India: Religion vs. Elections

Starting April 16, the people of India will determine the government of the country for the next five years. The elections will end on May 13 and the previous government will cease to exist on May 31.

The election will be fought between the two most powerful parties in Parliament: the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), meaning Indian People's Party. The BJP has already nominated Narendra Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate. Many expected Rahul Gandhi to be the INC candidate, however on January 17th the INC announced Gandhi would not be its PM nominee. This is a sure sign the INC are willing to surrender the elections to the BJP, who are already ahead in national polls.

For the past 10 years the INC has ruled India in a coalition government. Their rule is marked by an incredible period of growth and expansion in India's economy. However, with the coming of the worldwide Great Recession, rampant corruption, a dramatic increase in the cases of sexual violence, inflation, and unemployment, the INC is seen to be losing ground to the BJP.

The BJP has branded itself as a party that can get the economy moving again. The party's nominee, Narendra Modi, is the chief minister of the state of Gujarat. Gujarat only accounts for 5 percent of India's population yet constitutes 16 percent of its industrial output and 22 percent of India's exports. Modi has embraced Gujarat's position and has branded himself as an accomplished economist.

While Modi is portraying himself as an economic superstar, his past may come back to haunt him. In 2002, at the height of Pakistani-Indian nuclear tensions, a train carrying Hindus was set on fire, buring all 59 passengers. Modi, who was still at the time Gujarat's chief minister, allowed groups of Hindus to launch a general strike and bring the bodies of dead back to Gujarat's biggest city, Ahmedabad, so the bodies could be displayed in public. Hindu men, staring at the bodies of their fellow Hindus, turned their anger into rage. Riots ensued. Almost 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and over 150,000 displaced. No orders were issued to save the Muslims. Federal troops were eventually able to quell the violence.

In the following investigations, according to The New York Times, a state official told a panel Modi had personally ordered his government to take no action. That official was murdered. Another, who made the same claim, was arrested. In 2009, after investigations were painfully reopened, Mayaben Surendrabhai Kodnani, a minister in Modi's government was arrested for her part in the pogrom, she is now serving 28 years in prison for murder. In 2012, Modi's education minister and his child and human development minister were both tried. The child and human development minister, Maya Kodnani, was found guilty for the murder of 97 Muslims in the Naroda Patiya suburb of the city of Ahmedabad. No court prosecuted these ministers until phone records linking them to the murders proved their alibis to be false. When asked, Modi said he would have done nothing differently during the violence.

While Modi is the likely next Prime Minister of India, the Americans will not like the ascension. In 2005, the U.S. forbade Modi into the country on the grounds of his disregard for religious pluralism. The Americans will, therefore, be in a tough position if Modi becomes India's next Prime Minister. The U.S. wants stronger relations with India in the face of a rising China, will have to grant Modi diplomatic immunity, but will nevertheless despise him and will try to cover up their history with Modi.

Meanwhile, the INC is painting itself as the alternative. The leader of the party, Sonia Gandhi claims, "It will be a battle for the preservation of our age-old secular traditions." The INC is portraying itself as the secular party, and painting Modi as the Hindu fanatic. However the INC has such a bad record in office one cannot fully endorse the INC either.

The BJP last ruled India from 1998 through 2004. The INC is already down in the polls and in December, the INC lost all four state elections to the BJP. Subsequently, the country's benchmark stock index soared as investors bet on the ouster of a government that has overseen the slowest growth in a decade.

In many ways this election will be more about India's future than its present. There are not many crucial issues on the table this election season. Thus this election will be a nation-wide referendum on the INC's past 10 years and if a man like Modi ought to lead the world largest democracy, which has a sizable Muslim minority.

Already in India, Muslims have the lowest income and education rate out of any other ethnic or class group. Muslims are heavily discriminated and alienated in Indian society. There have been several insistences of Muslim-Hindu tensions and mass murder in the past, other than Gujarat in 2002. India has fough three wars, with Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh (it used to be East Pakistan). In 1992 the Muslim Babri Mosque, which was built in 1528, was pulled down by a Hindu mob. The ensuing violence killed at least 200 people, and it was the first mosque to be destroyed in India since partition in 1947. Most recently, and continuing into this year, in Uttar Pradesh, 50,000 Muslims have fled their homes due to more Muslim-Hindu violence.

This vote many come to symbolize even greater tensions between the Hindus and the Muslims as Modi becomes ever more likely to be made Prime Minister. It would not be surprising to see more religious tensions, riots, and deaths as the election draws near. Modi, would no doubt, capitalize on the situation and brand himself the protectors of Hindus. Thus would in turn fuel more religious and ethnic tensions. The situation is not promising for India.