Sharing Discussing Understanding

Commonwealth Journalists' Association

A packed floor at Senate House exchange views on  the election picture in India.
A packed floor at Senate House exchange views on the election picture in India.

The Indian general election campaign has gripped attention inside and outside the sub-continent. Radically different agendas and personalities offered by the parties mean the country faces a stark choice. CJA-UK gathered experts at Senate House, University of London, to look at where India goes from here, writes JOYEETA BASU:

This Indian election is like no other before it. It is the longest and the most expensive general election in the history of the country. It has brought the domination of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty under threat and the controversial but pro-business leader Narendra Modi to the forefront.

“It is a dramatic election and many are calling it the greatest show on earth. There are an estimated 440 million voters and more than 500 parties to choose from. The man regarded as most likely Prime Minister, Narendra Modi is charismatic but divisive,” said CJA President Rita Payne, introducing the subject for the evening’s discussion.

Andrew Whitehead, who chaired the event and has followed India closely for the last 20 years, agreed. “What a landmark this election this is. I can’t think of any other election that I have followed in India, where the outcome has been in many ways so clear yet so uncertain and for some people so alarming.”

But the main question was, should the world care?

John Elliott felt that the world should because of several factors at play. He said the outcome of the elections was likely to affect Indian communities abroad and how they would behave, feel and speak; because India is a big international customer and supplier; partly because of curiosity of what happens to tired dynasties and driven potential leaders and finally, ‘ because India is India’.

John has used the word implosion in his book’s title as ‘an insidious and dramatic inward collapse in India’. By that he meant internal forces gradually eating away at institutions and the country filling up with self-serving politicians and government officials, endemic corruption and a lack of interest in tackling problems. “When such developments begin to destroy the political process, judiciary and the media, implosion has begun,” he explained.

The day John’s book was launched in February there was a huge row in India over the creation of Telangana, the breaking up of Andhra Pradesh. John saw the state as a microcosm of the problems of crony capitalism. He spoke about Minister of Parliament L Rajagopal using a pepper spray against other MPs in Parliament because his business interests were being threatened by the state splitting up. “So he used a pepper spray,” explained John as a case in point.

Lord Desai who took to the stage after John, chose to address the topic differently. He wondered if India should care about the world. “India is coming to a stage where it doesn’t actually care whether the world likes it or not. And like the British muddled through, India muddles through. It looks like it is not working but it perfectly is,” he explained.

He also took a decisive stance on the outcome of the elections and said: “It is almost certain that it will be a BJP and National Democratic Alliance government. There is no point in putting any money on the election, it is done.”

Journalist, commentator and author Ashis Ray took a step back in time to 1942 and the problems of communalism. Referring to the Quit India Movement where Hindu, Muslim and Sikh extremists slaughtered a million people, he said. “Fortunately India has emerged a secular democracy but if that carefully woven fabric is torn apart, India is looking for trouble and the world is looking at India with concern. The world should not care, the world should be concerned,” said Ashis.

Hasan Suroor, also spoke on the communal factor. “The beauty of the election is that it has made the Muslim factor almost redundant,” he said. It was not so much that Muslims feared Modi as they hated him, felt Hasan explaining that the hate is the same as that with which they once hated L K Advani during the Ayodhya movement. “The main message has been that they do not need Muslims. They can win the elections on Hindu votes and that is rather dangerous,” he stressed.

Having said that, he added that come May 16, he did not think Muslims will be termed second class citizens or taken away and shot. There is confidence among them that secular Hindus will not let that happen. But there are other worries such as the fringe element in the Sangh Parivar becoming stronger, communal discord becoming shriller, text books being tampered with and institutions having more RSS elements. “This happened under Atul Bihari Vajpayee and under Modi, they will be a little worse.”

For Hasan, the issue is about a moral dilemma. “I wouldn’t vote for Modi simply because he is so insensitive to the sufferings of his own people,” he said.

The discussion was then thrown open to the guests for their questions. Several of them were on the importance of the newly-formed Aam Aadmi Party. While John and Lord Desai agreed that the party was good for India, Ashis and Hasan felt that it was only a flash in the pan.