March 10 saw the publication of the official schedule for the elections to the lower house of India’s Parliament, which are an extremely important event in the country’s political life. They may well have a determining impact on the ongoing process of redefining the geopolitical status quo in the region and in the wider world. For the foreign policy implications of the upcoming elections depend largely on India’s gradual emergence as one of the key players in the current phase of the “International Great Game”.
In the author’s view, the participants in this global power play are, perhaps unconsciously, following a kind of internal logic, albeit one that it is difficult to define clearly. But, of course, nothing in our world is predestined and inevitable: each major world power has its own range of opportunities, and a range of different ways in which it can make use of these. Which of these to make use of, and how, depends on which political group is in power in the country at any given moment.
India’s two main political parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is currently in power, clearly have very different approaches to resolving the country’s domestic and foreign policy challenges.
The former are increasingly concerned about the problem posed by the fact that 180 million Indian citizens are Muslims, while the majority of the rest of the population (some 1.3 billion people) are, more or less, Hindus- a denomination that covers a wide range of different cultures and religious schools of thought.
Closely linked to that internal problem is one of India’s main foreign policy problems, its relations with its neighbor Pakistan, which are almost always tense. In the current pre-election period, with the contest between the two parties at its greatest pitch, the recent terrorist attack in the Indian state of Kashmir has pushed the “Pakistan Factor” very much into the national consciousness.
It is important to note that the election campaign had already shown signs of being unprecedentedly confrontational, even before the sudden re-emergence of the “Pakistan factor”. From the angry rhetoric on both sides, it appears as if the leaders of the two parties, Narendra Modi, the current prime Minister and head of the BNJ, and Rahul Gandhi, the head of the INC, have decided that it is no longer necessary to keep up the pretense of mutual respect.
It is very possible that revanchism may be a deciding factor: the INC is determined to regain its former position following its dramatic defeat in the 2014 elections. In those elections, as readers will remember, India’s oldest political party- which had, except for a brief interruption between 1999 and 2004, been in power continuously since India’s independence- gained only 49 seats in Parliament, 160 less than in the previous elections of 2009.
In 2014 a right-wing alliance headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, won the elections, inflicting a decisive knock-out on their opponent. The alliance won 310 out of 545 seats in the lower house of Parliament, with the Bharatiya Janata Party itself winning 268 seats. The result was a triumph for the BJP, and a catastrophe for the INC. At the time, it looked like a permanent defeat.
And that impression was only confirmed by the results of almost all the following state-level elections, until last May, when the INC suffered yet another loss in the elections in the state of Karantaka, but nevertheless was able to win the support of the local party deputies and form a state government.
This loss by the BJP at first seemed no more than an insignificant local setback, but half a year later the threat took on a much more serious character: out of five state-level elections, the INC scored a resounding victory in three of them, including in the two key states of Rajahstan and Madhya Pradesh. And the winners in the other two elections were local parties, and not the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Indians started seriously talking about a revival in the fortunes of the INC, and even about the possibility that it might win the upcoming parliamentary elections. At that time the INC’s young president, Rahul Gandhi, had only occupied the post since December 2017, and his lack of political experience may have been seen as standing in the way of the Party’s chances of success.
To judge by his comments in the press conference held after the results of the above state-level elections were announced, he considered that the BDP was badly wounded and that all that remained to do was to finish it in the parliamentary elections. However this apparently good starting position for an attack on Narendra Modi’s government needs to be looked at in more detail, and it is unlikely to stand up to such examination.
One of the main bases for the campaign against the INC has consisted in allegations of corruption- a very popular tactic these days. These allegations particularly focus on a contract concluded by Narendra Modi during his visit to France in 2015, for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft, made by Dassault.
Here it should be noted that the agreement signed in Paris in effect abruptly terminated the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) tender, which had been launched back in 2002 in order to replace the Indian Armed Forces’ obsolete fleet of fighter aircraft. One condition of that was that 108 fighter jets would be manufactured in Indian factories, and in the meantime the winning company would provide 18 such jets, manufactured by itself. At the time the value of the entire tender was estimated at 8-12 billion dollars.
In 2012 Dassault was named the winner of the tender. However, R. Gandhi’s opponents from the current ruling coalition claim that it was the INC which oversaw the holding of the long-drawn-out tender and, finally, named the winner. Narendra Modi’s government inherited the job of tying up all the loose ends which were still unresolved after the end of the tender, the most important of which was the almost twofold increase in price. That, they claim, was the reason for entering into the 2015 deal, as a form of damage limitation.
Currently the Indian Supreme Court is considering the question of whether the transaction involved any element of corruption. The INC is obviously hoping that the court will decide quickly, and decide in its favor, but neither of these expectations is very realistic.
It should also be noted that, in his comments following the recent military clashes with Pakistan, Narendra Modi made clear references to the “dragging out” of the MMRCA tender process. He claimed that, in the recent combats with Pakistan, India’s Armed Forces had been hampered by the lack of Rafale fighter aircraft.
In addition, the INC leadership was openly made aware of the possibility of reviving an old scandal: the purchase in the 1980s and 1990s of 410 155 mm mortars from the Swedish company Bofors. Back then, the middleman between the Indian government and Bofors was a certain Italian businessman “with close links to the Gandhi family”, that is to the father of the current president of the INC, who was killed in 1991, and his still-living mother, who was born in Italy.
On balance, the present writer is of the view that the allegations of corruption directed by the current leader of the INC at the ruling BDP have been rather counterproductive. In the face of the sudden and rapid increase of external threats as a result of the evident risk of a war breaking out with India’s nuclear-armed neighbor, those allegations now looked like short-sighted infighting. And that at the moment when the nation needs to rally together around a leader who has proved his worth.
That the allegations have been counterproductive is clear from the latest opinion polls on the possible results of the upcoming elections. These polls show a marked growth in the popularity ratings of both the BDP and the party’s leader, which fell considerably in the second half of last year. According to the latest forecasts, the alliance of right-wing parties will win, and Narendra Modi will keep his position, although there will, naturally, not be a repeat of the landslide victory of 2014.
The INC will clearly win more seats in the Parliament but as for winning the election, which, as we have said, seemed a real possibility at the end of last year, it is now, one month before the elections begin, looking ever more unlikely.
Finally it should be noted that there is more to the current pre-election campaign than the exchange of borderline under-the-belt insults and attacks. We can confidently state that a defining role will be played by the approaches by the competing parties in relation to India’s most pressing internal problems, particularly those relating to the economy, and to the country’s religious divisions, including the divisions within the Hindu community.
All the more so, as the most acute phase of the conflict with Pakistan now seems to have passed. So, it looks as if the flare-up of that important (if not India’s most important) foreign policy issue during the pre-election campaign will turn out to have been a short-lived scare, rather than a deciding factor in the elections.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.