India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was sworn in on May 26, 2014 in front of a crowd of over 4000 guests, but one guest in particular proved to be most interesting.
Narendra Modi is India’s new Prime Minister. The numbers behind the rise of this son-of-a-tea-seller come Prime Minister of India are staggering. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 282 out of 543 seats in India’s 2014 Lok Sabha (lower house) election, giving the BJP the first majority of a single party in 30 years. Estimates suggest that the BJP received over 170 million votes out of nearly 550 million or over 30% of the vote – an astounding number for a country like India with so many political parties (by comparison, Barack Obama only received roughly 62 million votes in 2012). Thus, on May 26, Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister in a ceremony which, bucking tradition, was full of pomp and circumstance with over 4000 guests. Interestingly, among those 4000 guests was Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Relations between India and Pakistan are in no way a new story. The tensions between the two neighbors stretch back decades and remain one of the largest security threats in Asia and indeed the world. At the outset, the election of Narendra Modi was interpreted as an event that would further strain relations between the two countries. Indeed, Modi’s past as a militant Hindu-nationalist in the controversial Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a fervent Hindu-nationalist movement with anti-Muslim tendencies, led many to believe that Modi’s ideology would lead to unnecessary saber-rattling with Muslim Pakistan.
And then, there were the riots. In 2002, riots broke out in Gujarat (the state Modi was Chief Minister [equivalent to US Governor]) that led to the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians, predominantly Muslims. These riots were caused by ethnic tensions between Muslims and Hindus as a result of the death of Hindu pilgrims, allegedly at the hands of of Islamic terrorists. Regardless of the circumstances, Modi was harshly criticized for not taking firm steps to quell the violence – further contributing to the speculation of a prevailing anti-Muslim agenda for Modi and the BJP. During the campaign, the BJP did little to assuage these fears and speculations when they announced that they would reconsider India’s ‘no first use’ nuclear policy – long held as a symbol of non-aggression between India and Pakistan.
Sharif’s presence at the inauguration ceremony is a sign that many of these concerns were indeed unfounded. In addition to the unprecedented meeting between the two heads of state, Pakistan also released 150 Indian fishermen detained in Pakistan prior to the Sharif-Modi meeting. Sharif lauded the meetings as a historic opportunity to reset relations between the two countries. Perhaps the election of Narendra Modi will prove to be the vital event necessary to normalizing interactions between the South-Asian neighbors. In any event, the first days of the Modi Primeministership have certainly proven to be much more favorable than anyone could have anticipated.
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