Election of Modi is threat to India’s large democracy

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India, the world’s largest democracy, is at the polls right now.

The sheer size of India’s democracy is mindboggling. Its national election, held every five years, has nine phases and occurs over five weeks. It will be the largest election in the history of the world, according to Nearly 815 million Indians are eligible to vote in this election, a number equal to the combined populations of America and the European Union. By May 16, when election results are announced, India will have spent roughly $5 billion on this election, according to TIME magazine, second only to the $7 billion Americans spent on the 2012 presidential election.

India’s National Congress party has wielded political power since it gained independence from Great Britain in 1947. But deepening concern about rising prices and rampant political corruption has led Indian voters to look twice at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) instead. In an era of tepid economic growth, the right-wing BJP is running its candidates on a savvy pro-business campaign. But this party’s ideological grounding in Hindu nationalism — emphasized by the checkered political past of Narendra Modi, its candidate for prime minister of India — demands our scrutiny.

Pre-election polls indicate that Modi will likely become India’s next prime minister. He has served as chief minister of Gujarat since 2001. Gujarat, unlike other Indian states, boasted a brisk 10 percent annual growth rate during these years. Today, it is one of the richest states in India. Many of its residents credit Modi’s pro-business economic policies for their prosperity. They eagerly anticipate his election to the prime ministership of India so that all of India may enjoy such economic growth.

However, Modi’s tenure as chief minister of Gujarat is not without blemish. On February 27, 2002, a train carrying several hundred passengers burned near Godhra, in Gujarat. Fifty-eight passengers, mostly Hindu pilgrims and many of them women and children, died in the fire. Rumors that Muslim arsonists were responsible for this accident triggered a rash of anti-Muslim violence throughout Gujarat. The Indian government estimated that 800 Muslims were killed in the violence. Unofficial figures estimate the number of Muslims killed was closer to 2,000.

I ask the reader to excuse me for cataloging some of these atrocities, but it is morally incumbent upon us to consider them now, when the world’s largest democracy is about to elect Modi to its highest political office. In the days following the burning of the train in Gujarat, Muslim children were forced to drink gasoline and then set on fire. Muslim infants were speared, held aloft, and thrown into bonfires. Muslim women and girls were gang-raped. The bellies of pregnant Muslim women were slit open and their fetuses thrown into the streets. Hindu mobs barricaded and flooded Muslim homes and electrocuted the families inside.

While this violence was convulsing Gujarat, Modi was, at best, doing nothing to stop it. Less charitable critics, such as Human Rights Watch, have asserted that Gujarat’s police officers participated in this carnage.

Arundhati Roy, India’s leading woman of letters and a fierce critic of its capitalistic policies, recently described Modi in an interview with Democracy Now! as “an extremely hard and cold-blooded chief minister best known for having presided over a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat.”

While her politics necessarily predispose her against Modi’s candidacy, she correctly stated that Modi has never directly expressed his regret for the 2002 Gujarat violence. In fact, the closest Modi has come to such an expression was in a Reuters interview in 2013, in which he compared his feelings to those of a driver involved in an accident: “...if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is.” Such a statement is needlessly callous, if not darkly revealing of the smallness of Modi’s politics.

India is going to the polls right now, and there is nothing we can do to prevent Modi’s election to the post of prime minister. But perhaps it is not too little to keep before us this shameful political history of the man who will preside over the largest democracy in the world. Such insistent memory may prove the strongest bulwark against the recurrence of state-sanctioned violence in India during Modi’s likely tenure as prime minister, and our only way of redeeming the unprecedented act of democracy currently underway in India.