Shifting political lines

Friday, 24 May 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Political trends can sometimes transcend national borders. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has won a second term in power, beating out the Congress Party in a larger margin than he did in 2014. The final vote count even has Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi trailing behind in his Amethi constituency, which the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty has held almost continuously for the last four decades. 

At the start of the election cycle, cracks were beginning to show in Modi’s track record. The sweeping economic achievements that were expected during his first term had failed to materialise, and angry voters had dealt him three State election losses in December. Modi was struggling with high levels of youth unemployment, limited economic reforms, failure to curb corruption, and rural agriculture issues. 

However, campaigning shifted towards India’s relationship with nuclear-armed rival Pakistan after a suicide car bomb killed 40 Indian police in the contested Kashmir region in February, to the benefit of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Members of his party now want him to take a harder line on national security, as well as build a controversial temple on the site of a mosque that was demolished by a Hindu mob in Ayodhya in 1992. 

The swift change shows how easy it is for nationalist sentiment to trump economic considerations, and sweep all else before it. Analysts are now concerned that a second Modi term will also mean undermining India’s democracy institutions, deeper politicisation, a wider rise of Hindu hardliners, and erosion of minority relations. Security experts are waiting to see the impact on India- Pakistan relations, but it is likely that a Modi victory will be embraced with other countries in South Asia and the rest of the world. Investors appear to be happy at the result, as the prospect of political and policy continuity keeps the stock market at record highs. 

Across the Palk Strait, Sri Lanka is also expecting a Presidential Election to be announced in five months. The latest move by President Maithripala Sirisena in pardoning controversial Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) General Secretary Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara speaks volumes on the dangerous direction Sri Lankan’s national politics is taking. The monk, who was jailed for Contempt of Court, is a key reason behind anti-Muslim sentiments increasing, and played a significant role in the Aluthgama and Beruwala violence. The BBS is perhaps the most powerful of the Sinhala Buddhist organisations to emerge after the war, and is arguably one of the biggest threats to national unity. 

Even before the Easter Sunday attacks, his supporters were calling for the monk’s release, but the events of the last month has only served to increase his popularity. This is further enhanced by the feeling among the general public that politicians on both sides of the divide will protect Muslim politicians accused of promoting conservatism. It is clear with elections on the horizon, key political players are attempting to unite the Sinhala Buddhist vote base by preying on their insecurities. If Modi’s win is anything to go by, whipping up majority paranoia and feeding nationalism will be successful. 

For over a decade, minority parties have played a role in electing Sri Lankan leaders and forming governments. But the present scary trend is to isolate moderates and minorities by pushing forward deeply divisive figures, and policies that will harm communal co-existence for decades to come.