The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appears to be able to retain its support in the current round of state elections in India, according to a US State Department official in charge of the region.
“I think we’re going to see in the election returns that come out in March, later this month, that the current ruling coalition retains a lot of authority in India,” Donald Lu, the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, said at a Senate panel hearing in Washington on Wednesday.
“Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi and his party appear to me as an observer from the outside to retain a lot of support within the country,” he said.
The BJP held the government by itself in four of the six Indian states are having their elections, and in one in a coalition, while the Congress was the ruling party in one.
Lu said that for the opposition to be effective, the Congress party will have to find its message and its leadership.
“I think the Congress Party is really trying to find its identity again, I think it’s searching for its appropriate leaders and its message to the Indian public. And I think until the Congress Party is able to do that, it’s gonna be very hard for the opposition to coalesce and to reform,” he said.
Democratic Party Senator Chris Murphy, who chaired the hearing, wondered if Modi’s electoral performance was due to “organic popularity of the ruling party or because of tactics that would not be the norm in the US”.
Murphy heads the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism that held the hearing on US relations with India.
Earlier he had raised reports that Modi used Pegasus spyware made by the Israeli company NSO group, to infiltrate telephones of the opposition, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
Lu said that while serving overseas for almost 30 years, “I have seen some terrible elections in parts of the globe. I’ve never seen that in India”.
“Honestly, I haven’t seen the kind of dirty tricks and the stealing of elections and the use of anti-democratic tools that I have seen in many, many places.”
He said that the Indian election system operates without a challenge to its legitimacy and “I feel confident about as somebody who spent a lot of time in India, is that the electoral system itself is very strong”.
“India’s politics as it was meant to be: It’s a bloodsport. They are ruthless in their politics.”
But, he said, “one of the great things about Indian democracy is despite the fact that it’s winner take all between political parties, the electoral system, the biggest in the world, is able to function so efficiently that without any sense of a challenge of legitimacy of this massive system that operates around the country, including in places like Kashmir, and the north northeast that have had security problems”.
In the US, the results of the last presidential results are being vehemently questioned with Donald Trump, who lost it, claiming it was “stolen”.
A University of Massachusetts Amherst poll showed that 33 per cent of Americans consider the 2020 presidential elections illegitimate.
Asked by Murphy about Kashmir, Lu said: “We do see the Indian government taking some steps to restore normalcy. Prime Minister had outreach to a range of Kashmiri Indian politicians in June. We’ve seen visits by cabinet ministers to Kashmir.
“We saw the rest restoration of 4G connections for cell phones which is the way most people would get their information. In the Kashmir Valley.”
At the same time, he said that Assembly elections have not been held there and some prominent journalists in the Kashmir Valley have been detained.
“We believe all Kashmiris deserve the right to live in dignity, enjoy the protections afforded to them by the Indian constitution (and) we look forward to continuing to encourage India to fulfil those commitments.”
Lu also said that cross-border terrorism originating from Pakistan has gone down over the past two years.
He said that in meetings with Pakistani Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa Pakistan took “credit for closing off that border for militant groups”.
They have “sealed the border in a way we haven’t seen before” and that was partly because of the actions by Financial Action Task Force (FATF) which can impose punitive financial sanctions for supporting terrorism.
(Arul Louis can be reached at email@example.com and followed @arulouis)