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An epic contest between Ruto and Odinga – The Hindu

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An epic contest between Ruto and Odinga - The Hindu 4

While William Ruto had been President Uhuru Kenyatta’s running mate for the last two elections, Mr. Kenyatta has this time endorsed long-time rival Raila Odinga. File photo of Mr. Kenyatta (left) and Mr. Odinga’s famous handshake. | Photo Credit: AFP
Kenya goes to the polls on August 9, 2022, to elect the country’s fifth President, besides national lawmakers, governors and assemblies of its 47 counties. Without a doubt, Kenya’s upcoming elections will be among the most significant political events in Africa at a time when democratic governance is receding in parts of the continent. The fact that Kenya is one of Africa’s major democracies, and given its history of election-related violence, these polls are important and will be closely watched. A smooth process will consolidate democratic gains in the country and serve as a symbol for the rest of the continent. Political campaigning is in full swing and the debates mostly revolve around political dynasties, tribal power-brokers, and changing inter-ethnic alliances. Grievances about ethnic, financial, and vote-rigging corruption are existential.
India is keeping a close watch on the Kenyan election because of the political, economic and cultural relationships forged between the two countries over a considerable period of time. The visit of India’s External Affairs Minister to Kenya during the pandemic only underscored the importance that India places on strengthening ties with this crucial East African neighbour. For a maritime country and a regional powerhouse such as India, Kenya assumes immense strategic significance and serves as a gateway to the wider Indian Ocean Region. Kenya’s friendship is important to India to curb China’s growing aspirations in the region. Also, India faces a number of security threats in the backdrop of a dramatic rise of piracy and terrorist activities in the region. Moreover, Kenya has a vibrant community of Persons of Indian Origin presently numbering 80,000, including 20,000 expatriates. Indians are a successful community, and while their political preferences may differ, they mostly favour a closer bonding between the two countries.
There are a few marked similarities between India and Kenya. Democratic values, pluralism and the rule of law are important for both countries. Like Indians, Kenyans are interested and involved in politics, and are active on social media. Much like caste-based politics has remained centre stage in India’s political landscape for decades, ethnic politicking is common in Kenyan politics. In Kenyan politics, the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin and Luo are the four dominant tribes who have practically ruled the country since independence. In this election too, the roles played by ethnicity and tribalism are likely to be decisive, with voting likely to be along tribal lines.
This election has a crowded field of candidates. The leading contenders are Vice President William Ruto and the perennial challenger, Raila Odinga. This is the first time since Kenya’s independence that a Kikuyu has not emerged as the main presidential candidate – Mr. Ruto is a Kalenjin, the third largest ethnic group, and Mr. Odinga is a Luo, the fourth largest ethnic group. While Mr. Ruto had been President Uhuru Kenyatta’s running mate for the last two elections, Mr. Kenyatta has this time endorsed long-time rival Mr. Odinga, who was the leading contender in the 2017 elections. The famous handshake between President Kenyatta and Opposition leader Odinga in 2018 stunned the country. The amity began that year when they declared a truce after post-election violence in 2017 and lived up to the dictum that politics is the art of the possible. The effect has been a topsy-turvy recasting of political alliances. The handshake and truce have injected considerable unpredictability in the outcome of this election.
The two leading candidates have chosen running mates from the vote-rich Kikuyu ethnic group, the support of which could be vital in determining the outcome. While former Prime Minister Odinga has settled for former Justice Minister Martha Karua, a political icon known for campaigns against corruption, Vice President Ruto has picked businessman Rigathi Gachagua, who is an able political negotiator.
The prominent issues for the contest have been framed clearly by both the parties. Mr. Ruto and his coalition have framed the general elections as a contest between “hustlers” and “dynasties”. In Kenya, ‘hustlers’ refers to those people, especially the young, who struggle to make ends meet in an economy that is said to be no longer working for them. ‘Dynasties’ is a pointed reference to Mr. Kenyatta’s and Mr. Odinga’s privileged upbringing as sons of the country’s first president and vice president, respectively. By contrast, Mr. Ruto has spoken of how he went to school barefoot, and how he once “hustled by selling chickens by a roadside”.
Regarding Kenya’s economic agenda, Mr. Ruto has proposed a ‘bottom-up’ economic model in which the structure of the economy will be geared to help the common man. Mr. Odinga’s campaign, on the other hand, is focused on attacking corruption, especially in high places. The reference to high places is said to be an attack again Mr. Ruto, who has been accused of amassing huge amounts of wealth during his time as Deputy President.
Analysts say despite economic issues emerging as a possible determinant of how people will vote, ethnicity still has a strong influence on the electorate. Besides the issue of inclusivity of all communities in government positions/appointments, the question of Kenya’s foreign debt is also core to the 2022 elections. Various organisations have carried out opinion polls to gauge the voting intentions in Kenya. All of them show that a neck and neck competition, with Mr. Ruto and Mr. Odinga tied at 42%.
How does the Indian diaspora fit into this election activity? In 2017, Kenyans of Indian descent were officially recognised as the 44th tribe in Kenya because of their contribution to the country since independence. The recognition has given them a sense of shared identity with the Kenyans. However, there is no candidate of Indian origin contesting for the presidential election. It would in any case be a very tall order given the ethnic dynamics of Kenyan politics. Nonetheless, there are a few candidates of Indian origin in some constituencies running for parliament. An interesting feature of Indian diaspora candidates is that they have increasingly emerged in constituencies outside the cities, in Western and Central Kenya where they had settled, speak the local language, and have developed political constituencies.
It is difficult to gauge who the Indian diaspora may support in the presidential elections. In electoral terms, the Indian diaspora is not a homogeneous community. While the big businessmen generally support government candidates, there is also the view that they hedge their bets and support Opposition candidates, especially when the Opposition’s winning prospects are high.
At present, all Kenyans are hoping for a free, fair and peaceful poll.
Aparajita Biswas, former Professor and Director, Centre for African Studies , University of Mumbai, is currently associated with The Strathmore University, Kenya

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Printable version | May 31, 2022 11:58:16 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/an-epic-contest-between-ruto-and-odinga/article65476220.ece
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