Reflections on the National Elections of India, April-May 2014 – Shaji George Kochuthara

Catholic Social Ethics

Elections in India are always an interplay of politics, religion, language, caste, national concerns, regional interests, money, business interests, media and so on. Hence any analysis of the election results is rather complex and complicated. The recent national elections attracted great attention within India as well as from other countries, not only because of the greater role India plays at the international level in today’s world, but also because there were predictions that the ruling Congress Party would be thrown from office and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would be brought back to power after a gap of two terms (10 years), under its new and controversial leader Narendra Modi.

The people’s verdict is clear: BJP has was won the majority needed to form a government. For the first time in nearly three decades, a single party is able to form a government on its own. Over the last three decades, there have been coalition governments, often formed by political parties which differed extensively in ideology and style. The BJP’s victory is therefore striking. This “clear” verdict “in favour of BJP and its new leader,” however, must be evaluated, as even some of the veteran leaders of BJP, like L.K. Advani, have pointed out. The following points, in particular, should be taken into consideration.

1. There was a strong reaction to the ruling government. That is, it is not clear whether people voted in favour of the ideology that BJP and its allies propose, or they voted against the ruling party that was in power for ten years, opting for a change rather than for an ideology. That is yet to be understood clearly, and will become clearer in the coming months and years.

2. Though BJP has won 282 seats, it won just 31 percent of the popular vote. This is said to be the lowest share of votes that a winning government has obtained since India’s independence in 1947. Moreover, BJP and Congress – the two main national parties – together obtained just above 51% of the vote. This means that the regional parties, who won most of the rest, continue to be very important. Also, that the ruling party has won just 31% of votes makes it doubtful whether the election can be considered a clear mandate for the party and its ideology.

3. Many are concerned about the policy that the new government will have towards religious minorities. The BJP is said to be controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Viswa Hindu Parishat, Hindu nationalist organizations which allegedly hold that India should be declared a Hindu nation, and that all except Hindus are only foreigners here. The party also has a dubious record of attacks on religious minorities wherever it was in power, including the notorious riots in Gujarat in 2002 – in which thousands of Muslims were killed, attacked and looted – a record that many consider a blot on Indian democracy. There have been reports that even some of the main leaders of the party were directly involved in such attacks, and that Modi himself failed to prevent the riots in Gujarat. Some of those leaders have been punished by the courts; others still enjoy power and have taken up even more important positions, due to the lack of “convincing” evidence.

How the minorities will feel secure and free under the new government is a pertinent question. Security and freedom for minorities is essential for peace, harmony and development in India. Whatever the failures, the past governments led by the Congress or the Janata Party had the credit of instilling in the minorities the feeling of protection and freedom. This might be one of the main reasons that India continues to be a democracy, while many of its neighbours have failed to maintain the democratic system. Instead, if the government creates religious polarization and strengthens communal forces, that will only lead to the end of India as a democracy.

4. One of the most pertinent questions is that of development. The BJP presented itself as the party that will lead India to new heights. They presented Gujrat, where the new prime minister was the chief minister for about three terms, as the model of development. The victory of the BJP owes a lot to this new hope that the party and its leader could instil in the hearts of the ordinary people. However, there are apprehensions about the claims of development in Gujrat. Industries and multinationals have grown there. At the same time, many studies have revealed that the rates of poverty, malnutrition, infant mortality, etc. have remained the same, or the condition has even worsened. Has the so-much publicised development reached all people, especially the poor? Development that does not include the poor is not real development. The real challenge of the new government is to ensure inclusive development.

Similarly, one of the major accusations against the Congress government was that it failed to curb corruption. However, to eliminate or control corruption will be a challenge for the BJP, as well. When BJP was in power for a term ending ten years ago, there were also a number of cases of corruption.

5. In an unprecedented manner, the election campaigns displayed the power of money. It is clear that huge amounts of money, much more than the amounts allowed by the regulations, were spent for organising rallies and meetings, especially for the BJP. We will never be able to know the real amount of money spent for the campaign. It was often pointed out that the big business firms and the rich class openly supported BJP, expecting a more favourable climate for themselves.

The power of money was also clear in the media reports. Most of the print media, visual media, and the digital media openly fought for the BJP. In fact, the Congress government took a number of admirable initiatives to curb corruption and to help the poor; the Right to Information Act, the Food Security Bill, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, etc. are only some of them. However, all these were ignored and only the failures of the government were highlighted, as if everything is planned or as if the media were bought. Whether this stand taken by the media is for the good of the country, or whether it is planned for the benefit of a few, will be better understood in the coming months and years.

6. Democracy needs inspiring leaders. Democracy cannot be the rule of a family, as it had nearly become under Congress: Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party leader, is the son of Sonia Gandhi, the current president, and Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister assassinated in 1991, the latter of whom was himself the son of long-serving prime minister Indira Gandhi. It is still worse when it becomes the rule of a single person. Then it becomes only autocracy or dictatorship. Even in a democratic system, a dictator can make democracy a farce. There are concerns whether, within the new government and its party, there are tendencies toward becoming a one-man centred party and government. Democracy demands a people capable of critical awareness. Let us hope that the people of India will respond positively to this challenge, instead of being led astray by interest groups.

Christians, though a minority, have contributed considerably to national integration in India, for the uplift of the poor and the outcastes. The contributions of Christians, especially in the field of education, healthcare, social services, etc. are appreciated even by opponents. If the new policies of the government are going to ignore the poor and support only rich corporations and multinationals, it means that Christians will have a greater responsibility of working for the poor, expressing solidarity with them and ensuring inclusive development. Similarly, greater commitment to national integration and harmony is another important challenge.

As a minority religious group, Christians are concerned. However, we believe in the power of goodness. We believe that history and destiny are guided by God.

Shaji George Kochuthara, CMI teaches moral theology at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram in Bangalore, India. He has published The Concept of Sexual Pleasure in the Catholic Moral Tradition (Roma: Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2007) and is the editor-in-chief of Asian Horizons: Dharmaram Journal of Theology. He also serves on the Asian Regional Committee of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church.

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