Modi and the opposition have many lessons to learn from the Malaysian general elections in  2013

The title of this article is probably going to be as controversial as the man himself. What makes me pit Narendra Modi against Malaysia, the answer will become evident soon.

When we think of Malaysia, what comes to our mind is probably the cheapest possible international package tour. On my trips to Kuala Lumpur the flight is full of travelers on their first international flight, proudly advertising the tour company they have chosen. Hardly does anyone in India know about the state of politics and governance in Malaysia. Our media too seems to be oblivious and hardly interested in covering Malaysian politics or the elections. We have therefore missed out on the analysis and lessons learnt from Malaysian general elections in 2013, which in my opinion will be the closest in resemblance to events we are likely to witness in 2014.

Let’s look at the parallels first, the ruling party Barisan National (BN) has been running Malaysia since Independence. It’s only in the last two elections that the opposition has gained some decent numbers in the parliament, which have been otherwise totally dominated by BN. So BN could be compared to the Indian National Congress which formed most of the governments since Indian independence. In the 2013 Malaysian general elections, the opposition contender was Anwar Ibrahim from the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) party. BN had left no stone unturned to implicate Anwar in various cases, including that of sodomy. None of the courts however have held Anwar guilty and as the elections neared, it was quite clear that Anwar had won the political battle. Mr. Modi is in a similar situation as Anwar, with the ruling party not able to get him implicated legally. The mainstream media in Malaysia is completely controlled by the ruling party, so Anwar and his party had very little coverage. Fortunately they had social media to their rescue. The biased reporting by the media against Modi has always been highlighted on the social media and the INC controlling parts of the fourth estate cannot be ruled out. The fact that the ruling party went overboard in implicating Anwar overturned the public sympathy largely in favour of Anwar.

The dissimilarities will also remind you of parallels but in fact are mirror images of the situation we observe in India. For example we accuse the policies to be oriented in favour of the minorities, the Malaysian government is officially drafting policies with the majority in mind. The majority Malay population has been favored in all fields as they were believed to be lagging behind post independence. Even the basic rights of citizens are determined on the basis of their race. Now however the BN is using the policy plank to strengthen their vote bank and hold onto the government. One must note that Malays form roughly 80% of the population and hence securing a decent share of the Malay votes secures BN their victory. Anwar is also a Malay but he is committed to eliminating race based politics and corruption. In that sense Malaysian politics is about the race whereas Indian politics is about religion.

Considering the vast number of similarities between the Indian political scenario prevalent today and the one that existed in the build up to the Malaysian general elections 2013, it might be interesting to our readers to also know the outcome and learn some valuable lessons from the proceedings in general.

The build up to the elections was marred with expose of corruption and illegal activities carried out by BN and its ministers. Skeletons tumbled out of the closets and each group (BN & PR) brought allegations against each other in the open. The media is very tightly controlled by the BN and hence PR resorted to the social media and also the international media to get their point across. Just like the India against corruption movement which got unprecedented success in India, Malaysia witnessed coming together of the Malaysians across all races in the annual Bersih (freedom) rally. Bersih has been conducted almost every year to meet the demands of a free and fair election in Malaysia. The rally however is also a platform for Malaysians from all walks of life to express their dissent against other issues primarily corruption and race based politics. Just like what we have witnessed in Jantar Mantar, the Malaysian police used tear gas, barricades and preventive detentions to dismantle the movement. However the movement has only gained in strength with every passing year. Just like Anna being the nucleus of the movement, Bersih has had Ambiga Sreenivasan as the core of the movement, just to reinforce the parellels.

With a few days left for the elections, several citizen groups kept watch over the developments. The Malaysian election commission was under observation since it’s known to turn a blind eye to the ruling coalition’s malpractices during the elections. The election commission therefore went on a over drive to prove that the indelible ink was indeed indelible and also made public some of the other steps they intended to carry out to ensure free and fair elections.

The citizen’s watchdog however quickly identified that there was a sudden influx of Bangladeshi’s to the east of the country. They also noticed that Bangladeshi’s were being given Malaysian identity cards in a hurry to enable them to vote. They then spread this news via social media and the result was that citizens gathered around polling stations looking out for Bangladeshi’s and checking their IC’s. This also resulted in some unfortunate incidents where legitimate citizens were stopped by public and asked to prove their citizenship. The indelible ink as many a voters pointed out was easily washed off with water, this lead to the suspicion that there might have been both phantom voting and double voting.

As the voting began the hopes of Anwar supporters began to brighten up as results from two states, Penang and Selangor were in complete favour of the alliance led by Pakatan Rakyat (PR). But soon there were reports of wide spread power failures across counting stations. PR supporters report seeing ballot boxes being replaced during black out, and the result changed in the next couple of hours. Although PR won an additional 7 seats in the parliament, BN once again formed the government. This despite the fact that PR won 50.87% of the popular vote and BN secured only 47.38% of the popular vote. But due to the fact that Malaysia uses the first-past-the post system where party with most number of seats gets the opportunity to create the government, BN managed to emerge victorious once again. Bottom line is that BN managed the math better than PR.

Majority of my friends in Malaysia were completely dejected at the outcome, the change they hoped to see did not materialize and yet they were so close to it. They blacked out their facebook profiles and replaced their profile pics with “RIP democracy” slogans to protest against the mysterious power blackout at the counting centres.

RIP Democracy Modi versus Malaysia

Facebook profile picture of a disappointed Malaysian voter post polls

Not only can the NaMo brigade learn from these events, even the UPA and parties opposing Modi could also take a leaf out of this oped. Since so much of hope is pinned on Narendra Modi, it’s important to try and summarize the lessons learnt.

  • Election math is as important as gaining popularity. At the end “Jo jeeta wahi sikandar”.
  • Social media can be used to counter paid or controlled journalism.
  • Anti corruption movements can help opposition increase vote share and overturn public sentiment in their favour and in fact make the minority votes sway in their favour. In case of the Malaysian elections, the Bersih and allied movements swayed the votes of the majority in favour of the opposition.
  • Claim your voter card and ensure your name is on the electoral rolls, or your right might be used by phantom voters.
  • Form citizen groups to monitor election centers and counting centers. The recent Supreme Court ruling enforcing voter verified paper audit trail will to some extent prevent fraud due to electronic voting. This is thanks to Subramanian Swamy’s persistent effort to get the VVPAT system effective in the upcoming general elections.
  • Changes will not happen over night and hence do not lose hope even of the outcome is not as desired. The battle needs to be kept alive. In case of Malaysian elections, Anwar was totally heart broken and even contemplated returning to US to teach.
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