India's polls and South Asian peace

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'Just as the winds of change have swept across the United States, I have no doubt that India too will witness change when the next parliamentary elections take place in a few months.'

Thus spoke, some time ago, Lal Krishna Advani, former deputy prime minister of India and the far right's candidate for the country's top political post. Seldom were more misleading words spoken.

India, indeed, embarks on an extensive democratic exercise on April 16, 2009. The general election - in which some 714 million people are scheduled to cast their votes in 543 constituencies across 35 States and smaller Union Territories in five phases until May 13 - cannot but have giant consequences. The epic event will lead to far more than the formation of a new Lok Sabha (the Lower House of India's Parliament) and a new government (by the first week of June).

The election can unleash winds of change across not only India, but South Asia as well. But it can bring change of the kind Barack Obama represented for the American voter only if the people of India reject and rout Advani and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

History will pronounce its verdict on whether Obama lives up to the voters' hopes. There never was any doubt, however, about the meaning of their mandate. Theirs was a vote against wars and one for an all-inclusive American identity. Advani, the 'shadow prime minister' of the BJP, cannot cast himself as an Obama-like candidate of pro-changers merely through an imitative media and Internet campaign.

A vote for Advani and his party will be one for wannabe representatives of a religious majority with an agenda of rabid anti-minorityism. It will also be a vote for reversal of the peace processes and an escalation of the role of militarism in regional relations. A pro-BJP and a pro-Advani vote will mean this all the more for the particularly vicious campaign the party has chosen to pursue this time. It has been searching for a single wining issue, but in vain. No major corruption scandal, no manmade mega calamity of the kind that can lead to a landslide victory for a wily opposition has come its way. The BJP has made up for this lack by manufacturing a series of state-level issues of religious communalism aimed at the two major minorities - Muslims and Christians.

The party and the ''parivar' (as the far-right 'family' calls itself ) have combined their anti-minority violence with hate campaigns aimed at polarizing voters on religious lines and harvesting a Hindu vote that has never really been cast on a national scale. The far right is hitting a new low this time with speeches frothing with hate.

Young BJP leader Varun Gandhi (a nephew of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) set a trend with a videotaped and widely circulated tirade, where he is heard threatening violence against 'circumcised' traitors (with few nonparty takers for the theory about a 'fake tape'). Narendra Modi, who presided over the infamous Gujarat pogrom of 2002, has been carrying the same divisive message across different parts of the country as a rabble-rouser with an elevated party role. Advani himself continues to insist on 'cultural nationalism' as the true import of the party's religious communalism, while strongly defending Varun and Modi against the diatribes of 'pseudo-secularists.'

What is the likely fallout, in this context, of a far-right poll victory for South Asia? Pakistan-India relations should be the area of primary concern on this count. Islamabad has repeatedly expressed the hope that the strains between the nuclear-armed neighbors after the Mumbai terrorist strike of November 2008 will start easing after the Indian general elections are over. New Delhi, for its part, even while denying any electoral politics behind its current toughness towards Pakistan on terrorism, has suggested revival of the India-Pakistan peace process after reassuring post-Mumbai action by Islamabad.

The BJP, however, is in no hurry to offer such a hope. In one of his recent election rallies, in fact, Modi has virtually threatened a Mumbai in Pakistan in India. 'Response to terrorism should be given in the language of terrorism,' he declared. 'Pakistan should be made to understand in Pakistani language.'

The BJP has not mentioned India's other Muslim neighbor, Bangladesh, in connection with Mumbai, though Pakistan has done so. This, however, does not mean that the party has decided to pursue a policy of peace with Dhaka. The BJP has officially hailed the victory of Sheikh Hasina Wajed's Awami League in the Bangladesh general elections and her government's declared goal of a South Asian anti-terrorist task force. It has been left to Modi to revive talk of Bangladeshi 'infiltrators' (never called either 'migrants' or 'refugees') as part of the party's election rhetoric.

It is not only the minority in India's northeast, close to Bangladesh, that has been left quivering by Modi. Migrants in Mumbai and New Delhi, eking out a precarious existence in the most miserable of slums, also have reason to fear a recrudescence of attacks on them and their livelihood.

Hearts are not going to leap up with joy at any prospect of a BJP victory in the Himalayan state of Nepal as well. The BJP has not for a moment cared to conceal its disapproval of the dethronement of a hated monarch there and the advent of a democracy under Maoist leadership. The party is particularly upset at the re-born nation ceasing to be a Hindu kingdom and turning into a secular republic.

Alone among India's political parties, the BJP described Nepal's declaration as a 'negative development.' Senior BJP leader and former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh waxed emotional when he said, 'As an Indian and a believer in 'sanatan dharma' [Hinduism], I feel diminished.' In the event of the BJP's victory in the elections, the rulers in Kathmandu cannot look forward to a smooth revision of an old, unpopular and unequal Indo-Nepal treaty, as proposed some months ago.

Sri Lanka, another neighbor, cannot be sanguine about the prospect of a BJP return to power in New Delhi either. Officially, of course, the party takes the stand that it is for Colombo to deal with the terrorist problem of its own. Not many have noticed it at the national level, but the ethnic issue of the emerald island is becoming an electoral one for the party in one of the southern states.

In Tamilnadu, where the voters have a sense of ethnic solidarity with the suffering Tamil minority of Sri Lanka, the BJP is trying to include the issue in its ever-bloating religious-communal baggage. Recently, a party unit in the state staged a protest over the killings of 'Tamil Hindus' in Sri Lanka and urged the Centre to take into consideration the deaths of 'Hindus along with the Tamils' in that country. A local BJP leader said, 'The BJP is taking it up as a Hindu problem, to which the whole nation will respond. The Central Government [in New Delhi] is not responding because they think of it as a Tamil problem alone.'

What the people of India, including common Hindus, can do in order to promote peace within India and with its neighbors is clear indeed. They can vote for this change by voting against the BJP.

A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of 'Flashpoint' (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.