SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, STRATEGIC PLANNING, TRNN: This is The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
This week, the Indians will begin the month-long process of electing their Lok Sabha, that is, the general parliamentary elections in which 543 seats are being contested. Four hundred million of the 800 million eligible voters are expected to turn up. India consists of 29 states, seven union territories, and one national capital region. It is a month-long process, and the results will not be available until May 16.
To shed light on the Indian elections and the developments to date, we’re joined by Vijay Prashad. Vijay Prashad holds the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut. He’s the author of 16 books, among them The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South and Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. He’s also a columnist and is currently writing extensively on the Indian election. He’s coming to us today from Beirut.
Thank you for joining us, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD, EDWARD SAID CHAIR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF BEIRUT: My pleasure. Thank you.
PERIES: Vijay, the Indian electoral commission has declared that this is one of the largest elections in the history of India. What is the process, and how is it being managed?
PRASHAD: Well, there’s going to be elections that start in April, on April 9, and end on May 12. There’ll be nine polling days.
I want people to understand, to recognize that at least 400 million people are going to cast their ballot. That’s 100 million more people than live in the United States. So this is a vast undertaking. As somebody put it, entire forests are being cut down to create the ballot papers. You know, there’ll be hundreds of candidates. In fact, in one particular seat in Rajasthan, in one of the 543 seats, in that one seat in Ganganagar, there are 29 candidates running for parliament. So it’s a massive endeavor. There are lots of politicians involved.
And the campaigning has been going on furiously. In some places, it’s been very violent; in other places, it’s been simply a lot of fun. An Indian election is a very large circus.
PERIES: Vijay, can you explain the process in terms of candidates, parties, party blocs in the Indian electoral map?
PRASHAD: Well, you know, it’s a parliamentary system. So, you know, unlike a presidential system, you have to win a majority of the 543 seats. The incumbent, you know, bloc is the United Progressive Alliance, led by the age-old Congress Party. And they’ve been in power for ten years. And with, you know, every single analyst, including many people in the Congress, recognize that this year the Congress was simply not going to do very well. It is coming off the back of ten years of pushing very harsh policy that’s increased inequality. A study by McKinsey showed that there are now 800 million people in India who live in deprivation. So, you know, they are not going to have a very easy time. They are being led into this election by Rahul Gandhi, the grandson of Indira Gandhi, the longtime prime minister of India, the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. So they have this kind of dynastic sheen to them. But they are suffering greatly from very poor policies and tenure of incumbency.
The second big bloc is the National Democratic Alliance. They are led by Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP. They are a right-leaning party. They are a party that has commitments in Hindu majoritarianism, what in India is called communalism. They are led by a dynamic man who has in, a sense, presidential ambitions. You know, he wishes this were a presidential election. He’s running, really, you know, a campaign as if it’s a campaign about himself and not his party. And his name is Narendra Modi. He is the current chief minister of Gujarat. Mr. Modi is a very, very divisive figure. He has had a role in a riot in Gujarat in 2002, which he’s been trying to avoid talking about. He wants to make this an election about corruption and development. But people don’t forget when there’s mass killing of other people in plain sight of day.
These two blocs will not get more than the 270-odd seats required to form a government, because the bulk of the parliament is going to be filled with regional parties. And they are, really, the most interesting political formations. This includes the two communist parties. It includes the regional parties like the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu. It includes the Sikh party from Punjab the Akali Dal. This includes the old former socialist parties (not very socialist anymore) in Bihar and U.P., etc.
These regional parties are going to try, if possible, to cobble together some kind of alliance if the Parliament is entirely fractured. And it’s yet—of course, it’s early days. People haven’t even cast vote yet. But it looks like it’s either going to be the BJP in a good position to try to put together sufficient seats to form a government, or some kind of alternative anti-BJP, anti-Congress government will be formed.
PERIES: So what are some of the key issues they’re focusing on?
PRASHAD: Well, it’s very hard to say, because the election, as I say, is fought at two levels. The first level is—it’s fought at the national level, where particularly Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to make this an election about the BJP versus the Congress. And indeed there is something to that in the age of television, where a lot of the local debates are framed through the national and—you know, sort of the drama that’s produced at the national level. But the election is also fought in 543 constituencies, where local calculations are extremely important and local fights are precisely what come to the fore, including things like, you know, jobs, including issues like what’s going to happen to that river over there, why hasn’t the bridge been built, and so forth. So the election is indeed being fought at these two levels.
The big questions that are on the table, of course, have to do with things like unemployment, have to do with questions of development, and in a sense many of the regional parties, particularly the left, has been making the claim that neither the Congress nor the BJP are capable of an alternative on these issues.
The BJP is simply saying that Congress in corrupt and we are not. They are trying to make this an election about corruption. And to some extent they are helped by the emergence of a new phenomenon called the “ordinary people’s party”, the Aam Aadmi Party. The Aam Aadmi Party emerged first in Delhi. Now they’ve spread to other places. In fact, they are running some very high profile elections. And what they have tried to do is put corruption firmly on the agenda. The problem is, of course, they are talking about specific instances of corruption. They are unable to fully articulate how the system has become corrupt. And in this sense, they are really giving some ideological advantage to the BJP, because they’re both bashing the Congress. But because this was the case, the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, Mr. Kejriwal, Arvind Kejriwal, decided to run in this election not in Delhi but in Banaras, in Varanasi, where he’s running against Narendra Modi, the leader of the BJP. He wants to say, we are not simply against Congress; we’re also against the BJP. And that has created some excitement, no doubt, in this election.
PERIES: Does that take out the possibility of a right-wing alliance?
PRASHAD: Well, you know, the fact is that the right wing has always had a difficult time forming a government in India. In the ’90s, they once had a government that only lasted 13 days. You know, in many respects the Bharatiya Janata Party is treated as outside the pale by most political forces. If you take just the balance of the Indian electorate, how they vote, the bulk of the Indian electorate is against what in India we call communalism or hatred of others, xenophobia, things like that. Bulk of the electorate vote’s for secular political parties.
And so the BJP has only once been able to form a stable government. And that’s when they were led to power by a previous head of the BJP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was a very well regarded—seemed-to-be moderate. I mean, he was not that moderate, but he had a reputation of moderation. He was able to cull together a large enough alliance to form a government.
The current leadership of the BJP is not seen as moderate. And therefore they will have a very hard time, I believe, in forming a government.
The problem is the media has been building up the BJP, that they’re going to win. And this has put a sense of doubt in some of the secular parties that if they want to be players in the next parliament, they may have to bend their knee to the BJP. That’s a very worrying trend.
PERIES: The Hindutva versus secularism being played out in the Indian elections, will this lend itself to more violence during the election process?
PRASHAD: Well, let me put it this way. The violence that has been happening already has largely been happening in West Bengal, where the current party in power, the Trinamool Congress, has been going after the left, because the left began a modest resurgence in rural areas, and there have been many, many instances, 130-some instances of deaths over the last year and a half around contested electoral districts. So that has been, actually, the violence that we’ve already seen.
In terms of communal violence, it has to be said that the BJP this election has been very sensitive to this, and Mr. Modi has tried to downplay communalism, because he knows that this is precisely what makes them less touchable, as it were, by the other parties, the parties that might form an alliance with them. In fact, over the last year, one of their principal allies, Mr. Nitish Kumar, took his Janata Dal (United) out of an alliance with the BJP because Mr. Modi became the leader of the party. So they have told their cadre not to make too much trouble, because they anticipate if any trouble happens it will work against them.
Now, to me this is not a good sign. This doesn’t mean that they’ve changed. It simply means they are acutely aware of the electoral disadvantage of unleashing violence now. Once in power, that’s a different story.
PERIES: Right. And what does this mean for the left and the Congress Alliance?
PRASHAD: Well, you know, the left is in a very tough state. The left took a beating in the last Lok Sabha election, you know, lost a very large number of seats, particularly in West Bengal, has begun a resurgence. It’s not clear what is going to happen. The left will win in Tripura for sure. The electorate in the great state of Kerala is very hard to predict. It is one of the most engaged and democratic states, where they have extremely high rates of voting, and often the margins in these elections are very narrow. And even in seats which are safe for the left, as it were, often become contested at the last minute. It’s very hard to say what will happen.
In West Bengal, the entire election hinges on whether sympathizers of the left are going to be allowed to reach the ballot boxes. And here the signs are very poor. Just this week, the electoral commission officers went to the Howrah area and removed banners that the Trinamool Congress had put up near polling stations, and when they were doing that, they were attacked by Trinamool workers. So if they’re happy to attack federal, you know, government employees who are undertaking their task, I’m afraid it looks very bad for them. They may not allow people to come and vote. And that would be a big blow to the left in West Bengal.
PERIES: In the latest article that you wrote, there was even a suicide. Could you tell us more about that?
PRASHAD: Well, you know, again, that particular story is in West Bengal. It’s a very tragic story. You know, the current chief minister of Bengal was coming to address a rally. She was coming with a film star. I mean, this is another aspect of this current election, that a number of these more authoritarian parties have fielded people who have no political record—they are film stars, they are soccer players, you know, things like that, and if they win, which they might, they will then be controllable entirely by the political bureaucracy.
So she was coming to campaign with this film star, and her people went the previous night, threatened some left-wing sympathizers, communist sympathizers, told them, if you dare not to come to the rally carrying our flag, we’ll kill your family. And in that particular case, this long-term Communist Party member committed suicide that night. Extortion, terror, threats, these things are very dangerous, and they create a kind of pall among the population not to participate in elections. And that is the thing I’m most worried about in a state like West Bengal, where the left has a serious chance of making a comeback.
PERIES: Vijay, what about polls in India? What are the polls predicting?
PRASHAD: Polling hasn’t really caught up with the problem of Indian elections. You know, polling is very good in the presidential contest. So most polls in India are national polls, and national polls are meaningless, because in a national poll, you ask people, generally in big cities, who will you vote for, and they pick the so-called party leader. In these polls it looks like Mr. Modi and the BJP are doing very well. But this is not an election of Mr. Modi against Rahul Gandhi. This is, again, an election in 543 constituencies. And we don’t have good enough polling apparatus to go and dig deep into each constituency and find out how things are going. It’s simply not there at the technical level. So we don’t have accurate polls.
We have a sense of the mood in the big cities, but that’s very misleading. Most of India continues to be agricultural, and that’s where much of the parliament will come from, despite the fact that 60 percent of the current parliament is filled with millionaires—not quite, actually, representative of the Indian population. They yet have to be elected by people who are earning, you know, one or two dollars a day.
PERIES: Right. Vijay, Rajnath Singh, the leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, told The Guardian a few weeks ago that he predicts a landslide win in the Indian elections. Is there any truth to that statement?
PRASHAD: Well, Mr. Modi said, out of 543 seats, he would like to get 300 seats, because he wants to be an uncaged lion. You know, this is the kind of testosterone language they like to use, to be an uncaged lion. What will an uncaged lion do? Will it eat the population? Well, you know, it’s a nice number to throw around. The fact is, if they have to do that, they’d have to defeat entrenched regional parties, and I think some of this is just building up the atmosphere of victory, the inevitability of victory. I mean, when you’re at the threshold of voting, what you have to do is not be sober before the public. You have to exaggerate. I mean, every party does that. If you come before the people and say, we hope to do well, people won’t feel confident in you. And the BJP are past masters. The last election, where they were wiped out, in 2004, they came with the slogan “India Shining”, and they said, we are going to—you know, it’s going to be a landslide, we’re going to wipe out everybody, and they were defeated very badly in 2004. So I’m familiar with the bravado. It’s charming. It’s exactly the ideology of the right wing to brag, to talk about being an uncaged lion. Let’s see what happens when the results come in.
PERIES: And, Vijay, from your past experience, when is a, you know, good indicator? Is it, you know, two weeeks in, since this is a month-long process? When can we sort of rely on the trends?
PRASHAD: I don’t think it’s a good idea to rely on any trends, because, you know, again, it’s such a huge election. There are so many people who live in India. And different states will go to the polls at different time. So, for instance, if the first polling is in Gujarat, Rajasthan, let’s just say BJP will, you know, do well in all those. That doesn’t mean anything. They’re going to do well in those anyway. If the elections begin in Tamil Nadu, if they begin Kerala, BJP will be wiped out. So it’s very hard to tell until the numbers come in. You know, it’s one of the few places where predicting an election is simply, I think, a fool’s game.
PERIES: Vijay, as we said, this is a month-long process, and we will keep our eye on the Indian elections. And I hope you’ll be back to keep us updated.
PRASHAD: Thank you so much.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.