Narendra Modi is the first Indian prime minister to have visited the UAE in over three decades and, as voters take to the polls, he will be hoping his charm offensive in the region will be a big asset during his re-election campaign
The Federal Indian government has repeatedly used the phrase ‘West Asia’ in media releases over the last few years, referring mainly to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. With polling for the national elections kicking off on April 11 and due to continue until May 19, the Gulf region is increasingly becoming a major factor for discussion on the Indian campaign trail.
Consider these facts being highlighted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put India’s relations and influence in the West Asian region on a strong footing, highlighted by his visit to the UAE in August 2015, a first by an Indian prime minister in the last 34 years. For the first time in nearly 50 years, India was invited as a guest of honour by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to attend the plenary of its foreign ministers meeting in February this year.
PM Modi is very popular among the NRI community in Gulf countries, and so is Rahul Gandhi, especially after his visit to the UAE earlier this year
Another major step forward was news that a Hindu place of worship – the Swami Narayan temple – is to be built in Abu Mureikha in Abu Dhabi and Modi is due to participate in the foundation stone ceremony on April 23. There is still speculation over whether Modi will appear in person or by video link as the event coincides with the busiest phase of the elections when 115 of 543 Indian parliamentary constituencies go to polls.
For the first time, an Indian prime minister was also awarded the UAE’s highest civilian award – the Zayed Medal – marking the sixth international award Modi has received from the region in the last five years. Even more significant, Saudi Arabia was credited with playing an important role in diffusing tensions last month between India and Pakistan, following India’s air strike in Balakot, a Pakistani territory.
All these West Asia-related firsts are a part of Modi’s bid to woo Indian voters and to encourage them to award him a second term in office.
“The Modi government’s achievements in building strong relations with the West Asian nations are not only helping boost India’s growing influence in the region but are also a major boon to millions of expat Indians working in the Gulf region, as the governments in these countries have become more responsive to their concerns and issues,” R Balashankar, a member of the Core Election Campaign Committee of BJP, tells Arabian Business.
“One of the first things Narendra Modi did after becoming Prime Minister in 2014 was launch a direct engagement programme with the Indian diaspora in major countries, including the Middle East, during his high profile state visits to these countries. Through these engagements, Modi made non-resident Indians (NRIs) equal stakeholders in promoting India’s interests and importance in their respective countries,” says Balashankar.
Opposition parties are bent upon appeasing minorities and serving conservatives among the religious minorities
The Modi government’s economic and foreign policies, as well as the PM’s own decisive leadership, are attractive qualities among Gulf-based NRIs. However, there is also a strong section of the community in the region who are opposed to the BJP’s divisive politics. “PM Modi is very popular among the NRI community in Gulf countries, so is Rahul Gandhi, especially after his visit to UAE earlier this year. At the end of the day, it is the ideas and policies for the overall development of India by a political party that matter. And also the issue of what kind of an image India wants to portray to the world. From that point of view, the current election will be very crucial for all of us,” says Jerin Tom, an executive at a financial sector company in Dubai.
The Indian National Congress also enjoys major support from a sizeable section of Middle East-based NRIs, as evident when its president Rahul Gandhi addressed a huge gathering in UAE in January this year. “There was a crowd of about 50,000 NRIs in that meeting and we were overwhelmed by their support and enthusiasm for the party,” says Sam Pitroda, president of the Indian Overseas Congress.
Pitroda was instrumental in changing people’s perception of Rahul Gandhi and projecting him as an able and intelligent political leader through a series of interactive sessions with students in top universities in the US and the UK, as well as with the Indian diaspora in the UAE and many other countries.
“Yes, bread and butter issues like jobs, improvement in farmer and rural income, healthcare and education are all very important issues in this election for voters in India, as also for NRIs. However, the most important issue in the 2019 elections will be saving democracy in India,” Pitroda believes.
The campaigning for general elections in India has reached a feverish pace already. Though several economic issues are being raised by opposition parties, it is apparent that the ruling BJP and its allies are attempting to push the debate towards a focus on political discourse and non-economic issues, such as national security concerns, terrorist threats and the need for strong leadership, especially in view of deteriorating relations with Pakistan. Constructing Ram Mandir at Ayodhya in UP, scrapping special clauses for the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, such as Article 370 and Article 35 A, and giving a free hand to security forces in J&K are among the muscular nationalist and faith-related issues that have been re-packaged in the party’s election manifesto.
The BJP has also promised in its manifesto to address election tax reforms, extending its direct money transfer scheme to poor farmers by bringing more farmers under its net, bringing down the percentage of families below the poverty line to single digits and establishing a commission to address small traders’ issues.
The constitution of India is clear about secularism being the key element of the spirit of India but the BJP’s approach in this regard is well known.
The principal opposition Congress party, on the other hand, has stuck to its core strategy of highlighting the lack of jobs for youth, rising farmer and rural distress and the destruction of small and medium scale industries by demonetisation and the faulty implementation of GST (goods and services tax) by the Modi government. The ‘wealth and welfare’ package in its manifesto promises, among other things, a limited version of universal basic income (UBI) through a transfer of up to $1045 in a year to the bottom 20 percent of the poor in India, through its flagship NYAY (coincidently it means ‘justice’ in Hindi) scheme. It has also promised a separate budget for farmers to focus on mitigating their problems and help the sector to achieve faster growth.
The other regional opposition parties have also promised implementation of their version of populist schemes to alleviate farmer and rural distress, uplift the poor and address the myriad other issues pertaining to their respective states and regions.
The cover pages of the election manifestos of the Congress and BJP are a study in contrast. While the Congress manifesto opts for hundreds of faces of common people spread across the front cover, the BJP’s manifesto cover page has the picture of only one face – that of its leader, Narendra Modi. For the BJP, election 2019 is clearly all about Modi vs. the rest, or rather Modi vs who?
There is an immense difference in the campaigning style of Modi and Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who took the plunge into active politics in January this year by being made one of Congress’ general secretaries for the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh state. While Modi criss-crosses the country, addressing mega rallies in his inimitable style of rhetoric, the Gandhis mostly prefer doing roadshows through crowded and dingy lanes of various districts across the country in open jeeps, interacting with the people and stopping occasionally to talk about the party’s pro-poor programmes and highlighting Modi’s neglect of farmers and the poor and his alleged corruption through crony capitalism.
The regional opposition parties such as Trinamool Congress (TMC), Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Telugu Desam Party (TDP), National Conference (NC), PDP and left parties also highlight the need to defeat the divisive tendencies of the BJP in order to preserve the plural, secular democratic fabric of India in their respective corner meetings at busy street corners.
“Interestingly, while the election manifestos of the major political parties have focused on basic issues, with each party trying to prove that it has solutions to all the problems that India faces today, a distinct feature of this election has been the attempt to polarise voters on the basis of religion as well. The ruling alliance is harping on the Ram Mandir issue and also using nationalism as an important differentiator, while opposition parties are bent upon appeasing minorities and serving conservatives among the religious minorities. How effectively will the Mahagathbandhan (the grand opposition alliance) of regional parties dent the election results is yet to be known, but there seems to be a consensus that the opposition does not, at present, have any one face for the post of prime minister and the ruling BJP has an edge due to the popular leadership of Narendra Modi,” says Muneesh Kumar, political analyst and professor at Delhi University.
NRIs living in the Middle East are watching the elections with great interest. While a section of the NRIs is expecting much better and stronger relations with the governments of the Gulf countries, if the ruling BJP is re-elected, there are a few segments who feel concerned about the pro-Hindu approach of this party and its effect on the status of minorities.
“A large proportion of NRIs in the Gulf countries are Muslims. The constitution of India is clear about secularism being the key element of the spirit of India but the BJP’s approach in this regard is well known. NRIs also believe in the ability of the present ruling alliance to deliver robust economic growth and a greater role for India in international forums. This may help in giving them better access to the international employment markets,” Kumar says.
Realising the growing importance of NRIs in India’s development journey, the Congress party has devoted a separate section to NRIs in its election manifesto, listing a set of proposals of what it would do for them if elected to power. “We wanted to understand what the Congress can do for NRIs, what NRIs can do for India, and learn about the various areas of improvement in Indian governance. So we took suggestions from NRIs around the world for preparing this section,” Sam Pitroda says.
T K Arun, opinion editor of The Economic Times and a widely read columnist on economic and political issues, however, feels that the outcome of the ongoing Lok Sabha polls (the Indian parliament’s lower house) will not materially alter India’s economic policy or foreign policy stance.
“India will continue to be an important market for their (Middle East’s) oil and gas, a source of manpower and, increasingly, an avenue for profitable deployment of Gulf nation sovereign wealth. These should continue without much change, irrespective of whoever forms the next government.
“The exception is politics. If a BJP-led government turns aggressively anti-Muslim, as for example, through intensified repression in Kashmir or more frequent instances of mob frenzy against Muslims, Gulf governments could find their policy of friendly relations with India resented by sections of the domestic populace.
India could be compared to China, which oppresses its Uighur minority in Muslim Xinjiang”, he says.
A word of caution, indeed, and one that Indian voters will no doubt have in mind when they go to the polls over the next few days and weeks.