The Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) spectacular victory in the New Delhi state elections is a continuation of the churning in Indian politics. It presents a warning for both the main national political parties but particularly to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which won equally spectacularly in the national elections last summer and in a series of state elections subsequently. The AAP’s prospects beyond New Delhi are still unclear and its path is likely to be difficult, especially because this will depend at least partly on its performance in Delhi. The AAP represents both the future and the past of Indian politics: it is responding to a politically weak but growing and restive middle class that has not yet found a political party home, while its ideology, especially on economic policy, represents a failed past.
The AAPs victory is not record-setting in the Indian political context, but it is close: its 67/70 seats result has been bested only twice, both times in Sikkim. In 1989, the Sikkim Sangram Party won all 32 seats in the Sikkim state legislature, a feat repeated twenty years later in 2009 by the Sikkim Democratic Front. But nonetheless, considering the importance of New Delhi, the fierceness of the campaign in which Prime Minister Modi himself took part, and the BJP’s performance in the recent national elections (when it won all seven seats from Delhi), the result was a clear defeat for the BJP.
The AAP’s victory represents a significant challenge to both national parties, the resurgent BJP and the crumbling Indian National Congress (INC). For the BJP, which hopes to replace the Congress as the main Indian political party, the AAP is a signal that the path ahead will not be unchallenged or smooth. The BJP’s victory in the national elections was more of a victory of electoral math than of majority support in the country. Though the BJP achieved single-party majority with 282 seats in the Lok Sabha – the first time this has been accomplished in two decades – it did this with just 33% of the votes. In essence, the splintering of the non-BJP vote allowed the BJP to win because of India’s first-past-the-post electoral system. On the other hand, the BJP’s 33% vote was the largest share it had ever cornered: much above the 24% it received when it formed a coalition government in 1999 and the 22% and 19% in the national elections in 2004 and 2009 respectively.
Still, the BJP’s support base is largely in the Hindi-belt in north and central India. Even with the Modi magic, the BJP made only minor advances in the South and the Northeast of the country, and drew a blank in some states. The challenge for the BJP comes not just from the fact that it could easily be defeated if the opposition coalesces but also from the possibility that it might potentially have to compete for the same electoral space if it seeks to widen its base to the growing middle class across the country. The BJP has been trying to pursue the same voters that the AAP is also now addressing: the disaffected urban middle class that feels ignored by both the INC and the regional or caste-based parties.
The challenge that the AAP presents the INC is both greater and lesser than that for the BJP. On the one hand, the INC’s decline is near terminal. It fell from 206 seats with 29% of the vote share in 2009 to 44 seats with just 19% of the vote share in 2014 and was blanked out of Delhi in both the general election last year and the state election two weeks back. On the positive side – if it can be called that – many of the INC’s problems are self-inflicted, especially the incompetence of the party leadership, suggesting that sorting out the leadership question could prevent the party from going into oblivion. Additionally, the party has experience with climbing out of such holes, having recovered after a similar drubbing in 1979 and recovering from a similar slide in the 1990s. Leadership was key in both instances, and the ingredient missing today.
But if the AAP presents a challenge to both national parties, it also faces challenges of its own. It has so far been somewhat juvenile in its approach to politics, the best indicator of this being its decision to resign from the government last February and its ill-advised attempt to expand beyond Delhi in the last general elections. Even if they manage to administer Delhi with a modicum of success and efficiency, their growth outside of Delhi is likely to be a hard slog. Building a national political presence is not easy in India because of the country’s size and diversity, as parties as disparate as the BJP, the communist parties and regional parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have discovered.
The other challenge that AAP faces is in deciding its ideological base. The AAP grew out of a middle-class based protest movement that targeted crime and the endemic corruption in India, but it has shifted to the decidedly un-middle class left of the political spectrum. Indeed, a number of AAP supporters from the business sector have left the AAP because of its increasingly leftist orientation. So the AAP faces a choice: it can become the voice of the urban middle class but it would have to backtrack along the ideological spectrum to a more centrist position on a variety of issues, which seems unlikely given the orientation of its leadership. If it does move this way, the AAP could significantly cut into the BJP’s middle-class base which supports the BJP’s pragmatic economic agenda but is wary of its religious overtones. If the AAP continues with its left-of-centre orientation, the middle class will continue to remain without a political voice, either splitting its vote or becoming a persistent anti-incumbency bloc until some other political formation rises that speaks to its concerns.
Alternatively, the AAP can move to take over the space on the Left that the INC has vacated and become the main centre-left party against the centre-right BJP. Recent moves by the AAP suggest this, particularly its opposition to the reforms in the new Land bill that makes it easier to acquire land for infrastructure and industry as well as its general suspicion of the private sector and industry. This could possibly spell trouble for the INC, considering that it occupies the same ideological space.
In short, the churning in Indian electoral politics will continue for a while. Though there are other factors besides the rising urban middle class that influence Indian politics, the AAP rode to success mainly on this, just as the BJP did last year. The question now is which, if either, will become the voice of this rising political force.Continue Reading →
After sixteen-hours of diplomatic talks in Minsk last week, leaders from Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany reached a ceasefire agreement, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel described as a “glimmer of hope” for the longstandng military conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Although the ceasefire came into effect on Sunday, there have already been reports of fire by pro-Russian rebels in some towns. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from Russia, China, Japan, and India on the ceasefire agreement and the future of the Ukraine crisis.
Russians took a cautious wait-and-see approach to the ceasefire, with some pondering the casefire’s implications for the global and regional order. (more…)Continue Reading →
Nationalism has greatly shaped debates in Iran on what role the country should assume in the Middle East and in the world. How have these debates evolved under President Hassan Rouhani’s administration over the past two years? How do they differ from the debates that occurred during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency? These questions were addressed by Farideh Farhi, Affiliate Graduate of Faculty, University of Hawaii at Manoa at a Rising Powers Initiative conference on “Worldviews of Aspiring Powers: A Resurgence of Nationalism?” held this winter at GWU. The conference reconvened authors to update their findings in the book Worldviews of Aspiring Powers: Domestic Foreign Policy Debates in China, India, Iran, Japan, and Russia (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Undercurrents in Iranian Politics
The 1979 revolution weighs heavily in influencing Iran’s foreign policy debates and nationalism. Regardless of leadership change, several undercurrents remain constant in Iranian politics. The first undercurrent is the fear of external manipulation of domestic cleavages to undermine the theocratic regime. Though Iran was never colonized, it has been subject to external powers’ intervention in internal affairs. The second undercurrent shaping Iranian politics, particularly post-revolution, is Iran’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Despite its regional power status, Iran does not possess strategic allies. This is important particularly in the Middle East, where every country is very clear on where it stands. This loneliness has led to a sense of insecurity for Iran in a region where conflict is rife. Efforts by superpowers to contain Iran constitute another undercurrent in Iran. While Iran has attempted to engage in the global economy as an oil exporter, the United States and other Western powers have prevented Iran from integrating into the global economy and partake in the institutions governing it, largely due to fear of Iran’s rise as an aspiring power in the region and its nuclear power status. These factors contribute to and shape Iranian nationalism which in turn shapes Iranian foreign policy debates. (more…)Continue Reading →
Last month, President Barack Obama traveled to India—becoming the first president to have visited the country twice while in office—and held a summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss a number of issues, from much awaited progress on India’s nuclear liability law, to the strengthening of defense ties involving technology trade, to U.S. $4-billion investment in Indian businesses, to counterterrorism and climate change cooperation, along with an expansive strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. Does this summit mark a breakthrough in the Indo-US relations, moving past incremental progress to transformational progress? If so, does the credit go to Modi’s leadership role in making sure that India’s entrenched bureaucracy fall in place? Or, is much of the success still hype without tangible outcomes? In an interview with India Abroad, Deepa Ollapally, Research Professor of International Affairs and the Associate Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, offered her views on the recent Indo-US summit:
I would characterize President Obama’s trip to India as more than transactional but much less than transformational. The optics were certainly grandiose, from the unprecedented scene of Obama sitting still in one place for over two hours of pomp and pageantry, to Prime Minister Modi pouring tea for Obama under a shamiana on the lawns of Hyderabad House. Of course the show itself holds some extra importance because I think it does demonstrate in no uncertain terms Modi’s own commitment to strong Indo-US ties going forward. Modi’s worldview is not easy to read and this gives us another marker of his thinking. (more…)Continue Reading →
RPI author Deepa Ollapally discusses Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s worldview in the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India. This op-ed originally appeared in the Indian Express.
In the wake of US President Barack Obama’s visit to India, there has been no dearth of pronouncements about Narendra Modi, with the prime minister variously described as a problem-solver, a strategic thinker, a public relations master. Behind these appellations, however, lies a deeper question: what is Modi’s worldview? The series of high-profile summits with the Japanese, Chinese and American leaders in fairly rapid succession, and now Modi’s proposed visit to China in May, give us a better idea of his foreign policy worldview — one country at a time. Even the optics of these meetings is giving us markers of Modi’s thinking.
Modi’s own worldview has not been easy to read — his postures and policies have not gone according to the hard nationalist script that many expected, given his base. For hard nationalists, their main foreign policy goal would be to make India a global military power. Economic strength is important, but secondary; power is paramount, and diplomacy is just a weak appendage to power.
Modi, however, started off with a bold diplomatic gesture of issuing an unprecedented invitation to neighbouring leaders for his inauguration. Since then, whether it is pouring tea under a shamiyana for the American president, sitting and chatting on a traditional Indian swing in Ahmedabad with the Chinese president, or strolling the grounds of the famous Toji Buddhist Temple in Kyoto with the Japanese prime minister, it is hard to miss the diplomatic disarming.
Besides the appealing optics, leading with diplomacy is smart foreign policy. This is especially true now because of two big structural shifts in the international system that requires subtle diplomacy over crude power-mongering. The first change is a diffusion of global power economically and institutionally, especially to Asia’s rising powers, China and India. The system has basically become more decentralised. What this does is give a country like India greater options and leverage to pursue its strategic interests. The second shift is the growing hybrid nature of the global system, that is, simultaneous economic interdependence and geopolitical rivalry. This is best illustrated by US-China relations but also India-China relations. The point is that India is operating in a complex and dynamic international environment, calling on state leaders to engage in some very delicate balancing acts and hedging behaviour.
For all the talk of India as a traditional great power, a close reading of Modi’s policy towards China, Japan and the US so far suggests that economic growth and development remain at the top of the agenda. During Xi Jinping’s visit to India last September, the Indian prime minister secured a $20 billion promise of investments over five years, even against the startling backdrop of Chinese incursion into the Ladakh region. From Shinzo Abe, Modi had already procured a commitment of $36 billion over five years. President Obama’s pledge of $4 billion over two years cannot be measured in just this amount, since more American private capital and technology may be forthcoming. But this snapshot indicates why India has to follow a careful multi-aligned foreign policy.
Although Obama’s visit produced the landmark document, the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, whether it was transformational in India’s orientations is very much an open question. India has its own concerns about freedom of navigation in light of China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, but the document is no plan of action. Instead, it gives greater heft to a strategy of hedging by India against China or a stronger insurance policy. It also signals explicitly that, for Modi, the US is clearly first among equals.
Geopolitical signalling aside, it is economic compulsions that weigh most heavily on India. Modi reportedly spent time explaining to Obama that India will continue to strongly engage with China on economic and global issues. Indeed, the president had hardly left New Delhi before it was announced that the Indian foreign minister would visit China within the week. Meanwhile, the border stand-off in September only seems to have underlined the need to come to an early diplomatic resolution of the India-China border dispute. While in India, Xi became the first Chinese leader to say that he wanted to resolve the border question “at an early date”, something Modi and every Indian prime minister before had been pushing for.
For Modi’s part, just days after the stand-off, he addressed the annual Combined Commanders Conference and said that an atmosphere of peace and security was essential to enable India to achieve its goals of economic development.
Achieving developed country status can, of course, be a nationalist goal. But only what might be termed a more globalist mindset privileging regional and global economic integration, with a diplomatic approach for settling security conflicts, will get India there. This could explain why Modi’s worldview does not — and even more importantly, cannot — fit a hard nationalist outlook.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s three-day trip to India last week concluded with a lengthy, 59-paragraph-long joint statement containing agreements on a variety of issues, from much awaited progress on India’s nuclear liability law, to the strengthening of defense ties involving technology trade, to U.S. $4-billion investment in Indian businesses, to counterterrorism and climate change cooperation, along with an expansive strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from India, China, and Japan on the recent summit between President Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
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The terrorist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people including the editor and four other cartoonists, generated a public outcry against terrorism and a controversy surrounding freedom of speech in France, Europe, and the world. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil on the terror attack.
Chinese media unanimously cautioned that free speech has limits and suggested that the limit was pushed too far in the case of Charlie Hebdo. (more…)Continue Reading →
The hacking attack allegedly conducted by North Korea against Sony Pictures Entertainment led the company to temporally cancel the Christmas day release of its controversial film The Interview, a movie about an assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This cyberattack generated worldwide discussions on freedom of speech and cyber security. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, and Brazil on the hacking incident.
Chinese officials urged restraint from both North Korea and the United States. (more…)Continue Reading →
The issue of nationalism in Asia has gained attention in recent years as two new nationalist leaders—Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—came into office with aspirations to play a greater role in shaping the regional economic and security order. How does nationalism affect the foreign policies of the world’s third-largest economy and its largest democracy?
This question was addressed by Richard Samuels, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Deepa M. Ollapally, Associate Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies and Associate Research Professor of International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University (GWU), at a Rising Powers Initiative conference on “Worldviews of Aspiring Powers: A Resurgence of Nationalism?” held on November 18 at GWU. The conference reconvened authors to update their findings in the book Worldviews of Aspiring Powers: Domestic Foreign Policy Debates in China, India, Iran, Japan, and Russia (Oxford University Press, 2012).Continue Reading →
On November 26-27, leaders from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka gathered in Kathmandu to attend the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. Under this year’s theme of “regional integration,” leaders sought to conclude three much-expected, showpiece agreements concerning road, rail, and power connectivity, aimed to boost the intra-regional trade for the energy-starved region. However, they fell short of expectations and were only able to agree on the energy deal. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from India and China on the outcomes of the SAARC summit.
Expectations for the SAARC summit were high in India given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise invitations to the leaders of SAARC member states to his inaugural ceremony in May, a decision that has stood out as a “game changer.” Indian commentators especially focused on the summit’s economic promises for South Asia, whose intra-regional trade is less than 5% of its total trade and accounts for less than 2% of its GDP. (more…)Continue Reading →