Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Biggest Election in World History

Narendra Modi, leading opposition candidate for the prime minister of India

Narendra Modi, leading opposition candidate for the prime minister of India

The largest democratic election to ever take place is currently underway, but there’s a fair chance you have heard little about it. The Indian general elections to determine the next prime minister of the country as well as the composition of the lower house of parliament (called the Lok Sabha) began on April 7th, will continue until the 12th of May, and the winners will be announced on May 16th. In total there are more than 814 million eligible voters, which is over three times the amount of people eligible to vote in the United States’ 2012 presidential elections. Yet despite the scale and significance of these elections, they have attracted little attention outside of India itself.

Opposition candidate for prime minister Narendra Modi of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) may very well topple Rahul Gandhi, the candidate of the ruling Indian National Congress (commonly referred to as the Congress) which has been in power for the majority of India’s democratic history. Regardless of the results, huge changes are expected for the second most populous country in the world because of the swift rise of the BJP and Modi in contrast to the drop in popularity of the ruling coalition and Rahul Gandhi. The next prime minister’s term of five years will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact outside of India, though it has been largely overlooked thus far by Western media with the exception of the possible impact on financial markets.

The BJP is a Hindu-nationalist party and the more conservative of the two competing factions, contrasted with the liberal nationalist Congress which has been the largest and leading party of the ruling coalition since 2009. In fact, the Nehru-Gandhi family to which Rahul Gandhi belongs has dominated India’s political scene since independence in 1947, though popular discontent with the status quo and the lack of the party’s ability to improve their ruling image has eroded some of their support. Rahul Gandhi, referred to as ‘the reluctant prince,’ until recently played a back seat in politics and has been overshadowed by his family’s image and history.

Modi on the other hand, is a dynamic and controversial figure who has been praised for his economic growth as Chief Minister of the Gujarat state, but criticized for his handling of key events and lack of human rights development. During the 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat that led to the deaths of hundreds via communal violence, Modi was lambasted for failing to curb the conflict and subsequently faced a special investigation. Though Modi was not convicted of any willful wrongdoing he was condemned internationally by countries like the US, UK and Pakistan. Despite these issues, Pakistan surprisingly endorsed him in the current election because they consider him a ‘strong leader,’ and Western countries have showed a willingness to work with Modi if he does indeed win.

Rahul Gandhi, Congress candidate for prime minister of India

Rahul Gandhi, Indian National Congress candidate for prime minister

Thus, the elections have been framed as being between a status quo and party line follower in Rahul Gandhi, or the riskier but economically savvy Narendra Modi. Modi on the world stage will almost assuredly be a more divisive figure in comparison to Gandhi or the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Nonetheless, perhaps a greater foray onto the world stage could positively pay off for the country set to be the world’s most populous by 2028.

This election should not be forgotten as soon as the winner is announced. Indian politicians spent approximately $5 billion total on their campaigns, making it the second most expensive election of all time after the 2012 US presidential elections. The volatile relationship between India and Pakistan is a critical issue the next Indian leader in power must grapple with, as is managing the growth of one of the top ten largest economies in the world. India pursues a non-aligned and self-focused agenda, but its worldwide impact will continue to grow regardless of these goals.

There will be a new prime minister for 1.2 billion people on May 16th, though the US and West should not wait until then to start planning future cooperation with India. Preemptively strengthening  ties and adapting to the new leadership early on are much more favorable actions that should be taken in order to avoid being caught flat-footed when issues may arise. India may not be the most active in terms of foreign affairs, but there are huge benefits to greater economic collaboration and human rights development possible in the years ahead.

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The Syrian Civil War is Far From Over

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For more background information on the Syrian Civil War check out this post or read my preceding update on Syria.

At least 150,000 people have been killed as the Syrian Civil War enters its fourth year of fighting. The bloodshed has become so devastating and the fighting so entrenched that the United Nations has ceased formally counting the casualties because of a lack of verifiable information. Since the shock from learning of atrocities has subsided and without a major breakthrough by either side, coverage and interest in the conflict has waned. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the longer the civil war continues, the more the security of the whole region will be threatened, and the tougher it will be for millions of civilians to return to normalcy.

The total number of Syrians who have fled the country is now around three million according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres as 2.6 million have officially registered as a refugee in a foreign country. For comparison, if the same percentage of people were to flee the United States that would amount to nearly 42 million refugees, more than the entire population of California. Even if the civil war were to suddenly cease tomorrow, the effects will be felt for years to come for Syrians in the country and those who have resettled regionally and internationally.

The first and second rounds of the Geneva II Conference concluded quietly in February and failed to accomplish anything meaningful. A third round is potentially in the works but there is heavy pessimism on all sides because little has changed and it seems nobody is willing to truly reconcile on key issues. In terms of chemical weapons, it is still possible for the OPCW (the Nobel Peace Prize winning organization tasked with removing the weapons) to complete their mission before the proposed deadline of mid-2014. While taking chemical weapons out of the equation is a great accomplishment and should be praised, unfortunately this is only a minor element of the war at large and will not by itself have a ripple effect in lowering violence.

Spillover from the conflict is apparent through violent attacks in Iraq and Lebanon, and is causing a constant worry for Syria’s other neighbors of Jordan and Turkey. Whether it be violence directly occurring within Lebanon, or the collapse of local markets in southern Turkey, sprawling animosities and the refugee crisis are impacting the region as a whole. International and regional aid has been fluctuating depending on the circumstances, but obviously the longer the conflict goes on the costlier it will be and the more difficult it will be to properly gain the resources necessary to rebuild.

Fighting and shelling may have subsided in some areas, but it is clear that the underlying tensions are just as pressing as ever. Without any political reconciliation or any kind of formal cease-fire, any drop in direct combat between government forces and the opposition could very well translate to an increase in irregular and indirect fighting. Unfortunately too many Syrians and international fighters on both sides are still making the choice to enter the battlefield and risk their lives instead of suing for peace or seeking alternative solutions. A cessation to the bloodshed cannot be instituted successfully without the acquiescence of fighters on the ground, and the process cannot move as quickly in the right direction without international resources and assistance.

What can be done is to not ignore or brush aside the problems of Syria as ‘business as usual.’ These are real people who may be a half a world away but deserve the world’s attention because the atrocities and the devastation have continued and will continue. A renewed effort at seeking political reconciliation and an emphasis on how little violence has accomplished thus far should be a priority. There are next to no opportunities present for either side to seriously consider putting down their weapons because the incentives to disarm have been too few, and too many grievances have not addressed. Even small, concerted efforts towards a cease-fire could have beneficial impacts in the long term. Syria will not conclude its civil war until the Assad issue has been resolved, and the opposition has presented a real alternative.

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