India’s New Tryst with Destiny? by Sherry Rehman

As India turns inwards to its next election, the world watches with a mixture of anxiety and hope. Hope, because India has the capacity to lead South Asia into a less polarised 21st century. And worry in case it takes a turn towards ultra-nationalism and regional drift. With the BJP’s NarendraModi’s sharp new addition to the election’s chest-thump, anti-Pakistan belligerence has been staked out as a test of his opponent’s nationalist credentials – in this case, ArvindKejriwal. Whether the ‘Vajpayee route’ of seeking eventual normalisation with Pakistan is taken or not, the drumbeat of chauvinism is back in play.

No one can predict an election outcome in South Asia. Yet, in what is seen as a pendulum swing to the BJP after ten years of Congress rule, whatever the outcome, a second and possibly more profound sanitisation of the politics of Hindutva is underway. Pollsters suggest that swathes of governance-deprived Indians, driven either by the commerce or can-do profile of NarendraModi, are ready to put their faith in a resurgent BJP.

But for a BJP wave to materialise into a premiership, possibly contingent on coalition support, many stars would still have to align despite the big media spend. The advantage to Modi is that no one national candidate is dominating the air waves the same way. The umbrella secular vote normally spearheaded by Congress for 63 years is straining under an anti-incumbency ennui as well as a difficult internal transition. Chances of reinventing its pluralistic pull under the reformist Rahul Gandhi are at least for now still behind the magic number of 272. Like South Asians everywhere, the demand for a delivery-driven, open government is high. The meteoric emergence of ArvindKejriwal’sAamAdmi Party is an index of frustration with current options, but his anti-corruption agenda has yet to add a party machine to it. Kejriwal’s foreign policy vision is still opaque, although his appeal is not.

The possibilities of a federal or third front minus the NDA or UPA are in the mix, but unlikely. Because they neither coalesce in a bloc, nor are defined by common criteria, these parties cut into each other’s votes, and may end up giving space back to national parties. Although regional parties emerged as a pole power by pulling 48 percent of the seats in 2004, they reduced their share of seats to 43 percent in 2009. Many see this not as a levelling off in support, but a reflection of their own regional rivalries. If a coalition-cobbler in the mould of DeveGowda makes a comeback the hope is that this time he or she will be able to carry policy past the recurring photo-op of Indo-Pak bilateral handshakes.

Indian polls say that the contemporary Indian voter is predominantly driven by economic issues. Not identity or ideology. This view is in danger of ignoring the many other Indias jostling for space, but if dissenting, marginalised, and impoverished India is blacked out of this glossy commercial frame, the mobilisation of this aspirational mainstream makes for less and less seats for the Left in 2014.

So is 2014 just a number, as many liberals contend in India, and not a new tryst with its destiny? Will the critical political mass wheel back to a new articulation of its post-Nehruvian centrism? Is the embrace of the unfettered market model of Modi-nomics a surge to harness the power of capital, and what are its implications for running a heterogeneous, unequal multitude? Is the new BJP agnostic of exclusivism or is it a mask for religious supremacism? Where does that leave the 190 million Muslims of India?

Unlike Pakistan, where Hindus shrink from public life in a predatory majoritarian, extremist environment, Indian Muslims are an aspirational force to be reckoned with in electoral politics. Overall, in a house of 543 seats, Muslims can influence about 110 seats where they have a 30-seat presence. Yet despite years of being wooed by hardliners, secularist and regional forces alike in political spikes, there is little doubt about the fragility of the Muslim experience. They negotiate the space between victimhood and tokenism in a frustrating arc of unempowerment with fewer jobs, less money, opportunities and education. However, the Muslim mind is not a monolith, and despite no apology from candidate Modi for the Gujarat riots, many younger Muslims are exploring opportunities with the BJP which they see as a path to opportunity out of the ghetto.

The traditional pull of Congress, which polled 36 percent of the Muslim vote in 2009, has dimmed after the party failed to table the Communal Violence Bill in parliament. Regional parties such as the BahujanSamaj Front, which fielded most of the Muslim candidates last time, are making as many promises as others, but no one party stands to unify the Muslim vote in any serious bargaining bloc.

Meanwhile, young India’s support, with a potential 382 million voters between the ages of 18 and 35, will be crucial in shaping outcomes, signalling the coming of age of a third generation after the partition of India. Their choices will likely drive change in India, with a new restlessness and ‘end-of-ideology-worldview’ of politics as more functional and outcome-based. Whether they see Modi as divisive or messianic, or Rahul as the Congress’ voice of redistributive justice in India, either is moot, as old electoral binaries have dissolved and transformed Indian political equations. For this generation, peace with Pakistan is not encumbered with the baggage of old traumas and perceived wrongs. Yet neither are their memories shaped by the anecdotal humanism of pre-partition nostalgia.

The question central to the Pakistani mind in the short run, though, is not whether 4G India can accommodate its disaffected, but how it deals with Islamabad. Pakistan has changed. Its parliamentary mainstream no longer thinks about India in cardboard cut-outs. No one bothers to mention India in an election call-out of rivals. Democrats in Pakistan see regional cooperation as the future, albeit on mutual terms, whereas in India, even outside an election cycle the LokSabha can rock with a nationalism that often roadblocks dialogue with Pakistan.

What is worrying is that whatever the numbers, given the high-octane right-wing discourse fuelling rhetoric on a corporatised Indian media, all bets on a Singh-like restraint amid a possible crisis with Pakistan may well be off.

At the same time, a new Indian PM’s behaviour towards Pakistan will likely be shaped by the strength of the government coalition. The conventional wisdom is that a majority will certainly help prospects of moving forward. A fragile plurality will likely prolong stalemate. The sense is that official Delhi’s studied ‘peace fatigue’ over a revival of the composite dialogue over the last two years will continue unless Islamabad changes the game on penalties for Mumbai.

Given that crisis-management structures between India and Pakistan remain embedded in a history of conflict and mistrust, both countries would profit from a break in the strategic drift that New Delhi has preferred to keep broader dialogue trapped in.

While breakthroughs such as trade are very welcome, the new leadership needs to know that trade alone will not shift the shape of things between the two nations. Coercive diplomacy will fare even worse.

With a major security transition on way in Afghanistan, including an impending election there which will spawn new coalitions by the summer, uncertainty is the catchword for 2014. The only certainty, in fact, is that the next Indian leadership will take its time in rebooting the relationship.

The writer has served as federal minister and Pakistan’s ambassador to the USA, and is president of Jinnah Institute. She tweets @sherryrehman

This article has been published in The News.