Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi File picture: Lee Jin-man/AP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi File picture: Lee Jin-man/AP

Indian PM Modi pulling out all the stops ahead of elections

By Shannon Ebrahim - Group Foreign Editor Time of article published Feb 24, 2019

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It seems unconscionable that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi could be prepared to bring his country to the brink of war to win an election.

India’s national elections are probably just a month away and the once-unstoppable Modi was not going to be fighting them from a position of strength.

But the terrorist attack by a Pakistani militant group in Kashmir over a week ago which killed more than 40 Indian soldiers potentially changed that. Modi now has a cause behind which to rally mass support.

Without declaring war on Pakistan himself, as the commander-in-chief of India’s armed forces, Modi has handed the decision of how to retaliate against Pakistan to the defence forces, saying they have full freedom. India has vowed to avenge the suicide bombing masterminded by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Such a dereliction of duty is virtually unheard of in modern democracies. Modi seems to be trying to absolve himself of ultimate responsibility if a nuclear war breaks out. Meanwhile, he will champion the cause of Indian nationalism, something he is particularly good at.

For Modi, the conflagration couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The leader of the right-wing Hindu Nationalist BJP has managed to alienate many of his key constituencies, particularly big business which had ensured his monumental rise to power in 2014.

The demonetisation of 86% of India’s currency in 2016 and the imposition of a hefty national sales tax two years later rankled the business elite and overshadowed successes like the country’s solid economic growth (albeit largely jobless).

Modi also didn’t prove to be the free marketeer that many in the business community had expected.

He has also alienated the poor, particularly lower-caste Hindus, religious minorities and many in the agricultural sector.

And he has presided over an unprecedented level of violence unleashed by his Hindu nationalist supporters against the lower classes.

This could ultimately prove to be his undoing if the poor are mobilised to vote in the coming elections on the side of a broad-based coalition that includes the Congress Party and other left-wing and socialist parties.

They are likely to campaign for a more tolerant India that will respond to the needs of the poor and protect the rights of all.

In an electoral year in which Indians are celebrating 150 years since Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, the left might even remind the electorate that Gandhi was assassinated by a right-wing Hindu nationalist and that the country must guard against such extremist tendencies.

But what is likely to overshadow this election now are the dark clouds of war which threaten to consume the two erstwhile nuclear-armed enemies, in the most dangerous game of “wag the dog” ever played.

Indian officials have already been threatening war and President Imran Khan has promised to retaliate if Pakistan is attacked.

All the overtures of dialogue and a peaceful resolution of the disputes between the two nations are being drowned out by the winding up of propaganda machines on both sides.

Maybe it is time for BRICS partners to step into the fray and insist on dialogue to bring down the temperature before its gets too hot.

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