Herald Exclusive: Common ground

Published June 10, 2014
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, poses for the media with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif before the start of their meeting in New Delhi, India. -AP Photo
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, poses for the media with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif before the start of their meeting in New Delhi, India. -AP Photo

In a mid-summer address in 2011 at an event organised by his Pakistan Peoples Party, then president Asif Ali Zardari appeared to brim with indignation. He called Nawaz Sharif a maulvi, deriding Sharif’s softness towards the religious right and his links with military dictator Ziaul Haq, who embarked on the religionisation of state and society in Pakistan on a mass scale. In late 2012, Rahul Gandhi, then campaigning in Gujarat on behalf of his Indian National Congress, appeared similarly outraged. He called Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, a “marketer”, scoffing at the development-at-all-costs model that Modi champions.

There is an unmistakable whiff of political snobbery about what Zardari and Gandhi said for their respective political opponents. That the two subsequently led their parties to historic electoral defeats means that they misread the mood of the electorate on two of the perhaps most important factors in the subcontinent’s politics — religion and bazaar. Sharif and Modi have won landslide victories in the latest elections held in their countries by gainfully exploiting these same two factors.

Resulting from a deft mixing of religious mobilisation with the power of the markets – in just the right proportions – their electoral success landed the two unexpected parliamentary majorities. In times of increasingly polarised polity on ethnic and geographical lines, and surging tension between the centre and the periphery, both in India and Pakistan, their electoral politics represents deft utilisation of a narrative that is not bothered by such divisive political questions.

So, Sharif and Modi must have been pleased when their opponents called them precisely what they wanted to be known as by their voters. The two, in fact, make an effort to cultivate and perpetuate their image as being close to both religious and bazaari forces. During his visit to India for the swearing-in of Modi as prime minister, Sharif made a rather self-conscious admission of this very fact.

I am regarded as a friend of businessmen … Modi too is perceived as a business-friendly person,

he told an Indian newspaper. And, while Modi went to Varanasi to pray at Ganga Maa’s banks after his poll victory, Sharif made sure to be at Delhi’s historic Jama Masjid to offer his prayers.

Such unsubtle hints undoubtedly have deeper origins. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) by its very name is a party founded on the basis of religion. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), similarly, is a religious revivalist organisation which, in Modi’s own words at an election rally in Varanasi, is striving to bring back Ram Rajya, or the kingdom of Rama, the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana.


Also read: Do Sharif, Modi have a fish to fry?


These roots square well with the strongman image both Sharif and Modi have carefully cultivated over the years. The last letter in PML-N is a clear indication that it is a party driven by a personality cult; that BJP’s latest election campaign was conducted under the catchy slogan of Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar (now is the turn for a Modi government) meant that Modi – as an individual leader – was more important than BJP as an institution. The emphasis on persons rather than parties, in fact, is a way of telling voters that by bringing these parties to power, they will have access to a one-window operation: a single powerful man battling labyrinthine bureaucratic rules and political complexities to make things happen for them, which eventually translates into a belief in their ability, or propensity, to accomplish what they promise.

The nature of the promise they have made is important in order to understand its mass appeal. It is not some utopian search for a nebulous ideal such as secularism (as in India’s case) or an equally elusive constitutional concept such as liberal democracy (as in Pakistan’s case). It is unambiguous, it is tangible and it is focused on the outcome, rather than offering a vague process of secularisation or democratisation, as the case may be, that may or may not produce the desired result. It is about jobs, about infrastructure development, about business opportunities, about industrial activity.

Both Modi and Sharif have promised to do away with anything that stands in the way of these things. This promise is essentially meant to sell the dream of a modern-day economic equivalent of the traditional bazaar where buyers and sellers meet and do business without having to worry about cumbersome rules and even more cumbersome officials who implement those rules. All that the ruler is required to do is facilitate the business and ensure that peace and order are maintained.

As a political slogan, the combination of religious revival with economic dynamism has been quite attractive for the segments of non-western societies aspiring to do well in social and economic terms. After all, between them, the two take care of both herein and hereafter. Mostly consisting of middle-income groups such as professionals, traders, government employees and fresh graduates and students mainly residing in urban and semi-urban areas, these segments have frequently turned to religion and bazaar in the subcontinent, as well as in the states around it, after chafing under governments unresponsive to their aspirations. The religion-inspired revolution in Iran in 1979 was one of the most vivid manifestations of such phenomenon in this part of the world.

Street protests in Pakistan that led to the demise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in 1977 were another. In India, too, the combination of religion and bazaar – admittedly in alliance with leftist elements – made its presence felt for the first time in 1977 through the first non-Congress government of prime minister Morarji Desai.

One of the main components of Desai’s Janata Party was an organisation called Bharatiya Jana Sangh. For all political intents and purposes, Bharatiya Jana Sangh is the political predecessor of the BJP and was the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh (RSS), a self-declared Hindu revivalist organisation. Desai was as market-friendly as any Indian politician could get in those days, when India was still under the spell of Nehruvian socialism. “When Morarjibhai took over from socialist Indira, the economic crisis went down and the Sensex [Indian stock exchange] went up,” Indian newspaper The Economic Times quoted Indian sociologist Vidyut Joshi as saying in a recent report.

 In this handout photograph released by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre R) meets with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif (centre L) at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on May 27, 2014. —AFP Photo
In this handout photograph released by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre R) meets with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif (centre L) at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on May 27, 2014. —AFP Photo

In a not entirely irrelevant aside, Desai was fired from the Indian Civil Service in 1930, after he was found guilty of being soft on Hindu rioters attacking Muslims in Godhra, a town in the Indian state of Gujarat. Godhra is the same place where the burning of a train full of Hindu pilgrims in 2002 led to anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, when Modi first became the chief minister there. As prime minister, Desai also initiated what Modi is following now – engagement with Pakistan. Desai made bold diplomatic overtures to Ziaul Haq to normalise relations between India and Pakistan. In another interesting bit of history, his foreign minister was one Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was Modi’s predecessor as a BJP prime minister and who, in 1999, signed the Lahore Declaration with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif.

Two conditions are essential for the mixture of religion and bazaar to become a potent political force — first, a national narrative meant to cut across divisions of caste, ethnicity and culture; second, an anthropocentric, industry-friendly model of development that cares little about such niceties as environment, fairness and social and economic justice.

In Pakistan’s last general election in May 2013, the PML-N and Sharif met the two conditions quite successfully. The emphasis on anti-corruption rhetoric, images of bullet trains in election advertisements and calls for the young and the educated to mobilise and galvanise created a winning electoral formula. In India’s latest election, Modi and his BJP have successfully employed more or less the same political devices, with an even greater degree of success.

The shortest possible answer as to why voters in the two countries have voted more or less along the same lines is that politics in India and Pakistan is no longer about big ideas. Today’s educated, urban, middle class voters, who are much bigger in numbers than they were until recently, want things done — quickly and efficiently. At the same time, they yearn for a new identity in the changed social and cultural circumstances which no longer recongises old categories of family, clan, caste and even ethnicity. A strongman promising development offers the first and his focus on religious symbolism provides the second.


Also read: Modi shares ‘emotional moments’ with Nawaz


The resounding success of the two parties, however, masks some electoral facts which Sharif and Modi may not like to really look at. First and foremost, their victories do not really touch the most underprivileged, the most powerless, the most under-developed communities of their respective countries. There is only a symbolic presence of the Sindhis, the Balochs, and even the Pakhtuns among PMLN parliamentarians. The northeast Indians, the Assamese and the people of insurgency-plagued Odisha similarly have very little representation in the BJP.

The two parties also failed to make inroads into areas where ethnic, cultural and linguistic affiliations have almost always overridden ideology- and religion-based cross-national politics. Sharif has little presence in Karachi, where the politics of ethnicity has been dominant since 1980s and Modi has won only marginally in states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, where the politics of language and ethnicity have routinely trumped the politics of religion. If nothing else, this failure indicates that in both India and Pakistan religion and bazaar do not enjoy a monopoly over political narratives.

These electoral gaps, however, are much less significant than the social and cultural effects of the political phenomenon that the two parties represent. The yearning for a smart, clean government run by an efficient, possibly workaholic, strongman who directly or indirectly invokes and symbolises a religious ethos and flaunts his pro-business credentials, is remarkably averse to due process, constitutionalism, religious and societal diversity and the rights of the underdog.

The government of PML-N, and more so the government of Punjab, run by the prime minister’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, is pushing ahead with development projects with indecent haste. The party’s provincial government at least disregards not just official rules and regulations, but also shows the least concern for environment and agriculture.

In Modi, corporate India sees a messiah. He will help business and industry acquire lands from obstructive farmers in order to set up factories, let foreign and local investors do hazardous mining in ecologically vulnerable and politically fragile territories and take care of labour unions prone to taking to the streets and halting industrial activities.

Wearing branded blinkers of development, when a government rushes to promote the bazaar it also, in its wake, raises a social and cultural intransigence that, buoyed by religion-inspired moral puritanism, tramples on the rights of such vulnerable sections of society as women and ethnic and religious minorities.

In Pakistan, again more so in Punjab, crimes against women are at their historic high and the targeting of Ahmadis and Christians is a matter of daily routine.

Could Modi’s India be any different? Signs are that the similarities between both countries are not going to stop at their respective polling booths.

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