In April-May this year, India, now one of the world’s leading powers, will hold general elections to choose the members of its lower house of parliament and, consequently, to elect a new government. We should add the word “formally” here because all the procedures prescribed by the existing constitution will need to be complied with.
For, as previously noted in NEO, there is now little doubt that the National Democratic Alliance, the center-right coalition that has ruled since 2014, will win yet another victory (the third in a row, albeit with varying margins). The NDA comprises more than forty parties and movements, but it is dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, who has headed India’s government for almost ten years.
Already, Narendra Modi can be included in the list of the most prominent political figures in India’s post-independence history. According to some international studies, he is seen as one of the most influential politicians in the world.
The BJP’s opposition, a group created almost a year ago, known by the symbolic acronym INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) and led by the country’s oldest party, the Indian National Congress, has so far been unable to counter him with an equally charismatic political figure. As a result of this inability, combined with its ongoing state of “discord and hesitancy” the chances of it succeeding in the upcoming elections appear almost zero.
After the elections, the formation of a new Parliament and government are likely to be just a question of reshuffling the familiar faces. That is, there are unlikely to be any major changes in India’s domestic or foreign policy. One has only to look at the energy and effectiveness of Narendra Modi’s public appearances during the current pre-election campaign to see that he is not neglecting any chance to address voters.
We will focus on two of his recent appearances. The first of these, on January 22, was at a consecration ceremony for a Hindu temple currently under construction in Ayodhya, and the second was a ceremony to mark this year’s Republic Day. NEO has already commented more than once on the dramatic and potentially explosive events that culminated in a 2019 Supreme Court ruling allowing the construction of a temple to the Hindu god Rama in the small city of Ayodhya in the Northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Here we will limit ourselves to noting that the temple is being constructed on one of Hiduism’s holy sites, on which, it is claimed, a temple to Rama once stood. In the early 16th century, this temple was allegedly destroyed on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Babur as he established control over what is now Northern India.
However, no material artifacts that confirm the existence of that temple have yet been found, although even in the XIX century excavations were made by specialists appointed by the British administration. Nevertheless, it is an established fact that many “pagan” temples were destroyed by India’s Muslim rulers of India (both before and after Babur).
And there is no doubt that on Babur’s order a mosque was erected on this site. This building stood until December 1992, when it was destroyed by a crowd of thousands of Hindus (led by a number of BJP functionaries) as part of a local “grassroots nationalist” movement. The resulting riots resulted in the deaths of some 2,000 people. And it now seems another scandal is brewing, with the discovery of “the remains of a Hindu temple” in a mosque in the city of Varanasi, also in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Here credit should be given to the BJP leadership and Narendra Modi himself, personally, who, unlike the most radical “grassroots nationalists,” have publicly declared that the Mughal era is an integral part of India’s history and emphasize the contribution made by India’s outstanding Muslim scientific, cultural and political figures. Nevertheless, as the internal political divisions in today’s India become more entrenched, the Muslim population (numbering some 180 million) tends to favor the secular Indian National Congress party.
Be that as it may, the construction of the Rama temple on the hill in Ayodhya is continuing, and is expected to be completed by the end of this year. However, the temple is already a grandiose and richly decorated structure, which is certain to become a place of pilgrimage for Hindus as well as a popular attraction for tourists.
The temple’s possible importance as a pilgrimage site can be judged by the huge crowd (some 7 km long) of devotees who traveled there for the consecration ceremony. Moreover, the main attraction was not so much the Hindu priests leading the ceremony as Narendra Modi himself, who undoubtedly gained a great deal of political capital from his visit. He did not miss the opportunity to make a grandstanding speech at the end of the solemn ceremony, addressed mainly to the younger generation, about the “coming of India’s time” in world politics.
In general, the “secular” opposition is in an unenviable position. On the one hand, it is impossible to ignore the popularity of the “grassroots nationalist” process, but the opposition has no wish to look like an adjunct of the BDP. Therefore, on the issue of whether or not to participate in the consecration ceremony, the INDIA representatives adopted a compromise position, along the following lines: “We respect the public’s feelings, but we don’t need anyone’s invitation to demonstrate our beliefs. When we see fit, then we will come to Ayodhya.”
But the consecration ceremony was just the first blow in the BJP’s January sparring attack on the Opposition Corps. The second took place during the celebrations held a week later on the occasion of India’s main national holiday, Republic Day, which marks the enactment of the national Constitution on January 26, 1950. It should be noted, by the way, that Independence Day itself (which commemorates the Act of the UK Parliament that granted India’s independence and was approved by King George VI on August 15, 1947), while still celebrated, is of secondary importance for modern India.
The significance of the celebrations held on January 26 this year was enhanced by the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron as a guest of honor. His arrival in New Delhi could be seen as a response to Narendra Modi’s trip to Paris in the middle of July last year, on the occasion of France’s main national holiday, Bastille Day. Significantly, in those celebrations, units of the Indian Army and Air Force took part in the celebrations on and in the sky above the Champs Elysées.
But Emmanuel Macron’s return visit came somewhat sooner than expected. What kind of problems have suddenly arisen in the relations between the two countries, to necessitate a new meeting just six months after the previous one? Most likely, the answer is “no problems at all.” Or, to put it differently, if there was a problem it was that of the Indian Prime Minister, who (as already noted) on the eve of the general elections urgently needs to participate in public events in order to create an optimistic mood among the electorate. Especially such high-profile events as the consecration of the temple in Ayodhya and the Republic Day celebrations.
Joe Biden, as President of the world’s leading power, should have been present for this event, and his trip had already been arranged. However, he was soon forced to cancel his trip for quite understandable reasons due to the worsening situation in the United States itself. With the risk that US citizens might start shooting at each other at any moment, he felt that this was no time for him to leave his post to travel to a foreign country (however important) to participate in its national celebration.
The French President therefore agreed to play the role of guest of honor. A poor substitute, of course, but, as they say, one makes do with what one can get. Emmanuel Macron himself was far from unwilling to participate in a colorful public event far away from his own country, where the situation is not much better than in the United States. While back at home French farmers are, quite literally, throwing manure around, what could be better than to be distracted by viewing these exotic celebrations? Especially since they featured Asian beauties dressed in military uniforms and carrying guns.
Thus, the second major event referred to at the beginning of this article was also a great success for the main persons involved. That is, the Bharatiya Janata Party in general and in particular its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
And that means that now, in the run-up to the India’s general elections, their position is stronger than ever.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”