As the world’s most populous democracy gears up for protracted general elections, the ghost of mass murder dogs the two main parties.
The frontrunner for prime minister (according to polling at the time of writing), Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 when over 1,000 Muslims were massacred. State complicity has been convincingly alleged by survivors and those who documented the bloodshed.
Yet Modi’s star continues to shine. His rightwing Hindu nationalist party (which poses a particular danger to free speech) appeals to a large constituency allergic to the secularism enshrined in India’s constitution.
Meanwhile, the Indian National Congress, the traditional upholder of such secularism, is being haunted by the ghost of an older massacre – of more than 8,000 Sikhs by mobs in 1984 following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, who was a child at the time and is now head of the Congress election campaign, has no satisfactory answer to why none of the Congress politicians implicated have ever been brought to justice.
In both cases, commissions and courts have let political figures go scot free. Modi was famously given a ‘clean chit’ by a Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court. A recent book has revealed that this ‘investigation’ amounted to Modi’s questioning by a single person who took his version of events at face value without any cross-examination. The British and US political establishments, having previously frozen out Modi, have quietly re-established relations.
The Indian voter likely cares more about the parlous state of the economy and the corruption that is a running sore on India’s body politic. Both the Congress (reneging on previous socialist ideals) and the BJP are keen to impress middle-class voters with their talk of drawing investment that has little to offer to the 400 million citizens living in absolute poverty.
The wild card is the recent Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party), led by straight-talking former tax inspector Arvind Kejriwal. Activists who have entered politics, their agit-prop tactics have hit some big targets. Although unlikely to gain national significance quickly, it will be good if they emerge in a position to exert some influence over the next ruling coalition.