Will South Asian politics have a different flavour this year?



One of the first things that Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s new chief minister, has promised to do in office is to ban the rotating red beacon that sits on the roof of official cars and heralds the arrival of a VIP. It is a seemingly minor point, but an important one: the red beacon symbolises privilege in an extremely class-conscious city. There’s little like its removal to signify revolutionary change.

Certainly the election of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or the Common Man’s Party, to the political leadership of Delhi has been a signal achievement not only of 2013, but of several decades.

To have thought that a rank outsider could so completely upset the apple cart of the established parties – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – is the stuff of the most fanciful fiction. And yet, change has taken place at the electronic voting machine, peacefully and democratically. Sweat and tears have been expended in large quantities, but not a single drop of blood.

The jolt to the political system has been incredible. Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Congress party, has reiterated that his party accepts the lessons from the debacle of the state elections.

Speaking at a gathering of Indian industrialists last week, Mr Gandhi sent out another olive branch by lauding their creation of wealth and criticising the arbitrary interpretation of rules that has scared investors away.

And over the weekend, Mr Gandhi travelled to meet the victims of the Hindu-Muslim riots in nearby Muzaffarnagar, who are now further imperilled by bad weather.

Mr Gandhi’s attempts to woo back India may be a case of too little, too late. Even if the Congress party has decided to make the elections in mid-2014 a fight for its life, the truth is that Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, is promoting a narrative of high economic growth and firm decision-making. Mr Modi is promising to fill the vacuum of power that has been both the cause and effect of the policy paralysis that has stunted India this year.

Certainly the BJP has plenty of ground to be optimistic. Even if Mr Modi hasn’t apologised for the death of a thousand Muslims in the Gujarat riots in 2002, he is banking on the Congress party’s inability to learn the lessons of a modernising India.

However, the BJP has been here before.

In 2004, it was so confident of winning before the nation went to the polls that it had already declared victory on a campaign banner proclaiming “India Shining”. All was well until Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, emerged to snatch victory for the Congress party from the jaws of defeat.

Mr Modi has another problem. His strongman image makes several of India’s neighbours distinctly uncomfortable, although according to the BJP, he will reach out to the region from a position of strength rather than weakness.

By the middle of this year, South Asia may have a distinctly new flavour. Before India’s elections are completed in mid-2014, Bangladesh will have elected a new government (elections are being held on January 5) and Afghanistan will have a new president (elections are being held on April 5).

The elections in Bangladesh seem a foregone conclusion, especially with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) threatening a boycott. India has always been a key player in Bangladesh, having actively assisted in the birth of the country in 1971, and has been a close ally of the ruling Awami League since then.

If Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, returns to power in January, India’s backing will carry substantial weight within the international community.

The US is said to be coming around to the Indian point of view that notwithstanding the hanging last month of Abdul Quader Molla, the Jamaat-e-Islami leader and so called “Butcher of Mirpur”, a boycott should be opposed.

Afghanistan poses a completely different challenge, where Qayum Karzai, president Hamid Karzai’s brother, is contesting the polls, as is Zalmai Rassoul, Afghanistan’s former foreign minister.

The Afghan president was in Delhi recently to once again urge the Indian government to put more teeth into a strategic partnership.

Unwilling to be drawn into competition with Pakistan, India has only agreed to donate some old helicopters and provide cash for buying defence equipment from elsewhere. So far, there is no talk of training Afghan security forces inside Afghanistan, nor supplying Kabul with any military hardware. Mr Karzai believes, as do many Afghans, that India is not only the strongest economy in the region, but also a benign power.

A new government in Delhi is unlikely to substantially change the direction of its foreign policy. In fact, it is expected to shore up like-minded governments in the neighbourhood. So Mr Karzai’s successor can expect support from both the Congress and the BJP, irrespective of who wins mid-2014.

All of that said, reading the tea leaves has to be one of the foolhardiest pursuits of a political analyst.

Just as the AAP upset every calculation in the Delhi elections, India’s general elections could throw up a couple of surprises as well.

Along with the red beacons, a much greater upheaval might well be on the cards. The good news is that India’s voting public is determined to punish those that don’t deliver.

Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi

On Twitter: @jomalhotra

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