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Whither India?

By Raffique Shah
May 25, 2014

With Narendra Modi taking office as Prime Minister of India following a convincing victory in the month-long general elections, the world's largest parliamentary democracy, India, stands at critical crossroads.

The close to 200 million voters who propelled the controversial Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power comprise in the main Hindu nationalists who see the country as Hindu first, anything else afterwards. But they were not the decisive elements that drove the Indian National Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty out of power in a humiliating rout.

The tipping of the scales can be credited to two main blocks of voters who deserted Congress and other alternatives (the AAP, BSP) in favour of the BJP. First, young, educated and semi-educated electors who rejected Rahul Gandhi's Congress because of overwhelming charges of corruption and the decline in economic growth in the past two years that threatened their upward mobility.

And tens of millions of more mature voters did likewise for similar reasons, but more so because they believed that Modi has the savvy to restore economic growth, hence prosperity, and solve the numerous problems that bedevil the country.

Except for the BJP and RSS fundamentalists, the vast majority of Indians are comfortable with the secular state they have lived in since independence in 1947, credit for which must go to Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarharlal Nehru. It is far from perfect—communal violence erupts every so often, mainly between Hindus and Muslims and among castes. But it works.

Now, however, there are questions over New Delhi's future directions.

Modi's BJP won an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, capturing 282 of 543 seats. The once-powerful Congress Party was reduced to rubble with a mere 44 seats, and several other parties shared the remaining spoils.

While the numbers suggest a decisive victory for the fundamentalist leader, they could be very deceptive. The BJP rode to power on 31 per cent of the overall votes cast in elections that saw a record highest turnout of 66 per cent of 814 million registered voters.

In other words, although Modi is the man of the moment, two out of every three electors did not vote for him or his party.

Without doubt, if he is to survive the first year in office, his priority must be resuscitating the economy.

In a well-executed campaign, the 63-year old former Gujarat chief minister focussed heavily on the ailing economy and how he would improve the lives of the people. He entered the elections with good credentials to pursue this line and to convince voters.

In Gujarat, he had presided over unprecedented economic activity, attracting local and foreign investors, stimulating growth.

Not surprisingly, stocks on the main exchanges in India rallied when Modi's victory was sealed.

The big question is, can Modi transplant his successes in Gujarat to the national stage? The slowdown in economic growth is not singular to India. All the other BRICS countries have experienced similar declines or stagnation. Attracting foreign investment is a challenge for most countries, Trinidad and Tobago no exception.

Over the past few years, the little (in a relative sense) that we have attracted has gone almost exclusively into the upstream energy sector. While India is richly endowed with minerals (not much gas and oil), there are serious environmental concerns over their exploitation.

Also, because of its societal structures, while its domestic consumer base is expanding (cellphones have penetrated the most remote districts), it is nowhere close to China's.

The biggest question mark that hovers over Modi, however, is the RSS (I shan't spell out the lengthy name) baggage that he brings with him. The RSS is a Nazi-type organisation that was formed back in the 1920s, During the partitioning of India-Pakistan in 1947 (for which I've always blamed Mohammed Jinnah and the British), RSS "soldiers" committed the worst atrocities against Muslims.

Nathuram Godse, an RSS "soldier", assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. He was without remorse during his trial, and accused Gandhi of "pandering to the minorities".

As a boy, Narendra Modi was a foot soldier of the RSS, moving up through the ranks, eventually taking a frontline position in its political arm, the BJP. In 1992, he was a key activist when some 200,000 Hindus attacked and destroyed the Babri Masjid, which was said to be located on the site in Ayodhya where Lord Rama was born. In that attack, many Muslims were massacred.

More recently, in 2002, as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi all but supervised the savage murders of hundreds of Muslims in a small town in that state. Indeed, he was so implicated in that he was lucky not to be among the scores charged (and convicted) with murder. One of his top aides who might well be a minister in his government, Amit Shah (!!!), has three murder charges pending.

This extremist background, the equivalent of the Islamic Taliban, maybe even the repugnant Boko Haram, is what bothers me—and a whole lot of people—about Modi. He has never renounced the RSS or repented for the massacres that occurred under his watch.

Which is why I ask, with Modi and his associates at the helm, whither India?

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