India Insight

from FaithWorld:

Holding back the “religion card” in India’s election campaign

india-election-ayodhyaHindu nationalism, Muslim "vote banks", anti-Christian violence, caste rivalry -- Indian politics has more than enough interfaith tension to offer populist orators all kinds of "religion cards" to play. Coming only months after Islamist militants killed 166 people in a three-day rampage in Mumbai, the campaign for the general election now being held in stages between April 16 and May 13 could have been over- shadowed by communal demagoguery. (Photo:Voters show IDs at a polling station in Ayodhya, 23 April 2009/Pawan Kumar)

But in this election, the "religion card" doesn't seem to be the trump card it once was. It's still being used in some ways, of course, but the main opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has played down its trademark Hindu nationalism in its drive to oust the secular Congress Party from power in New Delhi. A BJP candidate who lashed out at the Muslim minority saw the tactic backfire. During a recent three-week stay in India, I found religious issues being discussed freely and frequently in the boisterous election campaign. But they were usually not the main issues under debate and not isolated from the pocketbook issues that really concern voters. Click here for the rest of my report quoted above. advani-waves(Photo: BJP leader L.K. Advani, 8 April 2009/Amit Dave)

This is one of those stories where context is king. Thanks to the internet and India's lively English-language media, anyone around the globe can find Indian reports highlighting the religion angle. One of the news magazines, The Week, ran an interesting cover story about the "high priests of hate." On balance, I think it looks a bit overdone -- it was written at the height of the Varun Gandhi controversy -- but it had this classic anecdote:

"A former BJP minister once said that he had won five times in a row using a simple trick: his men would make an issue of a Muslim boy marrying a Hindu girl or the death of a cow in a Muslim area on the eve of elections. He lost the last Assembly election when he campaigned with a development agenda."

But religion isn't just on the politics pages. Outlook, another news weekly, reported that an American investor long associated with the Hare Krishna movement has offered to build a huge Hindu temple in a planned Himalayan ski resort as part of a project previously nixed by religious leaders who feared it would desecrate the mountain home of their gods.

Lalu Prasad’s roller: courting the Muslim vote in Bihar

Muslims are seen as a crucial vote bank in several possible swing states in India’s general election and many politicians are making the right noises to court the community.

In the state of Bihar, which I recently visited, its chief minister Nitish Kumar told me his campaign focused on caste-blind development but also communal harmony:

“Now everybody is happy. There is complete communal harmony,” he said as we sat at night on the veranda at his residence.

First, Second or Third (Front) – What’s the difference!

Much has been written about the imminent arrival in New Delhi of the Third Front, the joker in the Indian political pack that has talked itself up as a serious alternative to the two national parties in the 2009 parliamentary elections.

The difference they tout is of being more inclusive, bringing into the public fold social groups neglected or oppressed by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Whether this claim, that some take rather very seriously, is sustainable is the moot question. The answer may be no, if the history of this rag-tag group that has emerged with near-decadal precision since 1967 is any guide.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan, India and the election manifestos

The world's largest democracy chooses a new government in an election beginning on Thursday, and given the fires burning next door in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the men and women who will rule New Delhi over the next five years will doubtless exert influence over the course of events.

Indeed, with the pain and anger over  the Mumbai attacks of November still raw, the mood could hardly be tougher against Pakistan. Even shorn of the campaign rhetoric, the positions of both the ruling Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on Pakistan begin from common ground. No dialogue with Islamabad until it "dismantles the infrastructure of terrorism", both parties say in their manifestos.

Full texts of the documents of the two main parties are here and here.

New Delhi's continued refusal to resume dialogue or indeed to expand other links such as trade has caught Pakistan between a rock and a hard place, according to this piece in 2point6billion.com, a website tracking developments mainly in China and India. While Islamabad has repeatedly called for resumption of dialogue since the attacks, Delhi has refused to comply until it is assured that Pakistan will prosecute all those involved in the planning and operations.

Bihar: after the “Jungle Raj”

“The state government is trying to establish the rule of law…however so mighty someone may be, without any discrimination, whatever their clout is, they will still be put on trial.” 

This is what Neelmani, a senior police officer in Bihar, told me in a recent interview.

He said the “Jungle Raj”, which gave the state a reputation for corruption, kidnappings and crime, is coming to an end.

Will West Bengal’s Muslims vote for the left?

Are the ruling communists in the stronghold state of West Bengal losing the confidence of its traditional Muslim voters, ahead of their most crucial electoral test this month?

For decades, Muslims have always felt safe in West Bengal, although they have been caught in an uncomfortable position elsewhere in the country after each bomb or militant attack.

West Bengal’s left boasted that Muslims, a little over 26 percent in the state of 80 million people, were free from discrimination and were living in harmony.

Does youth trump experience in the Lok Sabha stakes?

Indian political parties and leaders are courting young voters for the upcoming general elections and the age of political leaders like L.K. Advani and Rahul Gandhi is being made into an electoral issue.

After all nearly two-thirds of India is below 35 years of age, the cut-off for ‘youth’ according to the National Youth Policy.

But does the electorate care?

A number of surveys and studies seem to suggest otherwise.

One nation-wide survey reported in the ‘Mint’ newspaper shows voters may not quite prefer “fresh and young” candidates, with two-thirds of the 17,640 people sampled preferring experienced candidates.

Professionals in politics?

What’s common to a banker, a dancer and a former U.N. under-secretary general?

Answer: they are all contesting the general election in India.

The main battle in the polls from April 16 to May 13 this year, as in years past, is between the centre-left ruling Congress and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. A loose alliance of smaller regional parties has formed a Third Front, as well.

But Meera Sanyal, the country head of ABN Amro Bank, is not aligning with any of them. She will contest from South Mumbai, an upmarket locality and the main business district, as an independent candidate.

Varun Gandhi – politics of “hate” from politician of tomorrow?

The black sheep of India’s most powerful political dynasty or a young politician making his own way in that family’s most potent political rival?

Call him what you will, Varun Gandhi is grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons in an episode that could embarrass his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party at the start of a general election campaign.

The great-grandson of India’s founding father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was allegedly caught out making inflammatory comments against Muslims at a recent rally.

Are frequent elections a waste of time and money?

The general elections in India, due shortly, may not throw up a clear winner.

This could mean weeks or even months of political uncertainty as parties negotiate for power.

Of the past six prime ministers, only three could complete their term.

In this context, the idea for a fixed term for parliament or the government may be floated again.

Indeed, the Chief Election Commissioner recently suggested a fixed term of five years for the government to cope with the increased frequency of elections, which hinders governance.

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