for the past decade, and he’s leading the campaign of the governing Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) in 2014 — with prime minister Manmohan Singh stepping down, Rahul Gandhi would likely become prime minister if his party defies polling predictions and wins the elections.
  • Rahul’s sister, Priyanka Vadra (pictured above with Rahul), is running the Congress campaign behind the scenes — though with an increasingly public role.

Though Rahul Gandhi’s official opponent is Smriti Irani, a former television star, he’s really running against Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी), who took the fight earlier this week to Amethi, a sign of confidence in the ‘Modi wave’ that the BJP and many national polls say is sweeping India after a decade of Congress-led rule (though polls have been wrong before, in 2004 and even in 2009).

Modi on Monday delivered a scathing attack on the entire Nehru-Gandhi family, calling it arrogant and angry — it’s the Indian political equivalent of spiking the ball as Modi appears on the verge of winning a landslide BJP victory:

There is no doubting Modi’s intention, which was to offer the spectacle of his presumption; the presumption of a “chai bechne wala” humiliating the “raj parivar” in their own backyard. The class warfare trope, beloved of old socialist-era Hindi films, played beautifully to his exceptionally large gallery. They cheered each time Modi pronounced ‘Sssonia madam’ with his now trademark sibilant hiss…. The truth is that Modi didn’t really need to go there. Yet he did because, simply, he could — hold a giant rally in Amethi and heap personal invective on the Gandhi family. 

Modi attacked Priyanka Vadra for her ‘arrogance’ in dismissing the local BJP candidate and baiting her into an angry response by attacking her father. Modi, who is considered ‘OBC’ (Other Backward Classes), a constitutionally protected class, and who once sold tea for a living, played both the class card and the caste card against the Gandhis.

Vadra accused Modi of practicing ‘neech rajniti‘ — or low-level politics — and Modi slammed back that it’s not a fault that he was born into a ‘neech jaati‘ — or lower caste. In states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where caste and politics are unmistakably linked, Modi has been careful to shy away from caste-based campaigning, though top Modi aide Amit Shah has been working for months behind the scenes to manage a savvy BJP campaign designed, in part, to maximize the caste divisions among rival parties.

Hindu poet Kumar Vishwas is running as the candidate of the newly formed good-government, anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, Common Man Party), which rose to prominence in the December 2013 Delhi elections and briefly held power for 49 days until AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal resigned when the legislative assembly blocked his keystone corruption bill.

Andhra Pradesh

The remaining 25 seats in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh are up for grabs, too. Continue reading India Lok Sabha elections: Phase 8

India Lok Sabha elections: Phase 7


With just three rounds to go between today and May 12, and just 194 seats left to fill, Indians are once again going to the polls today to elect MPs in 89 constituencies.India Flag Icon

The biggest prize of today’s voting is Gujarat, the home state of Narendra Modi, where his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) hopes to win the lion’s share of the state’s 26 seats in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of India’s parliament.


Modi (pictured above in a ‘selfie’ posted to Twitter after voting earlier today in Ahmedabadhas served as chief minister of Gujarat since 2001, and he’s won three consecutive elections, most recently in December 2012. Much of his campaign revolves around his own stewardship of the Gujarati economy over more than a decade. The promise that Modi, as India’s next prime minister, can bring the ‘Gujarat model,’ with its high level of development, GDP growth and investment, to all of India is an alluring prospect. But it’s questionable that there’s anything like a ‘Gujarat model’ at all — it’s probably more accurate to talk about a ‘Gujarat narrative’ that begins well before Modi took office. While Modi has worked hard to bring investment to his state, and while he may be credited with some of the state’s economic success over the past 13 years, it’s not certain just how he would effect the lessons of Gujarat’s development throughout the rest of India. 

But for today’s purposes, the governing Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), which currently controls 11 of the state’s 26 constituencies, will almost certainly lose many of them. As in so many other states across India, Congress, under the uncertain leadership of Rahul Gandhi, seems destined to mark historical losses.   Continue reading India Lok Sabha elections: Phase 7

Could LK Advani become India’s next prime minister?


With India’s massive nine-phase election now underway, what happens if Narendra Modi doesn’t quite win a majority in India’s parliament?India Flag Icon

Everyone believes that Modi, the longtime chief minister of Gujarat, and his conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) are headed for a historic victory. But that might not be enough — and if history is any guide, it won’t be enough, even taking into account the seats of the BJP’s coalition partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

That could mean that India’s ‘Third Front,’ a motley group of regional and Marxist/socialist parties, could team up with the remnants of the center-left Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) and the few parties that remain in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). India has had Third Front governments  in the past, but it’s a path that traditionally leads to acrimony, dysfunction and, sooner rather than later, new elections.

But if the BJP performs as well as polls widely suggest it might, there could be no doubt that the BJP (and Modi) have a stronger mandate to govern India and a stronger claim on forming the government than a rag-tag coalition of a dozen or more parties.

In that scenario, the BJP may be forced to turn to additional parties — and their price for support might require that the BJP jettisons Modi as its prime minister. That’s when things get really interesting, and it’s why the internal rifts inside the BJP over the past two years will become so important if and when the BJP/NDA wins the election with less than an absolute majority. In particular, it means that the rift between Modi and the elder statesman of the BJP, Lal Krishna Advani (pictured above, left, with Modi) could determine the identity of India’s next prime minister. Continue reading Could LK Advani become India’s next prime minister?

The path to India’s next government runs through Uttar Pradesh

India, Uttar Pradesh, Agra Man on bike with girl on trailer and man pushing from behind in front of Taj Mahal at sunset

It’s the most populous state in the world’s largest democracy.India Flag Icon

It’s the great heartland of Hindustan along India’s north-central border, home to the Taj Mahal, home to seven of India’s 13 prime ministers, and the traditional base of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has given India three prime ministers, and hopes to give India its next prime minister in Rahul Gandhi.

It’s Uttar Pradesh (which translates to ‘northern province’), and Narendra Modi’s path to becoming India’s next prime minister runs right through it.

A sketch of India’s most populous state

With 199.6 million residents, it’s nearly as populous as Brazil — and with 80 seats up for grabs in the 545-member Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the state is by far the largest prize in India’s parliamentary elections, which kick off April 7 and will be conducted in nine phases that conclude on May 12. Given the sheer size of the state, voters in Uttar Pradesh will go to the polls in six of the nine phases,** spanning virtually the entire voting season.

That means that Uttar Pradesh holds about one-third of the seats any party would need to win a majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower (and more consequential) house of the Indian parliament.


Though it lies in the heart of the ‘Hindi belt,’ which might otherwise make it fertile territory for Modi’s conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी), it won’t necessarily be the easiest sell for Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat since 2001.

In contrast to Gujarat, which is one of the wealthiest states of India, Uttar Pradesh is one of the poorest — it had a state GDP per capita of around $1,586 (as of 2009), less than 50% of Gujarat’s equivalent. Continue reading The path to India’s next government runs through Uttar Pradesh

Is Priyanka Vadra the secret Gandhi family weapon for Congress?


All eyes have been on Rahul Gandhi, the somewhat reluctant warrior who’s leading the campaign for the governing Indian National Congress (INC / Congress) that hopes to win a third consecutive term in power in this spring’s parliamentary elections.India Flag Icon

But it’s his sister, Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, who is getting all the buzz recently with word that Priyanka will step out of the shadows to take a fuller role in the election campaign this year, mostly as an advisor and manager for Rahul’s campaign, but also taking an increasingly visible role as well.

As she steps closer to the heart of Congress’s campaign, it will be the third major Gandhi family member to figure prominently in the 2013 elections.  Their Italian-born mother, Sonia Gandhi, has been Congress’s party leader since 1998, though when Congress won the 2004 national elections, Sonia declined to become prime minister, instead handing the top job to Manmohan Singh, who will step down this spring after a decade in office.

Rahul is not technically the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, but his role leading the campaign means that it’s more likely than not that he’ll become India’s next prime minister if the INC wins this spring.

That outcome seems increasingly less certain.  The latest CNN-IBN-Lokniti-CSDS poll shows that Congress and its allies, which together comprise the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will win between 107 and 127 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of the Indian parliament — a loss of over 100 seats.  Instead, the more conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) would win, together with its own allies that form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), between 211 and 231 seats, under the leadership of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, has waged an aggressive campaign against Congress, on the basis that he can bring Gujarat’s high-growth economic approach to the rest of India.  Modi, who is 20 years older than Rahul, routinely refers to his opponent as shehzada, or ‘prince,’ and there’s speculation that Congress’s leadership decided not to anoint Rahul as its official prime ministerial candidate to avoid a presidential-style showdown between the two leaders that Modi would almost certainly win, despite his flaws.

Priyanka has campaigned before on behalf of her mother and broher in their constituencies in Uttar Pradesh.  But neither she nor her brother, Rahul, have faced the rigors of leading a national campaign in the world’s largest democracy — especially against perhaps the most talented BJP politician in over a decade.  Modi’s not without flaws, though, especially given doubts over his role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.

But there’s no disputing that Modi, if the elections were held today, has enough momentum to win.

So who is Priyanka and how can she help turn things around for Congress?  Continue reading Is Priyanka Vadra the secret Gandhi family weapon for Congress?

Meet Arvind Kejriwal, the rising anti-corruption star of Indian politics

Arvind Kejriwal

Yesterday, the new government of Delhi’s national capital territory launched a new anti-graft hotline that received nearly 4,000 calls on its first day.India Flag Icon

In what was supposed to be the year of Narendra Modi’s easy rise to India’s premiership, it’s another brash new leader who’s making headlines instead — and not just in India, but worldwide.

It’s Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी), literally the ‘Common Man’ Party, which emerged as the key player in Delhi’s December regional elections as  an alternative to Modi’s conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) and the governing center-left Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) of Sonia Gandhi, the party’s leader; Rahul Gandhi, her son; and outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh. 

Kejriwal, at age 45 one of India’s youngest chief ministers, took office on December 28, leading a minority government that, somewhat ironically, enjoys the outside support of the INC, which controlled Delhi’s government between 1998 and last December’s elections.  Congress, which was running for a fourth consecutive term in power under chief minister Sheila Dikshit, was decimated — it not only lost its majority, but now holds just eight seats, after suffering from widespread corruption allegations.  Kejriwal actually ran in Dikshit’s New Delhi constituency and defeated her by a margin of 53.5% to 22.2% (state BJP leader Vijender Gupta received just 21.7%).

Though the BJP actually won the greatest number of seats (31 to the AAP’s 28), negotiations between the AAP and the BJP failed, and Kejriwal took up Congress’s somewhat surprising offer to back his government, thereby avoiding a new round of elections.  Unlike other regional parties in India, the AAP managed to take power on a broad coalition of supporters, not on the basis of representing certain religious or class-based constituencies — it attracted Muslims and Hindus, rich and poor, Dalit and non-Dalit, and especially India’s educated younger generation.

Kejriwal, a mechanical engineer by training and a former Indian Revenue Service official, started an NGO in 1999 called Parivartan, designed to provide tax assistance and other help to Delhi citizens.  But it was as an anti-corruption official that Kejriwal first caught fire in the national spotlight, and under the mentorship of Anna Hazare, worked to demand what would eventually become the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005, which required government bodies to reply to citizen requests for information within 30 days or face penalties, and which relaxes many previous exemptions from disclosure under the Official Secrets Act and other legislation.  RTI replaced the much weaker, toothless and exemption-ridden 2002 Freedom of Information Act.  

In 2011, Anna and Kejriwal succeeded in pushing the government to start the process for drafting a Jan Lokpal bill, an anti-corruption law that would create the Jan Lokpal, an independent citizen’s ombudsman commission that would have the ability to investigate corruption.  Though India’s parliament pushed through a Lokpal Bill in December 2013, it’s much weaker than the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill — for example, it doesn’t protect whistleblowers, it doesn’t provide for any real punitive actions or the ability to prosecute corrupt bureaucrats, and it doesn’t provide investigative independence to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation.  Kejriwal took the final leap into elective politics when he founded the AAP in November 2012 with the intention of contesting Delhi’s local elections.

Having now swept to power in Delhi (literally on the image of a broom ‘sweeping’ corruption away), Kejriwal wasted no time in announcing a 50% cut in power rates and free water to Delhi residents within hours of taking power.  He’s already working to implement the AAP’s anti-corruption agenda with the anti-graft hotline, and he’s pledged to introduce a Jan Lokpal bill specifically for Delhi soon.AAP broom

There’s good reason for Kejriwal to be in a hurry — with the AAP’s momentum spreading from Delhi to other parts of India, it could be in a position to make a splash in national politics with the upcoming elections for the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of India’s parliament, which are due before May 31.  That gives Kejriwal some time to lay the foundation for what the AAP might be able to accomplish on a grander scale, a down payment on what a national anti-corruption party could enact.

After a decade of rule under Singh’s Congress-led governments, Indian voters are weary with Congress .  Its prime minister-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi seems unexciting and disinterested.  Indians are displeased with Congress’s reform record and the state of India’s precarious economy.  Meanwhile, the AAP has highlighted a growing disenchantment over bureaucratic corruption.

Though Modi, the decade-long chief minister of Gujarat state, promises to lead a BJP government that will bring Gujarat’s high economic growth rates to the entire country, there are doubts both about the extent to which Modi’s ‘Gujarati model’ is responsible for his state’s growth and how (and whether) such a ‘Gujarati model’ could even be translated to a much more diverse national economy.  Moreover, the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat continue to blemish Modi’s record.  Though he recently spoke out for the first time disclaiming any role in the violence, the riots, which resulted in the death of over 1,000 Muslims, will continue to haunt Modi’s campaign and the notion that he can be a trustworthy prime minister for India’s religious minorities.

So what damage might Kejriwal inflict on the status quo? Plenty.  Continue reading Meet Arvind Kejriwal, the rising anti-corruption star of Indian politics

14 in 2014: India parliamentary elections


6. India parliamentary elections, expected in May.

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In the spring, the country of 1.24 billion people faces a decision — either award a third term to a listless, relatively corrupt center-left government with uninspiring leadership or take a chance on a controversial center-right government that promises economic transformation, but which could inflame India’s Muslim population.

Before May 31, Indians must choose the entire membership of Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of India’s parliament — it currently has 545 members, but can have up to a maximum of 552.

On the left is the familiar Indian National Congress (Congress, or भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस).  This is the party of Jawaharlal Nehru. And Indira Gandhi, his daughter. And Rajiv Gandhi, her son. And Sonia Gandhi, his Italian-born wife. And now Rahul Gandhi, their son.  With 206 seats, Congress is the largest party in the Lok Sabha today, and it leads the United Progressive Alliance, which holds a total of 226 seats.

After a decade in office, India’s first Sikh prime minister, economist Manmohan Singh, will step down no matter who wins the elections — and he’ll do so with an economy in the doldrums and a record of having achieved few of the economic and social reforms that Indians expected when he came to power in 2004.  Though he pushed through   reforms to liberalize India’s retail sector earlier this year and a law strengthening punishment for rape after the brutal gang rape and murder of a woman in Delhi in December 2012, Singh’s record as prime minister has been panned — much in contrast to his record as finance minister between 1991 and 1996.  GDP growth is expected to rise in 2013 to around 5% after falling for three consecutive years — from 10.5% in 2010 to 6.3% in 2011 to just 3.2% in 2012.  But that comes after the Indian rupee fell nearly 25% in value against the dollar throughout 2013 — and still remains around 13% lower than it was in January 2013.

Sonia Gandhi, Congress’s party leader throughout Singh’s administration, is expected to continue in that role, with her and her son Rahul (pictured above) leading Congress’s campaign.  But Rahul’s relatively lackluster performance on the campaign trail has led some commentators to wonder whether he really cares if Congress wins or loses in 2014.  Rahul recently tried to create some distance between himself and Singh, but it remains to be seen whether Rahul has the political skill to become India’s next prime minister.

On the right is the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी), which last held power between 1999 and 2004, when it lost a disastrous ‘India Shining’ campaign that seemed to disregard the majority of Indians who weren’t pocketing the gains of India’s economic boom at the time, despite GDP growth of around 8%.  This time around, the BJP has embraced Narendra Modi, the thrice-elected chief minister of Gujarat, home to one of India’s strongest regional economies.  He’s popular, not least of which because he’s seen as impervious to corruption, but he hasn’t explained yet how he would translate his Gujarati economic model to the entirety of India.  What’s more, he’s plagued by his role in controversial anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that left over 1,000 Muslims dead.  Modi’s role remains murky, but it was enough for the United States to deny Modi a visa in the 2000s.  It’s a handicap for Modi’s national ambitions, in light of a population of 176 million Muslim Indians who largely mistrust Modi, who got his political start in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, Hindu paramilitary group.

Today, Modi seems like the odds-on favorite to become India’s prime minister, but he and the BJP face challenges.  It’s no secret that former BJP leader and deputy prime minister LK Advani has clashed with Modi in the past, and that Modi’s rise to become the nominal head of the BJP remains controversial.  What’s more, he starts the campaign with just 117 seats in the Lok Sabha.  The second-largest member of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition, the Janata Dal (United) (जनता दल (यूनाइटेड)), a center-left party with 20 seats that controls India’s third-most populous state, Bihar, when that state’s chief minister Nitish Kumar pulled out of the NDA in June 2013 over differences with Modi.

The BJP thrived in a set of state assembly elections in November and December 2013 in a wide swath of north-central India — it retained Madhya Pradesh (India’s sixth-most populous), retained Chhattisgarh and gained Rajasthan (India’s eight-largest).  But it lost its sole foothold in India’s south when it lost control of the government of Karnataka in May 2013.  There’s also no indication that the BJP can make inroads in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where it placed third in February 2012 state elections behind two UPA-friendly parties, the Samajwadi Party (समाजवादी पार्टी, Socialist Party), which holds 22 seats, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP, बहुजन समाज पार्टी), which holds 21 seats.  In West Bengal, India’s fourth-largest state (and one of its poorest), chief minister Mamata Banerjee has a lock on politics after her center-left All India Trinamool Congress (সর্বভারতীয় তৃণমূল কংগ্রেস) took power in 2011, defeating the even more communist Left Front (বাম ফ্রন্ট), which also has a strong influence in Kerala in India’s southwestern corner.  Both parties belong to neither the UPA nor the NDA after Banerjee pulled her party out of the UPA in 2012.

Yet another worry is the recent rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (आम आदमी की पार्टी), a new party that rose to prominence in Delhi’s state elections in December and that leads Delhi’s new minority government with outside support from Congress.  Whether you think the Aam Aadmi Party marks a cynical brand of populism or an important moment in the fight against corruption in Indian government, its leader (and new Delhi chief minister) Arvind Kejriwal is a suddenly unexpected key player in India’s national elections.

Taken together, it could mean Indians deliver more votes to third parties in 2014 to either Congress or the BJP — but whether they do so in a way that could actually transform Indian governance is less certain.

Photo credit to AFP / Prakash Singh.

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Is there a potential parliamentary path to amending Section 377 in India?


Sonia Gandhi, the leader of India’s largest party, and a massively influential voice in Indian government, has strongly denounced the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which effectively re-criminalized same-sex relationships yesterday.India Flag Icon

The Supreme Court rejected the earlier 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court, which had interpreted that Section 377 violated several rights guaranteed under India’s constitution, thereby effectively decriminalizing same-sex conduct.  India’s Supreme Court yesterday instead ruled that it was up to India’s parliament, not its judiciary, to address Section 377.

Gandhi forcefully called on India’s parliament to take up the issue by amending Section 377 in a way that makes it clear that she believes same-sex conduct should not be criminalized:

“The High Court had wisely removed an archaic, repressive and unjust law that infringed on basic human rights enshrine din our Constitution. This Constitution has given us a great legacy, a legacy of liberalism of openness, that enjoin us to combat prejudice and discrimination of any kind. We are proud that our culture has always been an inclusive and tolerant one. The Supreme Court also suggested another course. I hope the Parliament will address this issue and uphold the constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens of India, including those affected by this judgement.”

As the leader of the governing Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), her strong condemnation makes it possible that India’s parliament just might enact a legislative fix.

Gandhi’s statement cleared the way for several high-profile members of India’s government to attack the decision.  Finance minister P Chidambaram said he was extremely disappointed with the decision, and he argued that the decision, by upholding a law enacted in 1860, embodies  colonial-era reasoning.  Kapil Sibal, India’s minister for law and justice, after a somewhat non-committal statement yesterday, today issued a call clearly supporting government action to neutralize the Supreme Court’s decision:

“I am disappointed, and, it is unfortunate that the Supreme Court has upheld the legality of Section 377. The High Court was right on this issue. Right now, there are several options before the government, and, we are exploring all of them. This government believes in firm and quick action, and, we will do that. We will adopt a policy that will provide relief at the earliest,” he said.

Congress, which likes to wrap itself in its legacy as the party that delivered Indian to independence in 1947 under Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader of the independence movement and later, India’s first prime minister, would jump at the chance to attack Section 377, above all, as a relic of Victorian-era repression inflicted upon India by its British colonial rulers.

Fresh off its massive political victory in regional elections earlier this month in Delhi, the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) also announced its disapproval of the decision and its support for repealing or amending Section 377.

In contrast, the center-right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) and Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state, and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in next spring’s parliamentary elections, have been silent since yesterday’s decision.  Sushma Swaraj, the BJP opposition leader in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of India’s parliament, has called for an all-party meeting to determine whether there’s support to amend Section 377 in the Lok Sabha.

While Muslim and Christian groups have been more active on Section 377 in India than Hindu groups, the conservative BJP doesn’t exactly fit the mould of a party willing to take a progressive stand in favor of LGBT rights.  Baba Ramdev, a top Indian yoga guru, and a leading Modi supporter, has been outspoken in his virulent opposition to homosexuality.

Either way, Gandhi and Congress will find that time is rapidly running out, with the Lok Sabha expected to be dissolved next spring in advance of parliamentary elections that must be held before May 2014.

While Congress could push to amend 377 through legislative action, there’s a chance that the government could also support a ‘curative petition’ that calls on the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling — such petitions rarely succeed, but such petitions rarely have the full support of Sonia Gandhi behind them.

Both the Congress-led government and the BJP have at least some reason to pull together to support legislation essentially decriminalizing same-sex conduct (once again) in India.  Continue reading Is there a potential parliamentary path to amending Section 377 in India?