India’s massive elections present teachable moment for Main Street America

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As Americans, we pride ourselves on being the world’s oldest democracy. Yet media and the education system have a ways to go in informing Main Street America about the largest exercise in democracy, ever, taking place on the other side of the globe.

Voters line up to cast their votes outside a polling station during the first phase of general election in Alipurduar district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Learning about the high level of political engagement in India and managing the massive voter turnout, way higher than in the United States, resulting in a largely fair and free election, is a praiseworthy phenomenon, regardless of other factors, and an educational opportunity not to be missed.

Amit Jani, founder of South Asians for America, says his organization has brainstormed about holding a panel discussion on the Indian elections. “This is a mammoth experiment in democracy. We should be studying other electoral systems, especially a democracy,” Jani concedes.

“But the truth of the matter is, not as many people even vote in the U.S., and there’s general voter apathy. If you are not participating in your own democracy, what would make them interested in another?” Jani questions.

Professor Vamsee K. Juluri, who studies the globalization of media audiences at the University of San Francisco, agrees about the potential opportunity these Indian elections hold for educating the American public. He teaches ‘Media Audience and Research’, ‘International/Global Media’, ‘Media, Stereotyping andViolence’, and ‘Gandhi in the Media,’ and bemoans the lack of objective coverage of Indian elections and politics in that country, in mainstream American media.

A good jumping-off point would be the relatively straightforward primer like the one by Alyssa Ayres, former State Department official and now with the Council on Foreign Relations, entitled, “India’s Vast National Elections: What to Know,” about the six-week long voting exercise to elect that country’s 543-member Parliament from 29 states and 7 Union Territories.

A supporter of India’s main opposition Congress party wearing a traditional headgear with the party’s election symbol poses as he attends an election campaign rally in Mumbai, India, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

Mainstream Media

This writer used an arbitrary date starting Jan. 1, 2019, to assess a few major U.S. media sources’ coverage of the Indian elections and campaigns, to get an idea of the interest or lack thereof, in America for what is the most significant democratic exercise by 900 million people going to the polls, starting April 11.

As the voting goes on over the next 6 weeks, with 7 national parties and 56 state parties (Ayres) it would behoove the everyday American to learn more about the importance that Indian elections hold for the health of the global political and economic order.

New York Times to its credit and despite criticism from some Indians alleging bias, has been consistent and extensive in reporting on developments on India’s electoral front for months. Apart from its own coverage, the Times uses other agency reportage including Associated Press and Reuters, as does The Washington Post, which however, has a more spotty coverage.

The Post’s coverage see-saws from the impact of alleged hate crimes on the election, to fake Facebook accounts, with a sprinkling of significant Bloomberg news articles on the election’s impact on farmers and the poor in India, and cow vigilantism. There was a report three months ago in The Washington Post entitled, “India’s politicians offer a bonanza to voters before elections,” and another on the ‘dynastic’ politics with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s entry into the election fray, always a draw for Western reporters. Other than that the coverage is more on the lines of Frequently Asked Questions, not as well answered as Ayres’ piece.

When the Feb. 14 suicide bombing took place in Jammu & Kashmir and a U.S.-designated terrorist group housed in Pakistan took credit, reporting picked up in U.S. media on how the Modi government’s political fortunes were on the upswing with the India-Pakistan confrontation. But they were underlined with forebodings of the alleged dangers of a nuclear war, always a picker-upper for readership at home.

Academia

Meanwhile, the American academic community of experts on India and South Asia, have been examining the Indian political and economic scene, most ringing alarm bells about a dying democracy and predicting that a religious nationalism is overtaking the body politic in India and may cause a systemic change in that country since its founding as a secular democratic republic. This despite the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power in the past in India, and secularism survived.

People, who are scheduled to vote and were invited by the Election Commission of India, attend a felicitation ceremony called “Shatayu Samman”, an award given to persons who lived for a century, in Ahmedabad, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Apart from the Council on Foreign Relations, think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, Asia Society, Rand Corporation, American Enterprise Institute, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Hudson Institute, are doing some of the homework, some of it also because of the funding for India studies and chairs.

Others such as The Hudson Institute held a day-long conference at the Indian Embassy on “Delivering Democracy in India,” just the day before the Feb. 14, suicide bombing in J & K that radically impacted political conversation since then and heated up electoral politics.

A cursory look at the coverage of Indian election politics by U.S. think tanks, shows mostly similar analyses, and in some cases, absent any discussion, a scenario that might change as the voting goes on and results are announced May 23.

This April 2, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, held a joint event with Carnegie Endowment discussing the Indian election scenarios, and the consequences for India’s democracy, economy, and foreign policy. On April 1, it held a discussion on a book relating to India’s economy under Modi and his Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies does not list any analytical piece dwelling on the electoral scene in India since last Nov. 30, when it carried one entitled, “Final Test for Modi Before 2019 Polls,” whereas stiffer ‘tests’ for Modi have surfaced even after that. This year, its coverage has been on economic, trade, health, and water issues and initiatives in India rather than the upcoming elections, with just one piece on heightened India-Pakistan tensions.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, has no recent work on the Indian democratic system or upcoming elections despite a report, Securing a Democratic World, that recommends U.S. should ally with nations based on its values of democracy, where India does not get in-depth treatment despite being the largest democracy.

However, Carnegie released a 40,000 word “deep-dive” that looks at the BJP in power, “the state of Hindu nationalism and the consequences for Indian democracy,” according to author Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow at the CEIP and director of the South Asia program there.  The paper, entitled, “The BJP in Power: Indian Democracy and Religious Nationalism,” argues that, “While the election will influence the direction of India’s economy, the country’s foreign policy, and the dynamics between New Delhi and India’s state capitals, the campaign’s outcome will also determine the contours of India’s future as a secular republic dedicated to upholding the country’s unparalleled diversity and committed to embracing ethnic and religious pluralism.”

The American Enterprise Institute carried a paper by Indian-origin academic Sadanand Dhume April 8, entitled “Truthiness and India’s Elections” which looked at the effectiveness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘information war’. “Needless to say, Indian elections are parliamentary rather than presidential. Powerful state satraps, caste-based coalitions and constituency level dynamics will affect the final outcome,” Dhume notes. Yet, the ‘nationalist sentiment surging” post the latest India-Pakistan confrontation, is going to be a decisive factor, he said.

In another piece, Dhume wrote April 5, “Lok Sabha polls 2019: BJP’s unsustainable muslim bashing,” he said Modi’s party “has no choice but to evolve a way to actively accommodate religious diversity.”

 

“When it comes to Islam and Muslims, today there’s virtually nothing too extreme, bigoted or tasteless for Indian public discourse,” Dhume added noting that this was way different from the more staid and respectful political discourse of just five years ago.

Critique

“If you take away the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’ and replace it with ‘Hindus’ that is equally true,” asserted Professor Juluri responding to Dhume’s conclusion.

Juluri has been examining U.S. media coverage of Indian elections, and contends that “They are pushing so hard to fit the coverage into a preconceived narrative , and at the core of that narrative is the figure of Narendra Modi.”

He concedes however, that some of this is understandable. “Modi has made himself the center – namely — him against ‘dynasty’; him against corruption; him against ‘anti-nationalists’,” Juluri said.

“But there has been this effort to portray him (Modi) as a ‘Hindu nationalist’ as opposed to just a ‘nationalist’, which would be more accurate,” Juluri says about American media. He is planning to discuss with his students, who are mostly of a liberal bent, he says, the portrayal of the Indian elections by Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj, in one of his episodes of The Patriot Act.

“The way Minhaj set up the frame was that Hindu nationalists were trying to make India more Hindu,” Juluri observed. That is how American media’s understanding of India is also framed, says Juluri, who conversely, is concerned about – “the elevation of Hindu-phobia.”

The underlying signals and predictions in some American media and academia about the ominous demise of secular democracy in India, in much of the writing about that country, are something Professor Juluri takes strong exception to.

“Being in academia myself, I can say that the reason why there is such a narrow view with alarmist overtones about the future of democracy and secularism in India, is partly because of the number of academics (in American institutions) from India who are not broadening their outlook. So academia here has become a mutual reinforcement society,” Juluri asserted.

Juluri also maintains that American paradigms of ‘right’ and ‘left’ are being pushed onto the Indian context. “Modi, for instance is not ‘right wing’ in any American sense of the word,” Juluri argued.

For many Indian-Americans, especially the second generation, the awareness about the Indian elections is either non-existent or not important.

“One more thing that complicates understanding – India is a parliamentary and not presidential system,” says Jani of the South Asians for America.

“Indian elections are not part of our daily life. It’s thousands of miles away. Not much you can do to change the level of interest,” Jani concludes, when American political participation in its own electoral system is low in the first place.

 

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