The Politics of India

About this Episode

Guests
Mytheli Sreenivas, Wendy Singer

A New York Times editorial has declared it “A New Chapter for America and India.” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a point to reach out to the United States and will visit America for a second time at the end of September 2015. Does Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or “BJP,” also spell a new chapter for the world’s most populous democracy? What role does religion play in everyday Indian politics? And how does India—with a rising population and facing serious environmental issues—view itself on the world stage? Join guests Mytheli Sreenivas and Wendy Singer and hosts Leticia Wiggins and Patrick Potyondy as they explore the past and present of India.

(Image Source)

Cite this Site

Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "The Politics of India" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
September, 2015
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/politics-india?language_content_entity=en.
September, 2015

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy  

Welcome to History Talk, the history podcast for everyone. I'm Patrick Potyondy.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And I'm Leticia Wiggins. With over 1.2 billion people, India is often described as the world's largest democracy.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Narenda Modi, Prime Minister of India, is visiting the United Nations in New York at the end of this month. This follows a high-profile state visit he already made to the United States last year in 2014. This latest visit gives us a chance to catch up with a nation which shares borders with both Pakistan and China, and is recently strengthening its ties to the United States.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is bringing changes to India that are proving controversial, increasing tensions among different religious communities in India, and maybe breaking with past political traditions.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Today, we asked two experts to join us on History Talk to better understand India's politics and culture and ask, "Is India's democracy up to the challenges facing the nation?" So stay tuned.

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

Hello, I'm Wendy Singer. I'm a professor of Indian history and I study modern India. I teach at Kenyon College.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Hi, I'm Mytheli Sreenivas and I'm a professor of history and women's gender sexuality studies at Ohio State. And I teach on modern South Asia.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Wonderful. Thank you both for joining us today. We really appreciate it. So we'd like to start off with talking a little bit about India as the world's largest democracy. Does Prime Minister Modi and his BJP represent a genuine change of direction in Indian politics and the nature of his democracy? Or is there a more fundamental continuity underneath all the noise?

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

Well, I think there is both, of course. India's an old democracy of 69 years and in that time, there have been a number of governments and in fact, the BJP has had power before. So that's not new. And a government is in power for five years unless there's a reason for power to change. So this is just part of the normal process of Indian democracy.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Yeah, I mean, I think that is the key continuity, right, and the BJP, as Wendy mentioned before, has been in power. So I think it's, that's not the new thing. I think the new things are the fact that this party and Narendra Modi in particular, have raised questions or have challenged existing traditions around Indian secularism. So I think India, the Indian polity has debated a lot about what secularism means and what a democracy looks like, in a society that's multi-ethnic, and very pluralistic, and very diverse. The BJP, and Modi in particular, have been pretty outspoken and claims around kind of privileging certain ideas about Hindu identity as being important to the political space within India, right, to Indian politics. And I do think that that is something that is something new and different that we're seeing, and we've seen it before in the in the previous time that the BJP was in power in the late 90s and early 2000s. But I think we're seeing those questions in a heightened form again, right now.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Are those, are there certain policies there that are attracting voters to his party and to Modi in particular? And are those, are any of those really fundamentally different from kind of issues that maybe faced India in kind of earlier decades?

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

It's important to remember that although the BJP is the ruling party and did win the last election, they still, the party only got about 31% of the popular vote. So that's more than the BJP has gotten ever before. And it was also more than any other single party. So that matters. On the other hand, it's a bit of a stretch to say that the entire Indian electorate, which is huge and had a very high turnout in the last election. If we look historically, since 1947, the Congress Party was the dominant party in Indian politics for a very long time. But that has been challenged by lots of other parties, regional parties, and then the BJP at the national level. What we're seeing is a kind of a continuity of that. I mean, there's people voting for lots of different parties, and some of which ally with the BJP. But still, which puts the BJP at only 30 31%.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Because we're talking about just kind of to lay out a little bit of groundwork, we're talking about parliamentary system, where kind of different regions are going for different parties. Correct?

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

Right. And in addition to that, when a person goes to the polls to vote, some of them might go to the polls and think I'm voting for Narendra Modi and his party, other people are voting for their local representative. So nobody except in his constituencies, and he ran from two, but nobody except the people in his constituency literally vote for him. He was charismatic and people, many people were drawn to his party because of him. But when a person goes into the polls, they could be voting for a local person that they know who they want to represent them.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

I think one of the interesting things about most of these political campaign style A lot of people have compared to a US presidential election, although it's a parliamentary system, because he very much I think attempted to put his brand on the voters right to make it a vote for Modi. But as Wendy says, that's not necessarily always the case, in terms of what's going on. I think his campaign was very much around the claim that he would bring economic development to India. And I think that's something worth talking about. So before, before he became prime minister, he was the chief minister of the Western state of Gujarat. And there was a lot of debate about his or his claim was to bring the kind of development that was in Gujarat to all of India. And if you talk to, especially those who voted for Modi, or for his party, you do hear a lot about development, that that's, that that's what Modi is supposed to bring.

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

People's perception of what that development meant for Gujarat are also different. So some people saw that income levels rose in Gujarat and they were attracted to that. Other people looked at what was going on in Gujarat and we're concerned about the ways in which industry and labor were treated in Gujarat. So even that model, people responded to differently and an Indian electorate is very interested in politics, spends a lot of time thinking about politics, and so sees these things in quite nuanced ways.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

India has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. This is behind perhaps only  Indonesia and Pakistan. And this is to say nothing that there you know, are other numerous religions across the subcontinent and we're just wondering how this, the BJP religious alignment compares with earlier periods in India's history, to go back to this history, and its status as a democracy as well as how this kind of influences.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Well, I think that, so India is officially according to its constitution, a secular democracy. But what secular means has been something that politicians, but also ordinary people have debated a lot. And there were many questions prior to the rise of the BJP through the 1960s and 70s and 80s about the rights of religious minority populations within India. Sometimes that led to violence, sometimes it led to other kinds of political unrest. So this is an ongoing question for India. It's not a new question, I think with the rise of the BJP. I think what's, one of the things that's specific about the BJP as a party is it's linked to this group of civil society organizations, they call themselves a family of organizations, that's headed up by an organization called the RSS. So not to give you too many acronyms here. But an organization like the RSS, of which Modi was a member, has stated pretty clearly that it sort of disagrees with existing notions of Indian secularism, to argue that India is essentially a Hindu place. And you know, I would, I would argue that just to make that claim, means erasing a lot of the history of plurality and diversity in the present and in the historical past. I think one of the other things that's going on in India, around the questions of you know, "what's different about Modi?" is this, or the BJP, is this real attempt to kind of rewrite Indian history to erase plurality. So as a historian like this is something that bothers me immensely in India. And that's what a lot of scholars and intellectuals right now in India and ordinary folks are debating about, right? What does it mean to be a plural society? Is India truly a Hindu society in the way that the RSS for example has argued?

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Is there usually a religious affiliation with, with other parties and the opposing ones? The ones that oppose the BJP? Is that kind of a common thing to have a platform that also include some sort of religion?

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Not for some of the major political parties in an explicit way.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Okay.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Right. So I think  that's the thing. It's, it's that, that the BJP has made those connections explicit in ways that other political parties have not. And I would caution against calling it a religious affiliation exactly. Because it's not an affiliation with a religious institution, per se. What it is, is a claim about what they term "Hindu" or "Hinduness," right? Hinduism as an identity. So it's not about like a link between some sort of organized religious group necessarily, and a political party, but rather a claim that India's Hindu, right, and so that we need, maybe we need to privilege Hindus, we need to prioritize certain ideas or defend certain politics on the claim that they're linked to Hinduism in some way. I think other political parties have members of many religions, as does the BJP actually, but they don't have they don't make that same kind of claim.

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

Within the BJP, there are diverse people with diverse political interests, many of whom are in the business of trying to make India a better place. They are committed to public service. The question is, while they're engaged in that political service activity, how do social institutions and other religious institutions, are some of them going to be privileged?

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

And I think also, I would add on to that, I mean, when it, kind of when the rubber hits the road, I think the key issue is what is the place of people who belong to other religious groups? Especially Muslims, but also Christians. And there's a large Muslim, as you said, there's a large Muslim minority and a very substantial Christian minority in India. And there's a lot of questions raised about their place in the polity. And I think the thing that's sort of dogged Modi for a decade now is that when he was chief minister in Gujarat, there was what many would call a pogrom, but some would also call a genocide of largely Muslims in his state that he has been accused of not doing enough to stop, and that lower-level members of the BJP have been accused of actually fomenting and encouraging. At the very least, we can say that the, that the state did not step in quickly enough in order to end this slaughter. So this this was in 2002, right? So this is the question that has dogged Modi for some time, and that for some time prevented him from getting a visa to the United States, for example, he was blocked.

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

That's the principle. So the principle is that if you are the government in power, you have a responsibility for law and order for the daily workings of government for development, for education, for health -- you have all those responsibilities. So at that moment, what was the government doing? So either they're complicit, or responsible, and he was exonerated from being complicit. But still, government's responsibility is to protect its citizens.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

At that local level, when you go to cast your vote for kind of your local representative, do you feel like religion is a driving factor for folks when they go to cast their ballot? Or is it more often for those kind of "secular concerns?" Or do you think it's probably a mixture of them?

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

Right, in a diverse population, different people bring different things to the table. And so when you go into cast your vote, in some cases, and this is what I found interesting and looking at who was running in different constituencies, in some cases, it was the same person who had run on a different party before. So when a voter is going in, they may not be thinking about the larger ideology. They might be thinking about what is going to bring something to my district? I want development here, or I want a hospital here. I want education here. I want something. And so they may not be thinking in this larger terms. Other people, there are strong advocates for the ideology of the BJP. So all of that was happening at the same time.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Moving on to a couple other major issues that have kind of dogged India for some time, are both environmental issues as well as population issues. And so when did the environment and population become concerns for the country? And what attempts have been made to mitigate any possible problems from kind of these major issues? And Mytheli if you'd like to start off?

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Sure. I think that well, on the question, I'll start off with the question of environment first, and this goes hand in hand with the question of development. India is largely an agricultural country, and the majority of populations still depends for its livelihood on agricultural production, right? And most, most of the people live in rural areas. I think one of the key questions that's been coming up in India right now, is about the relationship between those folks who live on the land, and a growing interest on the part of private corporations, as well as the state and using that land in different ways. Either for mining resources, also for building new industrial centers. And this has been a flashpoint in Indian politics with the BJP, but also with other political parties, right, who has the rights to this land? And what are the environmental costs of some of these new development projects, for example, around mining? Also around, a very controversial issue was around dam building and the the attempt to generate more hydroelectric power, because India as a growing economy needs more power. At the same time, tens of thousands of people have been displaced in the process of building these new dams. And they haven't seen many of the results that they were anticipating. So I think that's kind of the, maybe the lay of the land in terms of what the debate is about. The government has just recently kind of pulled back, the Modi government, on an attempt to, the attempt was to make it easier for private corporations and the state to take over land and now it's kind of pulled back due to a lot of pressure from popular social movements on the ground.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

As historians, like, what can we look at? Like what are these social movements kind of standing up for?

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

Looking at historically, I want to go back to the fact that some of the earliest, and most impressive environmental movements started in India. So before people even had the term environmentalism, there was the Chipko movement in North Indian mountains in which women literally hugged trees in order to prevent deforestation. So India is a place not only where there's a lot of environmental problems, and tension over those, but some of that comes from the fact that there's this longstanding, indigenously produced environmental movement. And organized movements among farmers who said, "We want this land for ourselves." And there's a tradition of that too even during the last government when Tata the car company wanted to build these new nano cars, which are very small, cheap cars in rural Bengal. And the government said, "Here is some land that you could have at low tax rates." And the farmers on those lands said, "Even if you pay us for the land, we can't eat that money. We want to grow food that we feel is more reliable." Ultimately, they prevailed. Now, of course, the plant moved to Gujarat. India is tackling the issues of environmentalism, in complicated terms that have to do with their history of public protest in India. The idea of public protest is an important way to get your position across to the government. So using that tradition and understandings about the land that might be different for farmers in order to advance different environmental agendas. And still in the contemporary world, there are problems of pollution and both pollution in terms of air pollution, and in terms of industrial pollution that have to be contended with.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

I think, linked to, I mean, linked to this is this broader question about who does development benefit? And what do we mean by development? And we can look to India really for one of the most robust debates globally on what that actually means. Because there are, there has been a growth in Indian GDP. There is this growing middle class that we keep hearing about, that growth was stronger before, has been a little bit less now in the last couple of years. But is nevertheless, like, there's this image of India as this thriving global economy. And there's a lot of people who have, who have gained wealth from this process. But there's a lot of folks who have also seen losses, and in the worst cases, seen the loss of their land, and therefore their livelihoods, who have pushed back with these really massive social movements to make a claim about a different kind of development. So we can in a way, I often argue to my students, right, if we really want to look at what is the global debate about development right now, India's one of the places that's this trying to answer that, that question, you know, to make, to have economic growth in a way that's sustainable and that's just for all of the people who live on the land.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

And as some of those folks who are either pushed off, or perhaps choose to leave the land and kind of make their way to urban centers, what do they find in some of those places? Are they finding some opportunity there? Or, or are they not finding the type of opportunity that maybe they're looking for?

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Unemployment is really high. You know, I think that's, that's true. And it's difficult for rural dwellers to move into cities and find, find well-paying jobs in short. So I'm sure some people do, you know, and their cities are growing and more people are moving to them. That's certainly true. But I think it remains the fact that people in rural areas need to have livelihoods within those rural areas, that urban growth is not going to meet the needs of all those folks. So there was a program that started about 10 years ago, just over 10 years ago, that attempted to address some of this, the so called National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which provided everyone who wanted to in a rural area with 100 days of work paid at minimum wage, paid for by the state. Which was a very huge shift in Indian policy, right? Which turned people which went from the state saying, we're going to provide you with benefits, right, or handouts, to saying everyone has the right to work and the right to be paid for that work. So that's been a really important development in a lot of rural areas. And like folks that I've worked with and interviewed have talked about doing this so called "hundred days work." Now, that program has had problems, it's been underfunded, some states have been better at it than others. But that's been one really important attempt to say, "We need to create livelihoods where people are and not expect that urban growth is going to somehow solve that problem." That too, has been the subject of debate. If we're thinking about what's going on in Indian politics today. Narendra Modi, made some very widely publicized claims about how this program was not useful, and that he wanted to cut it back. But again, there's been a lot of pushback from social movements and more recently, the government allocated up a fairly decent budget for this program. So again, this is another place of that debate.

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

And it's a unique model of development that one also might look at in the world stage, because it means that you can stay home, you can stay in a place where you have cultural, social connections.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Yeah, well, moving to that world stage and kind of looking more at these international relations between India and other countries. What are the most important international issues that are facing India today? And what other countries does it seem to deal with or kind of come into more tension conflict with more often?

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

Well, obviously, one of us things that when India wakes up in the morning, it's thinking about is what's going on in China. That China is an economic rival, also an economic partner. And so Indo-Chinese relations are a main issue for the Indian government to be thinking about. In addition, India sees itself as playing a major role in the world. And one of the questions to be looking for in the UN, is the conversation about the UN Security Council. And India's interested in whether that security council will be expanded, it's, that discussion is ongoing. But once again, it's gained momentum. And India's position is that the new developing countries who are critical to the world economy need to have a stronger role in terms of security of the world. And so, that is something that India sees itself as, as a leader, India is also investing again, with its competitor, China, heavily in Afghanistan, and in other nations in Africa, that India sees itself as one of those global economic players.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

So Pakistan, yes, yeah. Right. The other the other kind of inevitable one that we have anyone asked about Indian foreign policy. Right. So India and Pakistan have already fought three wars since independence of both of those countries in 1947. So that's another ongoing site of tension. A lot of that is around, the around the province of Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir, which is disputed, as lots of lots of folks know, is a disputed territory between the two countries in which ordinary Kashmiris have often been sort of caught in the middle of two governments in their rivalry. So as long as that issue remains unresolved, I think it's, it's, that's going to be a continual point of tension as well. I think maybe another piece to be thinking about, given our context today is Indian and US relations. That too, has been kind of a, there's a long history to that, that was implicated in Cold War politics for a long time. India was before part of the non-aligned movement, that they claimed to take no sides on the, on the Cold War, that gave anxiety to the US at times and to the Soviet Union at times. So that's the history that we're that were coming out of. I think, more recently, the Indian government has made a lot of overtures to the US government. And I think some of those have been reciprocated, again, along the lines of development. You know, the other thing that Modi's doing when he comes here is not just meeting Obama and going to the UN, but he's also going to California, to Silicon Valley, where he's going to meet with all these tech entrepreneurs, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. They're going to do some kind of Facebook chat, that's going to be publicized. It's very much part of these, these claimed links that Modi wants to make between Indian-origin tech entrepreneurs on the west coast and his new initiatives in India.

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

In addition, there are connections with the military in the US. And so the Indian government has often had tensions with the American strategic initiatives, because the United States has important relations with Pakistan, and sees its relationships with Pakistan as critical to its goals in Afghanistan and in the Muslim world. And so that creates an inherent tension between India and the United States, who is concerned about the machinery and weapons and military support that the US gives to Pakistan. So in recent years, there have been increased negotiations over technological transfers that might benefit India's military.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

And is the US trying to kind of strengthen relations with India, in part because of, kind of China's global ambitions?

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

I think so. I mean, possibly. I think there's also the fact that India appears like a huge market to a lot of US business.

 

Dr. Wendy Singer  

Right? And it goes up and down, the US, the Indo-US relationship is sometimes closer than others. And I see it as phases. I'm not, I'm not totally convinced that there will be a new increased warmth between the two countries, but it may just be a momentary relationship.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

Alright, we're going to leave it there. I'd like to thank both our experts for joining us today on History Talk. Wendy Singer from Kenyan and Mytheli Sreenivas from OSU. Thank you for joining us today.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Thank you so much.

 

Dr. Wendy Singer 

Thanks.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

This edition of the Origins podcast, "History Talk" was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the History Department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Stephen Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website origins.osu.edu, on iTunes, and on SoundCloud. And as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

YouTube Video