The world’s biggest election

Published: April 7, 2014

Indian Muslim voters pose with identification as they wait in line to vote outside a polling station in Koliabor, in Assam state's Nagoan district some 180 kms east of Guwahati, on April 7, 2014. PHOTO: AFP

The winds of democracy are blowing strong in our neighbourhood. After our western neighbours went to the polls in historic and largely successful elections on April 5, the world’s largest democratic process kicked off across our eastern border on April 7. India’s election process is nothing short of remarkable: The world’s second-largest country in terms of population has a whopping 813 million eligible voters and takes place over nine phases, lasting over a month. This huge undertaking is being executed for the 16th time in India’s history — and the democratic process has never, ever, been interrupted (even if you count Indira Gandhi’s emergency), not even upon the assassination of a prime minister. The process has become even stronger this year, both socially and structurally, given that some 100 million first-time voters have been added to the electoral rolls and electronic voting machines will be utilised across the country — which drastically reduces electoral fraud and makes voting a much easier process for the people, especially the illiterate. Such credentials should provide inspiration for Pakistan, which is itself currently in the midst of one of the strongest periods of democracy in the country’s history and will look to consolidate these gains.

That said, the interest in what transpires in India over the next few weeks obviously goes well beyond the purpose of taking notes on democracy. Any general election in India would garner keen interest in Pakistan — but this one will elicit special attention. That is, of course, given that most predictions have Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) coming out on top. A Modi win has made many, if not most, in Pakistan nervous — and for good reason. Aside from the Hindu nationalist leanings associated with any BJP leader, the former chief minister of Gujarat is actually directly tainted for his alleged involvement in the anti-Muslim riots that saw at least a thousand (non-governmental estimates put the figure close to 2,000) killed in 2002 in his province. And that’s what makes most uneasy with the prospect of Modi as premier. The optimists hold the belief that BJP governments have generally been good for India-Pakistan ties — and also point to the positive history between prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Lahore declaration, et al. But clearly Vajpayee was considerably less hardline than Modi is, and did not carry the same sort of violent anti-Muslim baggage. Yet, it is an accepted theory that premiership inevitably pushes even the most hardline — from the right or the left — to the centre given the ground realities of governing, and then there is Modi’s pro-business and economic bent (which means pushing for more economic ties with Pakistan). People will counter by pointing to Modi’s nomination of no Muslim candidates in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, which has a 12 per cent Muslim population and where deadly communal riots erupted last year in Muzaffarnagar.

The debate on what sort of leader Modi will make can be endless, and perhaps, only once he has taken office can we safely gauge what the reality will be. But there are certain realities that should be taken into account. First, given the strong perceptions of Modi’s anti-Muslim bent in Pakistan, it will certainly be more difficult for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take the bold initiatives he promised with regard to ties with India. The government has put its India policy on hold for the outcome of the elections at the moment. Whether or not Modi wants to do business straightaway, and that’s obviously a big if, Nawaz will come under tremendous pressure from the conservative segments of Pakistan — a large chunk of which is part of his party’s vote bank — to take a more reserved stance on India. This will be a tricky period for India-Pakistan ties. In both countries, populism will take root more than usual — and that is where both need to be careful and let measured diplomacy and sanity prevail over raw public sentiment. Close cooperation between India and Pakistan is long overdue and has been sidetracked by all sorts of events and issues. Let this not be yet another one.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • Toticalling
    Apr 8, 2014 - 1:28AM

    It appears BJP is going to win and get to the driving seat. But one should not forget the rise of Aam Admi Party which is a manifestation of frustration of the common Indian on the ruling dispensation. Although, the AAP may not get much support due to its lack of organizational base, except in the national capital, it is significant to keep in mind that a lot of intellectuals are joining the party in the hope that this party will one day bring about systemic changes in the governance. If nothing else its rise will give people a chance to the third option. Congress has been less effective in the last few years and corruption has ben on the rise. It appears being a secular party alone is not enough to win wide range support. Just imagine, a Sikh PM, a Muslim FM in a majority hindu country. There are hardly any other countries which can match giving minorities so much say.

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  • Narsingh Rao
    Apr 8, 2014 - 4:20AM

    For its clear, level-heading thinking, the recognition of the realities, and the proposed pragmatism, this editorial has to be commended. It fills my heart to see that the editorial staff has put its heart and mind to work in synch here and articulated to well. Sure, it reflects depth of thought but it also not shy of giving peoples (of both countries) hope. After all, where would human affairs end up without hope? Anyway, thank you, editors. I wish readers would use this as example of what can be achieved if they think before tapping away their often shallow, base, vitriolic comments at Internet speed. But, alas, they don’t read editorials, do they!?

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  • ajeet
    Apr 9, 2014 - 11:48AM

    Why are you showing Pakistani women in the photo?

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  • Rishi
    Apr 9, 2014 - 5:10PM

    @ajeet:
    These are Indian women Ajeet or whosoever you are. They are holding the Indian national’s voter ID card, note the Indian Emblem and tricolor on top left and right respectively. Strange or sad (I don’t know) that you cared to notice and comment on the picture outta whole editorial!!!

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  • observer
    Apr 9, 2014 - 5:32PM

    Tolerance, tolerance and more tolerance that is what is required, on an individual, community, and national level. Without this both nations are going to be hurting. That is the way world is, there will always be differences, the people who prosper are the one’s who are tolerant of each other.
    It is time that Pakistan realizes this simple fact. There are tremendous differences in Indian society, but they have learned to live together in relative peace. Pakistan society does not have these differences yet they are more and more intolerant of each other. Not only is Pakistan hurting very badly, minorities are doing whatever it takes to move out. The wealthy have moved out, or sent their children out and the old are simply passing their time here, they know there is no future here, therefore keep to themselves. It is time now that Muslims and Hindus live in peace, the alternate is war and who wants that, that would mean destruction on a massive scale.

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