The Arab print media appears to have been following the Indian general election very closely. Most prominent Arab newspapers, particularly those from the Gulf countries, have been reporting on the major political developments and election news from India.
BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the frontrunner in the electoral race, has raised fear and scepticism among Arab commentators and observers over his style of governance. In the backdrop of the Gujarat riots in 2002, the Arab media looks him with great suspicion and largely considers him responsible for the riots. However, many commentators have observed a change in Narendra Modi’s politics for his bigger role as prime minister, similar to how Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when he was prime minister, surprised many by travelling to Pakistan.
A column in the UAE-based Al Khaleej (25 April), titled “Why Arabs will lose in Indian elections” by Ragheed Al Sulh, says Indo-Arab relations will enter their most difficult phase if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) comes to power in New Delhi. At a time when most international bodies and governments are avoiding any direct interaction with the Gujarat chief minister because of his alleged complicity in the anti-Muslim riots of 2002, Israel has stepped up its efforts to improve its relations with Modi by investing billions in his state. Modi has not shown any signs of reviewing his politics towards Muslims and the Arab countries. The columnist reminds readers how relations between India and the Arab countries were during the times of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, when India stood with independent Palestine and the independence of other Arab countries. But, gradually, Indo-Arab ties weakened with the emergence of the BJP on to the Indian political spectrum.
Bahraini columnist Abdalla Al Madni says in the newspaper Al Ayyam (20 April) that despite the fact that the BJP belongs to the Hindutva ideology, India’s secular constitution does not allow the BJP to change India’s unique social fabric. In another article, “So that Gulf-Arab Relations do not Deteriorate”, in the UAE-based Al Ittihad (30 March), he writes, “In the last few years, Gulf countries’ Look East policy has done well and the Pakistan angle in Gulf-India relations has become a less effective factor. After many projections that Narendra Modi is going to become next prime minister, there is nothing to worry about for Gulf countries’ policy makers. There is no reason to see him as a threat for Indian Muslims. Let Indian Muslims decide their own course of strategy in dealing with Narendara Modi. The fact is that Indian Muslims are living in a deeply rooted democratic country in which they are entitled to many rights which many of their brothers are not entitled in other countries. We shouldn’t interfere in their internal affairs. There is good reason to believe that Narendra Modi will not rule in the central government the way he has been ruling in his state Gujarat, following the footsteps of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, another Hindu nationalist prime minister during 1998-2004.’
The Saudi-based Al Riyadh published a column (15 April) “Will Indo-Saudi relations see another setback?”, in which Ayman Al Hamad concludes that “in case of Modi’s ascendance to power, Indo-Saudi relations may face two scenarios; one, return to the era of the 90s, when Indo-Iran relations improved at the cost of Indo-Saudi relations, second, Narendra Modi sticks to his development agenda which may boost current Indo-Saudi relations to a new height.” In fact, Al Hamad argues, “The last BJP government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee had demonstrated enough pragmatism, who did not hesitate from appointing APJ Abdul Kalam, a Muslim, for India’s presidency. Given the fact that India is in bad need to continue its economic growth and Narendra Modi has an image of a successful economic management in his state”.
The Saudi-based Al Iqtisadiya (30 April) published a translated version of Financial Times’ article “India needs a jolt – and Modi is a risk worth taking”, which deals with the risk and opportunity aspects of Narendra Modi. The hopeful scenario is that “Mr Modi’s focus will be on reviving the Indian economy – so he has every incentive to try to avoid international political crises” and “his focus on economic reform rather than communal grievances”. Also, “during the current election campaign the BJP leader has included direct appeals to Muslim voters in his rhetoric”.
But on risk side, the article takes Modi’s background of Hindu nationalism which “creates dangers beyond India’s borders. A government led by Mr Modi, who has a record of calling for retaliation against Pakistani-backed terror, would be likely to take a tougher and more dangerous stance in any future crisis. Given India’s delicate religious balance, its history of communal violence and its dangerous relationship with Pakistan, there is no doubt that electing Mr Modi as prime minister would be a risk”.
Mohammad Al Sammak in his column in the Lebanon-based Al Mustaqbal (28 April) connects Modi’s election to the top post with increasing danger of a third world war. In his column “Towards Third World War Scenario”, he briefly comments, “India also has nuclear bombs and long distance missiles. A change of government in New Delhi under leadership of Narendra Modi, who is also accused of anti-Muslim riots in 2002, there is a big question of how he will maintain his relations with his nuclear neighbour Pakistan, and they have long pending issue of Kashmir between them, similar to a conflict that was between Germany and France during second world war”.
The major concerns of the Gulf media are about the future of the Indo-Gulf relationship, which has seen significant upward swing during the UPA regime.
However, Modi apart, the Arab media is also curious about the largest democratic exercise in the world, which has made India a real soft power amongst many emerging democracies and countries where political reforms are taking place. Reports from international agencies about the election process in remote Indian villages and cities, exclusive stories and the participation of Muslims, women and poor people have been widely covered by Arab media in this election.
The Palestine-based newspaper Al Quds published an article about three prominent Indian women leaders Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee, “who will emerge the most important leaders in deciding the future government”.
India’s election story has more serious international audiences than ever, and the increased Arab media attention reflects international expectations from the Indian leadership and its electorates.
Omair Anas is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He works at Transnational Arab Media Culture.