In the 20th century, it was often argued that there were three main limitations to the development of bilateral ties between India and the United States of America (US). These were India’s focus on nonalignment, its closed economy, and growing nuclear program. From the US’s end, there was a lack of a need to foster a relationship with India. The US-India partnership began growing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
With the world moving from bipolar to unipolar, after the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union, India needed to start focusing more on the West, especially considering the 1991 LPG Reforms. Much of this period was spent repairing and resolving the differences between the two countries — especially in context to India possessing nuclear weaponry, the United State’s relationship with India’s neighbour, Pakistan, and more common issues like China and Terrorism.
Despite US interests growing in India, post the ‘91 reforms, India’s nuclear program was still a major issue of contention. In 1998, when India conducted nuclear trials under the Vajpayee administration, the Bill Clinton administration imposed sanctions on India. These were later reversed by the Bush administration between 2001-2009, the Bush administration went ahead to create a nuclear cooperation agreement with India — the 123 agreement signed with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — lobbying the US Congress, International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group to allow trade in India.
The benefits of this new phase in the relationship were seen across the board, with Indian exports to the US increasing by 260% and US exports to India increasing by 470%, between 2001 and 2008 (Figure 1). India also began to allow greater Foreign Direct Investment during this period.
With the US grappling with a post 9/11 world, terrorism also became a common issue between both nations, with the United States passing the PATRIOT Act, and India passing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, within a short period of one another in 2001. India also assured full support for the United States post the attack, including offering military security.
In November of the same year, cooperation initiatives were announced between both states primarily on counter-terrorism and cyber terrorism. Dialogues were established for the transfer of technology for dual-use (for both civilian and military purposes). Both nations’ focus on security was evident in the number of Defense and Arms deals that took place, with India purchasing radar systems, aircraft self-protection systems, Sea-King helicopters, an amphibious transport dock (that has since been used in India for several rescue missions, besides its more conventional uses), and the Hercules military transport aircraft, among others. If anything, this was a sign of the United States’ growing trust and respect for India, with India’s geopolitical position, being neighbours with Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, giving it importance.
At the same time, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government held its ground on several issues. This included refusing to pledge Indian troops and weapons to fight alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the United Progressive Alliance replacing the National Democratic Alliance there were concerns regarding the impact on the IndoUS relationship. However, it can be argued that the most significant period of overhaul took place during the UPA-Manmohan Singh era, both in terms of the relationship with the US and India’s position in the world.
U.S. Trade in India: Balance of Trade
In 2005, President Bush and Prime Minister Singh announced the ‘India-US Joint Statement’, that improved and reformed India-US relations on economic, energy, environmental, developmental, non-proliferation, security, technology and space fronts. This Joint Statement led to the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement -the 123 Agreement. The agreement made India the only country with a known nuclear program to conduct nuclear trade and commerce with other countries for civilian purposes.
With President Bush recognising India as a ‘responsible nuclear state’, the effort the United States made to ensure acceptance of the Agreement by various parties showed their focus on retaining India as an ally, especially to keep India and Iran distant. In this period, the United States continued the Clinton administration’s policy to engage with India and Pakistan independently.
But, the 26/11 terror attack in India and several other terrorist attacks that were caused by Pakistani nationals, led to India demanding that the United States act on and denounce Pakistani actions. Apart from the Nuclear Program, there was also the Energy Security Dialogue in 2005, the New Framework for the US-India defence Relationship, and the sale of Heavy Transport aircrafts, heavylift helicopters and anti-tank combat helicopters. India has been an important market for the United States when it comes to the sale of arms and military equipment.
Major developments in US-India defence trade
In 2009, the Obama administration came into power in the United States. With Obama clearing the export of more military equipment, the United States became one of India’s top three military suppliers. In the same year, India and the US also launched the US-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) on November 24, 2009, enhancing cooperation on Energy Efficiency, Clean Energy and Climate Change. Within the Obama administration, there was consensus about the importance of India.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, Mike Mullen, stated that “India has emerged as an increasingly important strategic partner” and the US Undersecretary of State Joseph Burns stated “Never has there been a moment where India and America mattered more to each other”.
In the year 2010, four working groups were organised in the areas of Non-Communicable Diseases, Infectious Diseases, Strengthening Health Systems and Services, and Maternal and Child Care.
President Obama also visited India and addressed a joint session of the Indian Parliament, during which he backed India’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Total US arms FMS clearances
However,the leaking of CIA documents by Edward Snowden that revealed that US intelligence agencies had been authorized to spy on the then Gujarat Chief Minister and current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, showed that there were ups and downs in the India-US relationship. This was not the only incident. In 2013, India demanded that the United States respond to revelations that the Indian Embassy in Washington had been targeted for spying. Similarly, in 2014, U.S. diplomats were summoned by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to address the allegations that the US National Security Agency was spying on Indian individuals and political entities.
However, these controversies mark small ripples in otherwise smooth sailings for India and the United States. The two nations continued to collaborate and deepen their partnership in the education, energy, and defence sectors. The first commercial deal was signed during Prime Minister Singh’s visit to the US to meet President Obama in September 2013. By 2017, the US exported USD25.7 billion worth of goods to India and imported USD48.6 billion worth of Indian goods which included IT services, precious stones, and textiles, among others. Apart from this, the -IndiaUS foreign direct investment (FDI) is small, but it grew during the Obama Era. This was in part due to the FDI reforms that allowed India to improve its business environment, which included raising foreign equity caps for insurance and defence. The US had concerns about existing investment barriers, only heightened by new limitations on how platforms like Amazon could conduct business. For the US, adding to the FDI barriers issues, was India’s weak regulatory transparency along with India’s localization policies. While two-way US-India FDI led to both increased employment in the US and exports in various sectors, US FDI still raised concerns of offshoring.
US-India- Foreign Direct Investment
As India welcomed a new government, with the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, the tide turned. In 2015, Prime Minister Modi said US investment in India had doubled and promised to reduce bureaucratic red tape and improve the ease of doing business in the country.
When US President Barack Obama visited for India’s Republic Day in 2015, he pledged USD4 billion in investments and loans to further establish the strategic partnership between the two countries. USD1 billion was pledged to finance exports of ‘Made in America’ products to India. The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation lent USD1 billion to small- and medium-sized enterprises in rural India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the additional USD2 billion towards realising the potential of renewable energy.
President Obama and PM Modi have previously deliberated on issues of energy and climate change. After a meeting between Modi and Obama on the sidelines of the UN general assembly meeting in 2015, India announced its own goal for investments in the sector of carbon emission reduction. Modi was one of Obama’s leading partners at the Paris Agreement meet in December 2015.
In January 2017, Peter Lavoy, the Senior Director for South Asian Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council declared that the partnership between India and the United States under Barack Obama’s administration had been “incredibly successful”.
“I can tell you quite definitively that due to our partnerships, several terrorism plots were foiled. Indian lives and American lives were saved because of this partnership”, he added.
Under Modi’s governance, foreign policy acquired the traits of greater risk-taking and willingness to ‘agree to disagree’ with partners, which went on to serve the IndiaUS relationship well as President Donald Trump was elected in 2017. PM Modi first visited the US in 2017 to meet with Trump, and then again in 2019 when they reaffirmed Indian-American ties, with an emphasis on increased military cooperation with the initiation of the Tiger Triumph exercises. President Trump’s consequent visit to India in 2020 was an important reaffirmation of the India-US strategic partnership.
Increased closed ties between India and the US can be attributed to trade and foreign investment, convergence on issues of global security, the US’ backing of India in the United Nations Security Council.
Better representation on investment and trade platforms such as the World Bank, India’s inclusion in multilateral export control groups, and the use of technology-sharing arrangements to invest in joint manufacturing were also beneficial areas where the US and India showed each other support.
With India’s concerns over China’s growing presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean increasing, and the US seeking to counter China’s growing global influence, India and the US have reached a level of strategic convergence on the need to counter China’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. A groundbreaking decision made under the Trump administration was to make India a major defence partner. This was also followed by the decision to sell to India topgrade military advanced predator drones.
While China issues have been a point of convergence for the two nations, India’s historic decision to procure four S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile defence systems from Russia proved to be contentious as it ignores Trump’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA. Thus, the United States threatened India with sanctions over India’s decision to buy the S-400 missile defence system from Russia.
Despite attempts at diplomatic workarounds, India could be subject to US sanctions for this decision.
Despite differences in the trade relationship, progress has been made towards the completion of ‘phase one’ of an India-US trade agreement. The US is India’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in goods and services totalling USD142 billion in 2018.
On 3 August, 2018, India was granted the status of Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) by the US. This was an historic move, which allowed the export of high-end technology products from the US to India for both civil and defense purposes.
The supply of US nuclear reactors to India has been a topic of debate between the two countries for over a decade. One main roadblock has been India’s noncompliance of liability laws with international standards, which require that accident costs be borne by the operator, and not the maker of a nuclear power station.
In March 2019, after years of contention around the issue, the two countries signed an agreement to strengthen security and civil nuclear cooperation, which included building six US nuclear power plants in India.
2019 and 2020 have been important years for both nations. With elections taking place, the risk of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the subsequent economic slowdown, there has been no better time for relations between the two nations to foster and improve.
The United States sees a unique partner in India for the South Asia region.
For India, as it witnesses border skirmishes in the area it shares with both China and Pakistan, having the support of the United States is important as the world and the global economy enter the most challenging part of the 21st century yet.
Shiv Sehgal is the Director of Polstrat, a political consultancy
Inputs by Shreya Maskara, Sitara Srinivas, Devashree Somani
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DECODING UP ASSEMBLY POLLS AND THE CURRENT GROUND SITUATION IN STATE
Lately news coverage has been dominated by the upcoming Assembly polls in West Bengal. Along with this, we have seen coverage about national parties (and other parties) and the preparations they are making to gear up for elections in another part of the country: Uttar Pradesh. The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections are set to be held in early 2022. One may ask why UP elections are already being widely talked about in the news already, especially since several state Assembly elections, including Kerala and Assam, are due in 2021 — quite a while before the UP elections. The answer lies in the fact that all parties across the country always keep an eye on UP because of its importance — both in terms of size as well as strategically.
Out of the 543 parliamentary seats in India, UP has 80 seats. It also has the largest legislative assembly in the country with 403 seats. The state has always been a stabilising factor in national politics and is bound to be a major target for all parties in the run-up to the 2024 general elections. Even in the Lok Sabha elections, any party that wishes to win with a majority needs to completely sweep the state. With almost a year to go for the UP Assembly elections, not only have we seen national parties, including the BJP and Indian National Congress (INC) talk about their strategies in the state, but also state parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) announce their alliance arithmetic. In addition to this, parties with national ambitions, such as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and other new parties such as the Rashtriya Justice Party, have also announced their intention to compete.
The SP, which last dominated the state in 2012with 224 seats and a vote share of 29%, announced in November 2020 that it will not be forming an alliance with any other party for the 2022 elections. During the 2017 elections, SP entered the game in an alliance with the INC, however, the combine only managed to secure 54 seats, while the BJP swept the state winning 312 seats. Since 2012, when the SP managed to secure 29% of the votes, its vote share has been dipping constantly. In fact, in 2019, during the Lok Sabha elections, SP entered into an alliance with the BSP, and only managed to secure 18% of the votes. Party National President and former Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav has announced that the party is willing to form an understanding with smaller parties such as the Pragatisheel Party, however, an alliance with any big party is off the table. The party has already announced it’s Mission 2022 and set up a camp office in Akhilesh Yadav’s constituency of Azamgarh. In the 2020 by-polls SP was the only party apart from the BJP (which won 6 seats) that managed to secure one seat.
Similarly, the BSP, which dominated UP in 2007, managing to secure 206 seats, has announced that it will not be forging an alliance with any other political party. On the occasion of her birthday, BSP supremo and former Chief Minister, Mayawati announced the same, amidst speculations by many political analysts that the party would ally with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). As per many, BSP had managed to win 10 seats during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, primarily due to its alliance with SP. However, since breaking away from the alliance the party has not managed to secure even a single seat in 2019 and 2020 by-polls.
PRIYANKA GANDHI: LEADING THE CONGRESS’ CHARGE
In 2019, Priyanka Gandhi was appointed as the All India Congress Committee (AICC)’s Secretary for Eastern UP. With immense numbers in the Brahmin community in the region. Political commentators saw this as a move towards appeasing them. She was in charge of 41 Lok Sabha Constituencies and had campaigned across 26 of them. However, this did not translate into electoral success as the INC ended up losing even at Amethi- a constituency that has remained INC’s stronghold since the 1980s. As a revamping measure, she held a series of meetings with party workers to strengthen the party’s presence on the ground. Priyanka Gandhi was recently made the AICC in-charge for the entire state but once again fell short of making an impact in the 2020 by-elections held for the 7 Assembly Constituencies where the BJP ended up winning 6.
AAP’s foray into UP’s electoral politics has put INC at a spot of bother as well, as it is alleged that almost 80 office bearers from Central UP have joined the AAP. Though AAP might not be INC’s strongest competitor, it is bound to play spoilsport for the INC in the upcoming elections. The INC is also marred by the faction related disagreement between the older INC members and Priyanka Gandhi’s loyalists. Several INC members of the old guard such as Santosh Singh, Ram Krishna Dwivedi, Satyadev Tripathi, Rajendra Singh Solanki, Siraj Mehndi, Vinod Chaudhary were removed from important posts and were replaced for frequently publicly opposing the decisions of the AICC’s UP unit. As for the 2022 Assembly Elections, INC under the leadership of Priyanka Gandhi and the prevailing woes is set to face tough and testing times.
AAP: TESTING THE WATERS IN THE STATE
AAP is currently leading its second term in the National Capital and is also the main opposition party in the Punjab assembly. However, apart from this, the party has major national aspirations and has already announced its intention to fight the Assembly polls in Uttarakhand, Goa and Punjab as well as Uttar Pradesh in 2022. AAP’s decision to enter UP’s electoral arena has been followed up by its efforts to strengthen the party’s presence here. Rajya Sabha MP and AAP’s UP incharge Sanjay Singh has spent a lot of time in UP trying to woo the INC rebels and has on a few occasions openly criticised the Yogi Adityanath led government.
The party last contested in UP in the 2014 General Elections, on 76 out of the 80 seats in the state. However, the results were disastrous for the party, as it could only garner 1% of the vote share and lost its security deposit on 75 of the seats. In fact, Arvind Kejriwal himself decided to contest the Lok Sabha polls from the high profile seat of Varanasi and lost his deposit against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many political analysts say the party lacks the organizational structure and cadre base in the state to make an impact in the state where caste arithmetic and huge state parties such as BSP and SP have dominated the political sphere for years. The party will also be contesting the panchayat polls in the state, due to be held in March this year.
THE ‘BHAGIDARI SANKALP MORCHA’ AND AIMIM
Nine small parties, including the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), AIMIM, Bhim Army amongst others, have joined forces to form the Bhagidari Sankalp Morcha’ to contest the Uttar Pradesh 2022 elections. In fact, SBSP’s national spokesperson said the party met with SP chief Akhilesh Yadav to discuss the possibility of forming an alliance, however, they did not receive a positive response about the same. Subsequently, the party decided to form an alliance with smaller parties and bring them all under one roof. Apart from the SBSP, the alliance also includes former UP Minister Babu Singh Kushwaha’s Jan Adhikar Party, Babu Ram Pal’s Rashtriya Uday Party, Anil Singh Chauhan’s Janata Kranti Party and Premchand Prajapati’s Rashtriya Upekshit Samaj Party.
Encouraged by its performance in the Bihar Assembly Elections last year, the AIMIM announced the launch of its campaign in UP, as part of the SBSP alliance. The party has launched a campaign to strengthen its support base and organization in the state, and President Asaduddin Owaisi also made a one-day visit to Purvanchal with SBSP chief Om Prakash Rajbhar last week. The party will be fielding candidates on 25% of the seats in UP, particularly those in Muslim dominated areas.
However, the contest for UP simply doesn’t end with these parties. In December, the Shiv Sena announced that it will be contesting the rural body polls in UP, and a group of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the NRC protesters also announced the formation of a political party to contest the Assembly polls. The proposed political party will be called the Rashtriya Justice Party and is being led by former BSP MP and AAP member Iliyas Azmi. UP has been the most important state in national politics and while national and state parties are diverting major resources and manpower to the state, other smaller parties such as Apna Dal, Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, Quami Ekta Dal which also dominate smaller pockets of influence across the state will be important to watch leading up to the elections.
INDIAN POLITICS’ PANDORA’S BOX: UTTAR PRADESH ELECTIONS IN 2022
While in the throes of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in September last year, political parties in India shifted their focus to the Assembly bypolls being conducted in Uttar Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) successfully won six out the seven Assembly seats in the bypolls. This included Bulandshahr, Bangarmau, Ghatampur, Deoria, Tundla and the closely contested Naugawan Sadat seat. “In the byelection, the BJP has repeated its performance of the 2017 state Assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This points out that the BJP will perform well in the upcoming elections also,” said Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. While the UP Assembly polls are still almost one year away, national, state, and new parties have started gearing up to prepare for the contest. UP is the largest state in the country, commanding 80 out of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, and 403 seats in the legislature, making it a critical state for all parties vying for wins in the 2024 general elections.
HOW DID BJP BECOME A FORCE TO RECKON WITH IN WEST BENGAL?
With the West Bengal Assembly elections dates due to be announced any day now, the political battleground in the state has heated up. Although the election will be a three-way contest between the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left Front (in alliance with the Indian National Congress), undoubtedly all eyes are going to be on the tough fight between the BJP and the TMC.
The BJP has been pursuing an aggressive campaign in West Bengal, roping in national leaders, along with effective on-ground campaign machinery in a bid for power in the state for the first time in history. Till 2014, BJP had always been a distant marginal player in West Bengal politics. It had, in fact, contested the Lok Sabha polls as a junior ally of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 1998, 1999 and 2004. In 2001 and 2006, TMC chief Mamata Banerjee chose the Congress over the BJP as the party’s ally for Assembly polls. Even during the watershed moment of the 2011 Assembly polls, which marked the end of the 34 years of Left rule, the BJP ploughed a lonely furrow, securing only 4.1% of the vote share.
However, since then, the picture of BJP’s role in Bengal’s electoral politics has changed drastically. Since 2014 during the Lok Sabha polls, when the BJP managed to secure 10.3% of the vote share, it has been constantly growing its support in the state. In fact, during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party secured a whopping 40.6% of the votes, just 3.1% less than that of state leader, TMC, and secured 18 out of the 42 seats. So what is the reason for BJP’s unprecedented growth in the state in the past 6 years? How has the BJP turned West Bengal, a state where they had minimal support, into a two-faced battle in eight years? Let’s find out.
HOW BJP DOUBLED ITS VOTE SHARE IN 2019
The BJP managed to secure 40.2% of the votes, more than doubling their vote share from 2014 (17%). The party managed to secure a victory in many constituencies in the Northern and Junglemahal belt. Their losses were confined to places such as Kolkata and Central Bengal, which have a significantly higher Muslim population. In fact, the BJP managed to break into the Junglemahal region-stronghold of the then TMC strongman Suvendu Adhikari (now in the BJP). BJP’s victory in 2019 was very similar to that of TMC in 2009, when TMC (a rising party then) managed to secure 19 votes, while the ruling CPI(M) managed just 9. Some political analysts also attribute the victory of the BJP to the rising religious polarisation in the state, which lead to a consolidation of non-Muslim votes behind the BJP.
TMC’S BIG TICKET DEFECTIONS: ADVANTAGE BJP
In December 2019, 10 former TMC, Left and Congress MLAs were welcomed into the BJP by Home Minister Amit Shah. Undoubtedly, the most important defection was that of former TMC heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari, who spearheaded the 2007 Nandigram movement, which triggered the cycle of events which led to Mamata Banerjee’s victory in 2011. He is a key leader in the Jangalmahal region with support bases in – home Purba Medinipur, Bankuria, Purulia and Paschim Medinipur. In fact, defection was not limited to the heavyweights of the TMC such as Jitendra Tiwari and Shilbhadra Dutta, several other district level leaders, including elected officials from Panchayat and Municipal bodies have also joined the BJP in the past few months.
The series of defections have been indicative of the erosion of senior leadership in the party and an overall dissatisfaction with the internal party structure. As per media reports, many senior leaders from the party have expressed their resentment towards the political strategy firm led by Prashant Kishor, which has been hired by Mamata Banerjee to run the 2021 campaign. Several political analysts also believe that the series of resignations from the TMC has been a direct result of the reorganization in the party stricture, which has reduced the influence of senior party leaders. This reorganization in the party structure has been undertaken as a result of on ground surveys carried out by Prashant Kishor’s team to decipher the grassroots-level image of various TMC leaders across districts. The infighting in the TMC has proven to be beneficial to the BJP, who have not only gained important political leaders, but their supporter base as well.
LEAVING NO STONE UNTURNED TO WOO VOTERS
Under the leadership of BJP State President, Dilip Ghosh, the party has been leading an aggressive campaign across districts in the state. The BJP’s campaign has been focusing on the misrule of the TMC, law and order and corruption issues as well as the state government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. In November 2020, the party began an extensive internal tour of West Bengal to collect feedback on the working of the party’s state unit, and has extensively been collaborating with district and block level representatives to ensure smooth functioning of their cadre.
During a rally in the state last month, Home Minister Amit Shah requested West Bengal voters to join forces with the BJP’s “Aar noi anyay” (no more injustice) campaign and support Prime Minister Narendra Modi in BJP’s commitment to give a good administration to the people of West Bengal. Additionally, just last week, the BJP has also launched ‘Krishak Suraksha Abhiyan’ and ‘Ek Mutthi Chawal’ campaigns in West Bengal’s Bardhaman, also known as the state’s rice bowl, in an attempt to woo farmers in the state. The schedule of national leaders, including Amit Shah and party President JP Nadda is filled with events in the poll bound state in the upcoming months. While it would appear that the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to woo voters in West Bengal, it is yet to be seen whether its tactics will transform into votes for the party.
Contributing Reports by Damini Mehta,New Delhi
MISSION KOLKATA: DECIPHERING BJP’S WEST BENGAL PLAYBOOK
Union Minister Prahlad Singh Patel of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed last week that the voters of West Bengal were angry and dissatisfied with the Mamata Banerjee government and the saffron party is likely to win 200 out of the 294 seats in the upcoming Assembly elections.
“Bengal is a victim of the state government’s negligence,” he added in a statement. As the political battleground of West Bengal heats up, all parties are campaigning actively and aggressively, with voter registration drives and rallies across the state.
Until 2011, the BJP was merely a fringe party in the state, managing to secure merely 4.1% of the vote share. However, just 8 years later, during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party managed to secure roughly 40% of the votes, as well as 18 out of the 42 seats.
Several political analysts and commentators attribute the BJP’s victory to the Modi wave, the rise in religious polarisation in the state and several other factors.
However, the exponential rise of the party in the state, including the growth in its internal party machinery in the state, are also equally important factors.
TAMIL NADU’S TRYST WITH CINEMA AND POLITICS
In Tamil Nadu, movies and politics have had a very close association in the past, as two of the state’s former Chief Ministers Dr. M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) were both actors. Another late Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, started his career writing films and dialogues for movies. During his time, M.G. Ramachandran (popularly called M.G.R.) enjoyed popularity and stardom in Tamil Nadu that was both unheard of and unseen before. Even in his films, he played only holier than thou roles of a fisherman, peasant or rickshaw puller, all of which contributed to building his image as the ithaya deivam (lord of the hearts) of the Tamil masses. He always played the role of a savior in his movies, and avoided any image of elitism, which resulted in his immortalization on screen and in the hearts of people as a demigod.
Despite his raging popularity which exists even today, during this 10 year tenure, there was an over dependence on state subsidies and half the state remained below the poverty line. In fact, similar observations can be noted about the tenure of his successor, Jayalalithaa. However, Jayalalithaa’s schemes such as thallikku thangan (gold for mangalsutra), Amma canteen and cradle baby scheme have paved the way for women’s and children’s development across the country.
The most recent and prominent actor-turned politician is Vijayakant. He was made the leader of Opposition in 2011 after guiding his Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) to 29 seats and 8% of the vote share, when even the DMK was at a distant third. He however lost his plot after having a fallout with the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and was later mocked and ridiculed by the media . He was known to be a clean politician with the potential to become the next Chief Minister, but it would seem that things were not meant to be.
No other state in India has the unique relationship Tamil Nadu politics has with actors. Electoral politics in Tamil Nadu have in many instances played the role of skyrocketing an actor into a political superhero. However, at present, even a superstar of Rajinikanth’s stature needs to think twice before making a formal entry into politics. Perhaps, this goes to show the changing dynamics of the state, whereby, being a popular actor alone does not qualify one to sit in the Chief Minister’s chair. The rise to power of current Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who comes from a farmers background, can also be viewed as a sign of the changing mindset of Tamil Nadu voters.
IS THE CINEMA-POLITICS CONNECT STILL STRONG IN TAMIL NADU?
As 2020 drew to a close, so did the political ambitions of superstar actor Rajinikanth. However, what is interesting is that this journey ended without having ever started, as Rajinikanth never officially entered the arena of Tamil Nadu politics. After a wait of nearly three decades, on December 3rd 2020, Rajinikanth announced that he would officially launch his party at the end of the month, and would contest the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections in 2021 from 234 seats. However, things took an unexpected turn prior to the announcement, as on December 29th, citing ill-health and the COVID-19 pandemic Rajinikanth announced that he will no longer be launching his party.
In a three page statement that he posted on Twitter, Rajinikanth detailed several reasons for his decision. The actor has suffered from fluctuations in his blood pressure, following which he was hospitalised in Hyderabad on Dec 25. The doctors issued an advisory stating that he should avoid any activity that increases the risk of contracting COVID-19, including participating in film shoots. “Nobody can understand my pain in making this decision,” the actor stated.
Media, fans, and political analysts alike had been awaiting a response from Rajinikanth about the launch of his political career for almost three decades. In fact, he became notoriously known in the media for his famous one-liner “only time will tell” as a standard response to all questions about the launch of his political career and party. While fans were hoping 2021 would mark the start of his political journey, it has in fact marked its end. The question that arises now is, why did one of the most popular actors in Indian cinema, decide to join politics? And more importantly, why did he constantly delay this decision for over 25 years? Let’s take a deeper look at the political leanings of Rajinikanth since 1996, reasons for this constant delay and Tamil Nadu’s connection with politics and cinema over the decades.
RAJINIKANTH’S ‘POLITICAL ACCIDENT’
The start of Rajinikanth’s political leanings can be traced back to 1996. Perhaps this is a fact not very well known to most people, but the former Prime Minister of India, Narasimha Rao offered to make Rajinikanth the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu if he contested as a Congress candidate in the 1996 Assembly elections. However, declining the offer, Rajinikanth ended up instead offering his support to G.K.Moopanar, the founder of Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) who were set to ally with the DMK.
Rajinikanth campaigned against the AIADMK- Indian National Congress (INC) alliance especially targeting the then incumbent Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa by stating that if she were to become the CM again, only god would be able to save Tamil Nadu. His speech against her ended up humbling the AIADMK-INC combine, as they could muster up just four seats. In fact, Jayalalithaa herself could not retain her seat and lost from Bargur.
However, Rajinikanth’s support for the DMK and TMC was short-lived. During the 1998 general elections, the party sought the actor’s support, managing to win only 9 seats out of 39. Years later speaking at a press conference, the actor said that his support for the DMK was a political “accident”. “About 21 years ago, I was involved in a political accident. It was during the time that I announced my support to a political party. It was the support of my fans and the people of Tamil Nadu who ensured victory for that party. I realise it was a mistake,” the actor said.
In 2004, yet again, Rajinikanth’s political allegiance changed yet again, as he announced his support for the AIADMK and BJP alliance for the General Elections. The actor did not apologize about his earlier comment on Jayalalithaa and her governance and instead said he was supporting the AIADMK-BJP alliance due to their resolve to find a solution to the state’s growing water crisis. However, this time his support did not yield any benefit for the alliance, and they failed to secure even a single seat in the Lok Sabha.
TAMIL NADU ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS: 1991 VS 199619911996SEAT SHARESEAT SHARE
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN RAJINIKANTH’S POLITICAL TRAJECTORY? POPULARITY VS POPULAR VOTE
A fan wears a shirt printed with actor Rajinikanth’s photo. ANI
Rajinikanth’s touch with politics in 2021, however, should be seen as a completely different affair. He has been open to the idea of a formal political entry since 2017. The actor mentioned that his party would embark on a path of “spiritual politics’’ which would be “honest and corruption free.” He created the Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM) in 2017 as a platform to facilitate his entry into active politics. He has been a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, and his natural inclination since 2017 has been towards the BJP. In fact, Rajinikanth was one of the first to congratulate the BJP leaders after the announcement of the scrapping of Article 370 in 2019.
However, with all that said, Rajinikanth’s political endeavours would be dependent on his own identity and the members of his fan club (RMM) rather than the BJP itself. The BJP, which was looking into gaining a foothold in Tamil Nadu, would use Rajinikanth’s popularity to propel their image into the state. Undoubtedly, the actor’s entry would have broken the pro-caste and cash for votes system common in Tamil Nadu electoral politics. He would have been driven by his identity as a larger than life superstar actor creating ripples in ways similar to former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK supremo Dr. M.G.Ramachandran.
All said and done, what could have been the ramifications of Rajinikanth entering the 2021 Assembly Elections? Firstly, if Rajinikanth had chosen to contest alone, he would have not only eroded DMK’s vote bank but also played spoilsport for both the AIADMK and BJP. The main regional players- the DMK and AIADMK have a constant vote share of about 18-20% which would’ve been dented had Rajinikanth made a formal entry. The two other regional parties – Seeman’s Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK) and Kamal Hassan’s MNM would also have faced a similar situation. Although Seeman was set to rely largely on the anti-Rajinikanth vote bank, Kamal Hassan expressed more than once his willingness to join hands with Rajinikanth.
Secondly, fixing and sustaining an alliance with Rajnikanth could have become a major stress factor for the AIADMK-BJP combine. The AIADMK which has been marred by twin-leadership issues courtesy of Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and Deputy CM O.Panneerselvam had just resolved the issue with Edappadi Palaniswami being chosen as their CM candidate. If the BJP were to add Rajinikanth to the alliance , AIADMK’s leadership would’ve seen that as a direct threat to their grip on power. BJP on the other hand lacks an independent and a powerful CM face and thus their only option would have been to go with Rajinikanth.
Thirdly, Tamil Nadu’s electoral politics and other dynamics in the state have changed significantly in the past few years. While Rajinikanth’s cross-cutting popularity is still paramount in 2021, the changes in vote bank politics and social media over the years would have gravely affected his ability to consolidate a major vote share. Political campaigning in Tamil Nadu in the recent past has been rife with using political consultancies and IT Wings to run smear campaigns against any opposition. In fact, Rajnikanth has faced the brunt of such smear campaigns in the past, and it would gravely affect his ability to consolidate his vote bank.
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