Politics in India: Awash with Cash and Liquor!

May 18, 2014 at 11:33 am

So read one of the headlines in the Times of India.  It’s election time in the world’s largest democracy. It was not an isolated headline. Others read :

Parties Use Self- help Groups to Dispense Bribes

It’s raining cash this poll season

In fact, while running errands in our car, Kathleen was pulled over by the police and our car was searched for cash.   Apparently millions of dollars of money to buy votes was spent in our area. Alcohol was also provided liberally. The self-help groups were started by NGOs to help rural women. They have become quite prevalent as a way to help address an oppressive culture. However, the parties found that they were a convenient channel for bribes that would not be easily detected.   This brand of politics is even more brazen than Chicago’s.

The election is over now. There is great optimism among the aspirational and rising middle class about the change that has occurred. The Congress party has been swept out of office by the BJP.   In fact, the BJP party has gained a controlling majority in the Parliament. It is the first time since 1984 that there is a single party majority and no need for a coalition government.

The Congress party was formed in the late 19th century and was led by the Great One, Mahatma Gandhi in the 1920s and forward. They led the movement for Independence and have largely controlled the government since Independence. The Congress party has had dynastic leadership. Nehru’s daughter Indira married a Gandhi unrelated to Mahatma. After her assassination, her son, Rajhiv took over. When he was assassinated, his Italian wife, Sonja, became the president. It was her son, Rahul who just got his butt kicked by Narendra Modi and the BJP.   Congress is the “secular” party. In other words, from the days of Nehru and Mahatma, it has stood for breaking down the caste system, pluralism, acceptance of religious diversity, and redistribution policies or “sops” to help the poor. With Congress in power, India has experienced vigorous growth and modernization.

As I stood on the golf course, yesterday I could see cranes every direction that I turned. In our neighborhood, every vacant parcel has a new residential often multi-family complex being built. However, various factors counterbalanced that growth in recent years. Inflation of 10 percent has impacted the cost of food; growth of five percent feels like a slowdown after being in double digits; the equivalent of the Federal Reserve is presided over by a graduate of the Chicago school of economics ( Milton Friedman, Gary Becker among others)  who has kept interest rates high to manage down inflation; even if working, the 99 percent do not feel like a rising tide is lifting their boats as they are still living in squalor defined by shanty towns, tents, and lack of sewage; if you have electricity, power outages happen frequently; roads are a mess; and let’s not forget corruption. It is rife here. It cannot be avoided.  Both Congress and BJP are full of it.

Modi represents change. He is a strong, decisive figure who brooks no nonsense or opposition even within his party. He basically executed a coup d’etat of the BJP leadership last fall that will lead to the BJP naming him the prime minister. In his campaign, he would contemptuously deride Rahul Gandhi and the leadership of Congress. Historically, the Congress party always controlled the lower castes which are called the “Backward Castes.” The lower castes of the rural areas and the Muslim population making up 15 percent of the Indian population have traditionally been the base of the Congress party. Modi campaigned as a member of the backward castes given his background as a teawallah serving tea in a shop. Meanwhile Rahul Gandhi came across as a princeling, a reluctant politician fearful of meeting the same fate as his grandmother and father.  He was an extremely poor campaigner.  Modi was also the chief minister or governor of the state that contains Mumbai. He made a name for himself by putting in place road and electrical infrastructure that is the envy of India. He is conservative and pro-business. The rising and aspirational middle class born after the independence of India along with the Hindu backward castes delivered a mandate.  I cannot tell you how many middle aged Hindus I know who enthusiastically voted for the first time and for Modi. They are very excited about what he means for India.

Unfortunately, many others are concerned. Especially the Muslims. The development of the Modi’s home state did not include the Muslim sectors.   During his time as governor, there was a terrible riot among Hindus and Muslims that caused the death of over 1000 Muslims. Many did not think that he was proactive about stopping it.   (His Hindu followers who I would have to say are living in darkness in this respect  say “There are riots all the time in India,” as if that is acceptable.  We are all brothers and sisters of the One God.)  Modi is also under the influence of a Hindu “social and cultural” group called RSS that smells fascist. Their leadership make outrageous comments that are not disavowed.    Modi himself called Muslim refugees fleeing from Buddhist persecutions in Myanmar  “illegal” immigrants who he says will have to leave. Assam, the Arizona of India that borders Myanmar, cheered him. His campaign owes much success to its strategy of polarization. The color of Hinduism, orange, was ubiquitous as his political backdrop as was the Hindu lotus flower on his lapel. He did not have to say anything although his lieutenants often did. The message was clear.  Of the 282 BJP members elected to parliament, there are no Muslims or Christians.  There is one Sikh and one other member from a minority community.

The newspapers here are not very good. In some states, the ruling dynastic parties control the press. The best sources of analysis are found in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Some US experts quoted in these papers predict that he will move to the center and seek to govern all of India. One can only hope it is so.  I would be surprised if many if any of the Catholics with whom I worshipped this morning voted for Modi; yet my favorite Jesuit led a prayer for the new government from the altar.

It is a good reminder for us to pray daily for all of our government leaders that they may be used by God for the good of all humankind whether they know it or not.