Dispatch

The Ballot and the Barrel

An obscure Indian law requires gun owners to surrender their weapons during election season. But India’s gun lobby says it only encourages a spike in violence.

HYDERABAD, India — Election season has been busy for Abbas Hussain, an authorized gun dealer in the South Indian city of Hyderabad. Not because his customers are eager to buy his weapons -- but because they are scrambling to return them.

"There was one bugger who called me at the last possible minute," said Hussain, a slight, garrulous 44-year-old who chain-smoked Gold Flake cigarettes from the porch of his spacious home in late March, just days before voting began. "I had to open my shop in the middle of the night, because if the police catch you with a gun the next morning, then God help you."

India has just concluded the largest election the world has ever seen, with 814 million voters eligible to go to one of 930,000 polling stations. And trying to thwart violence during an election of this magnitude has been a challenge, especially given India's history of disruption at the polls. In 2009, during the last parliamentary election, armed Maoist insurgents bombed polling stations, stole voting machines, and kidnapped election officials, leaving 18 dead in an attempt to discourage voter turnout in the central state of Chhattisgarh. When an estimated 500 people were killed during the 1978 village-level elections in the northern state of Bihar, village-level elections were reportedly not held in that state for another 23 years

This year's election has not been immune from violence. Leading contender Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party positioned himself as a strong nationalist and pro-business leader, as opposed to the incumbent Congress party's Rahul Gandhi, who is often seen as feckless. But Modi's stridently pro-Hindu views and his association with the 2002 communal riots that occurred between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat, where he has been chief minister since 2001, means election authorities have been especially on edge. In April, Maoist rebels killed 14 people in Chhattisgarh in an effort to discourage voters. Around the same time, a 10-year-old boy was killed in Uttar Pradesh state when gunmen allegedly shot at citizens who had voted for a particular candidate, one whose name was withheld by police in order to prevent retaliatory violence. The most tragic incident happened in early May in the northeastern state of Assam, where ethnic Bodo militants murdered 41 Muslims, according to police. The attack happened just miles away from where several days earlier Modi delivered an incendiary speech in which he warned that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were taking over the state.

To help rein in these acts of violence, India's election laws require security checkpoints, regulation of alcohol sales, and curfews on nightclubs and bars. But a rule requiring licensed gun owners to deposit their weapons with the police or authorized arms dealers may be the most controversial. Critics say that taking away licensed guns throughout the election period, a right granted to the government since British colonial times, is both outdated and ineffective. "You ask me to deposit my gun. But I haven't committed any crime in my 34 years of existence," said Rakshit Sharma, secretary-general of the National Association for Gun Rights India, an interest group for legal gun owners. "It is a farce, just to make it look to the public like the authorities are doing something." 

During each election in India, roughly three months before voting begins, local police stations contact licensed gun owners within their jurisdictions in order to start collecting personal firearms. Gun owners choose to leave their weapons either at a private armory, like Hussain's, or at a local police station, and they must show local law enforcement a receipt of their deposit. Sharma said most gun enthusiasts choose the armory because the armory owners take good care of their customers' often expensive weapons.

Some gun owners are exempt from the law -- the Election Commission allows members of the National Rifle Association of India, a group for professional sport shooters (unrelated to the better-known National Rifle Association in the United States), to keep their guns. But in practice, members are often pressured to turn them in anyway, Sharma said. 

Even outside election season, it's difficult and expensive to buy a gun in India. To procure a license, regular citizens must give evidence that their lives are threatened and require extra security, as legislated in the 1959 Arms Act and the 1962 Arms Rules. In 1986, the central government banned all imports of firearms in response to a violent insurgency in the northwestern state of Punjab. Today, most Indians looking to buy legal guns must choose between arms imported before the law went into effect and the basic handguns and rifles manufactured by the state-run Indian Ordnance Factories, which Sharma says are low quality and overpriced. A used Walther PPK -- James Bond's weapon of choice, which costs around $300 in the United States -- can fetch as much as $15,000 in India, Sharma said. His Smith & Wesson revolver cost him half a million rupees, or about $10,000 at the current exchange rate -- about nine times what it would cost in the United States. "The owner's nightmare is to see them rust at a police station for two months," he said.

Gun rights advocates say that such tight control has enabled India's flourishing illegal arms industry, where guns are cheaper and more readily available, and that the strict regulation is unnecessary because firearms kill relatively few people in India each year. In 2009, the latest year for which Indian data is available, 3,093 people were killed in gun-related homicides, far fewer than the 11,493 people who died in shootings in the United States that same year.

There's no authoritative tally of the number of guns in India. The best estimate, from a 2011 survey by the India Armed Violence Assessment, a New Delhi-based research organization, says the country has 40 million privately owned guns -- the second most in the world, after the United States -- with only 6 million of them legal. That's why Sonal Marwah, a researcher with the India Armed Violence Assessment, which works to measure and analyze the arms industry, thinks taking guns away from licensed holders could be counterproductive. Marwah said that during elections -- especially in thinly policed rural areas -- politically connected gangs buy up cheap, often makeshift, guns from illegal workshops. The guns are then used to intimidate voters into supporting a certain candidate -- though rarely, she added, for injuring or killing people. "It is the old rationale: criminal behavior," she said, pointing to police reports of gun seizures. "It enforces demand, and you would expect it to peak during election season."

With security forces on high alert, police chiefs said the crackdown on illegal guns peaks during election season -- particularly in trigger-happy states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Just before midnight on March 1, a small boat ferried a cluster of undercover policemen across the Ganges River to a rural tract of land in Munger, a small district in the impoverished state of Bihar. Munger is home to a 200-year-old munitions factory -- and notorious for its booming illegal gun industry, which supplies sophisticated weapons from hundreds of bootleg factories to customers across the country, according to Munger Police Chief Sudhanshu Kumar. He said his officers raided a cache of 450 illegal pistols and arrested four local manufacturers. Their interrogation of those arrested then led them to the city of Howrah, where they seized an additional 1,500 illegal firearms. "During the election there seems to be a spurt" of illegal guns sold, said the state's chief of police, Abhayanand, who goes by one name. 

Abhayanand said that between December and March alone, he oversaw the seizure of 1,093 illegal guns. In Hyderabad, on the other hand, police commissioner Anurag Sharma said that his force confiscated just three illegal firearms in the run-up to the elections -- proof that India's diverse cultural and political landscape makes for an uneven playing field when implementing laws.

Still, Sharma insisted that the tension surrounding elections underscored the government's need to control weapons across the country. "The availability of an arm itself is a temptation" to misuse it during elections, he said. And with all legal guns quarantined in the armories and stations, any weapon still left on the street would most likely be illegal and easy for police to detect, he added.

Back on his porch, Hussain the armory owner said Hyderabad did not have a culture of gun violence but rather a history of respecting weapons -- from bejeweled swords to handcrafted rifles -- and compared his collection to the thrill of prestigious cars, like a Rolls-Royce.

"I've got a Pedersoli 12-gauge. It's the best type of shotgun. And a .256 Mannlicher-Carcano. They call it a 'Kennedy Killer' in the United States," he said when asked about his personal favorites -- referring to the 6.5 mm Carcano rifle that Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly used to assassinate U.S. President John F. Kennedy. "But I prefer the shotgun at all times. It's got multiple uses, whether you're hunting a partridge or a tiger."

He'll have to wait a few days to fire them again -- even licensed arms dealers are required to lock up their weapons. "Most of the bloody criminals use kitchen knives they bought in the mall anyway," he said. "But the law is the law."

NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

South Africa's Never-Ending Party

Jacob Zuma's seemingly invincible ANC is back on top -- but that doesn't mean it will continue to rule “until Jesus comes back.”

CAPE TOWN — The 2014 South African election was supposed to be all about change.

This was supposed to be the year when the African National Congress (ANC) -- the liberation movement-cum-political party that has dominated South African politics since 1994 -- finally came crashing down to Earth.

Victory for the ANC in the May 8 elections was never truly in doubt. But last year, pundits predicted the ruling party's share of the vote would decline to under 60 percent, a symbolic threshold which would, some said, necessitate the ANC recalling Jacob Zuma as president. Zuma's tenure has become synonymous with scandal, spiraling unemployment, a sluggish economy, and systemic mismanagement. The ANC itself is still smarting from charges of cronyism and corruption, from the Marikana massacre and broader social unrest. As late as the morning of the election, Britain's Telegraph noted that the ANC "could see a considerable drop in its support base and even lose the country's economic powerhouse province, Gauteng."

Instead, the results of the 2014 South African election, held May 8, became a lesson in both the durability of the ANC, and the systematic flaws that still trouble this young democracy, which often seems more like a one-party state. The ANC won 62 percent of the vote, while the Democratic Alliance (DA), the country's only significant opposition party, secured 22 percent. The results saw a small decrease for the ANC, which captured 65 percent of the vote in the 2009 election, and a modest, 6 percent gain for the DA.

This was supposed to be the election when the upstart Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a party led by Julius Malema, once an acolyte of Zuma and now his fiercest critic, would encroach upon ANC support. That, too, didn't happen. Exiled from the ANC, accused of fraud and tax evasion, Malema was looking for both revenge and higher office. His party promised Chavez-style socialism and Mugabe-style land grabs. Despite disproportionate media attention, the EFF only scratched out a million votes, some 6.2 percent of votes cast.

It was also supposed to be the election when the DA emerged as a viable contender, a party for all South Africans, not just for all South Africans who aren't black. That didn't happen either. The DA has consolidated a constituency of white, Indian, and "colored" (South Africans of biracial heritage) voters. But in a country with a 79 percent black majority, that clearly isn't good enough.

The DA has been attempting to make inroads with black South Africans who are increasingly disillusioned with the ANC. It has campaigned more aggressively in townships and other overwhelmingly black areas. Last October, it endorsed an affirmative action policy in Parliament (though subsequently made a U-turn when confronted with opposition from its base). And in April 2013, the party launched the "Know Your DA" campaign, an exercise in rebranding that subtly sought to rebut charges that the party was passive in the fight against apartheid.

But most black South Africans still regard the ANC as the party that delivered them to freedom, and consider the DA complicit in the country's racist past (the DA was formed in 2000 from a merger between the traditionally liberal Democratic Party and the New National Party, a descendent of the party that created apartheid). For these voters, the DA is a symbol of white privilege, and the party's platform of non-racialism is but cynical electioneering.

In 33-year-old Mmusi Maimane, the DA party's high-profile spokesman, the organization found what it had been looking for, for over a decade -- an attractive, intelligent, black candidate who could be groomed to become the leader of the party. Maimane, who was just tapped to become the DA's speaker in Parliament, is known to be a favorite of party leader Helen Zille; the DA is rumored to have spent close to $10 million -- a fortune for an opposition party in South Africa -- on the Maimane-led campaign to wrest control of Gauteng, the country's financial capital, from the ANC.

Maimane appeared in a series of commercials, self-consciously styled after Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign, touting the party's pledges to create 6 million jobs, introduce a youth wage subsidy, and erase the country's legacy of inequality. (Democratic Party pollster Stanley Greenberg, who advised Bill Clinton and Al Gore's presidential campaigns, played a key role in refining the DA's messaging this year.) The commercials were vibrant -- even inspiring. Turns out, it didn't matter. Black people were never going to vote for the DA en masse. According to party leader Helen Zille, roughly 760,000 black South Africans voted for the DA. There are over 41 million black people in South Africa; that is a negligible result.

Too large to be a niche party but too small to be a serious contender, the DA is confined by its constituencies. With a million new votes this year, the party has experienced growth, but at the expense of other opposition parties, and with little threat to the ANC. To this end, it can only grow so much. Political analyst Steven Friedman argues that the DA "may well have an important role in [South Africa's] future, but as a coalition partner, not as a national election winner."

Among the other predictions that never came to pass, this was also to be the year of much-touted "born free" elections, when young South Africans who were born in or after 1994, and who had no experience of apartheid, exercised their right to vote. It was an appealing story. The "born frees" made headlines in the days leading up to the election -- "South Africa's ‘Born-Frees' Cast First Ballots" wrote AFP; "South Africans Vote in First ‘Born Free' Elections," said Reuters -- and appeared in newspaper profiles and television reports. The only place they didn't appear, it seems, was at the ballot box. Fewer than a third of this new, baggage-free generation of voters registered for the election. Young voters in general failed turn up: The New York Times noted on the eve of the election that the "weight of younger voters, who are more likely to abandon the ANC, is expected to offset the dominance of older voters." But that can't happen if young voters don't actually vote: While 90 percent of people in their thirties registered to vote, that number fell to 60 percent for those in their twenties.

The 2014 election turned out to be about loyalty and apathy. It wasn't so much a victory for the ANC, but for the status quo.

South African voters aren't happy with their incumbents: An Ipsos "Pulse of the People" survey released in January found that the ANC "shed almost a fifth" of its "overall support" between November 2008 and November 2013. The reasons for the decline, according to Ipsos, included the controversy around Nkandla, the luxury presidential compound Zuma built with more than 215 million rand ($23 million) of taxpayer money, the Marikana mine disaster, and protests over the government's failures to deliver basic services like water and electricity.

So why did this dissatisfaction not translate into a shellacking for the ANC at the polls?

The easy answer is the ANC's aggressive election campaign, their superior political machinery, and exhaustive outlets for propaganda. (The South African Broadcasting Company, with its three television channels and 18 radio stations is once again a government mouthpiece, much as it was during apartheid.) The more complex answer is best suggested by Zuma himself, who in 2008 said that the ANC "will rule until Jesus comes back." Exaggeration aside, Zuma is right: For many South Africans, the ANC is not just a political party. For all its failings, 20 years after the end of apartheid, it remains the political party.

Political commentator Susan Booysen wrote a few days before the election that the "riddle of ANC supremacy amid adversity has three legs -- the ANC's unremitting, albeit changing, linkage with the South African people, which often overrides leadership malfunction; the innate weakness of opposition parties; and the use of state power to compensate for decay in the ANC's support base." Critics accuse the ANC of not reforming fast enough, or at all. They say the organization is too large for its own good -- that it has become increasingly undisciplined and slow to react to important events. But the ANC's huge size remains an advantage at election time, and its campaign machinery is formidable.

Many South Africans voted for the ANC in spite of Zuma, not because of him. In South Africa, discontent with the state of the nation rarely translates as discontent with the ruling party. An editorial in the influential newspaper Business Day opined that the government's "lack of accountability is a function of the electorate's lack of expectation of accountability. There is simply no culture of using the vote to force either political parties or individual leaders to account for their actions. People may take to the streets to protest, burn down municipal buildings or councillors' homes and even boo the president, but they could still vote for the party responsible."

And yet South Africa inches toward change. Since the 2004 election, when the ANC secured almost 70 percent of the vote, support for the party has slowly but steadily declined. The ANC has lost significant influence in urban areas, and may well lose Gauteng, which generates more than a third of the country's GDP, in the next election.

Earlier this year, Nigeria overtook South Africa as the continent's largest economy. While South Africa's infrastructure is stronger than Nigeria's in almost every respect, the downgrade was a symbolic blow. Union strife has kept business at bay and overseas investment is down. The country's official unemployment rate is 24 percent -- unofficially, it's as high as 40 percent.

Analysts say Zuma's post-election objective will be stabilizing the economy, which means enabling industry and pushing back against the labor factions, with whom he's been accused of being too cozy. And yet this isn't without danger. Anger at the government's neo-liberal policies is electric on the left. If the ANC is undone anytime soon, it is likely to be from a coalition of embittered allies, who break out on their own, much like Malema and his EFF. The ANC's real threat is from within.

The ANC is likely to retain its broad support for the remainder of the decade, and possibly beyond. But, with significant challenges in its future, and fresh incidents of political unrest seemingly every day, whether it will last until the day Jesus comes back is looking more and more in doubt.

The ANC has a storied past and a questionable present. What matters is that millions of South Africans care about the party, even if the party doesn't often care about them. The ANC is ubiquitous and, at least for now, it seems, invincible.

MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images