BY SHASHI MALLA
Range & Breadth of the Indian Elections
India’s parliamentary elections for the lower house or Lok Sabha are being keenly observed throughout the world for obvious reasons. At stake are 543 seats covering the country’s 29 states and seven union territories. India is a pivotal geopolitical player and has a huge economy – slated soon to be the world’s fifth largest. It [still] has a long and glorious secular history and its ‘soft power’ – in the arts [including Bollywood], music, cuisine – is distinctive and perhaps second to none.
The scale of the Indian participatory democratic process is just stupendous and unique in the world. It may not be the greatest [in the sense of high standing and uniqueness] democracy on earth [this is claimed by the United States], but it has learnt its lessons from the British ‘mother of parliaments’ and it has learnt these lessons assiduously. India’s parliamentary elections to the lower house, the Lok Sabha or House of the People, has already started last week and will take five weeks to complete.
This year’s parliamentary elections are occurring at the end of the regular five-year term of the Lok Sabha. This time, the sheer scale of the biggest democratic exercise in the world exceeds all elections to date and is absolutely mind-boggling. Out of India’s total population of 1.3 billion people [second in the world to China’s 1.5 billion, which it will soon overtake], about 900 million are eligible to vote, i.e. all those over 18 years of age. According to the Election Commission of India, an independent statutory body, the size of the electorate this time is 84 million more than it was in 2014. Among them more than 15 million have just become eligible to vote. This time young voters and ‘women power’ may carry the vote, since there are more women voters than men.
The Election Commission has divided the actual voting into seven phases which started on April 11 and will end on May 19. There are more than one million polling stations. Votes from all seven phases will be counted together starting from May 23. Thus the elections will span five weeks with groups of constituencies voting in phases. Last week, 91 constituencies in 20 constituent states went to the polls. In the following phases, the breakdown will be as follows: April 18 (97 constituencies in 13 states), April 23 (115/14), April 29 (71/9), May 6 (51/7), May 12 (59/7), May 19 (59/8).
Unity in Diversity
’s elections represent a kaleidoscope of diversity. The country has seven national parties and 56 parties at the various state levels, some of which are very powerful and rule in their respective states. Another whopping 2,349 political parties are registered, but not yet recognized by the Election Commission. 24 percent of India’s population, or 300 million people are illiterate. In order to help them to vote, symbols are affixed to the various candidates’ names on the electronic voting machines, so that a choice can be made readily. Thus, the electorate can choose the lotus symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or the hand symbol of the Congress party, etc. The Indian voter – whether educated or illiterate — is quite sophisticated and discerning. This time around, social media has played an important role.
Important Policy Issues
Narendra Modi swept to power in 2014 on economic issuesand demoted the ruling Congress party [and its coalition] to a diminutive version of its once all-powerful self. He and the BJP promised robust economic growth, substantial increase in jobs, especially for the young, and above all good governance. Modi has not been able to fulfil his promises in the economic sphere. Some advances were completely offset by the draconian ‘currency demonetization’ that wiped out many small and medium-sized businesses that depended on massive cash-flow, and also through the introduction of a very complex ‘national goods and services tax’.
The Modi government did make some headway on quality-of-life initiatives such as cleanliness, sanitation, highways, and financial inclusion, but failed to create enough jobs to meet the demands of India’s large and mushrooming working-age population. The government even attempted to suppress data showing unemployment at a forty-five-year high and expected to reach more than 7 percent. Rural India is suffering a continuing economic and financial downturn with farmers heavily in debt and unable to obtain sustainable prices for their agricultural products. Their misery has been compounded by poor rainfall in recent years and declining global agricultural prices.
The Modi government received an unexpected boost – a deus ex machine to untangle a knotty domestic situation – in the form of the February 14 terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir. The suicide bombing by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad [designated a terrorist outfit by the UN Security Council] elevated the national debate on security to new heights. The government utilized this to project itself as very strong vis-à-vis arch antagonist Pakistan, especially after ordering bombing raids across the international border – unheard of in nearly 50 years. The veracity of this brave ‘expedition’ [in which a terrorist camp in Pakistan was supposedly wiped out and hundreds terrorist trainees killed] has not been proven, but the government is exploiting it to the hilt. It has even gone further and projected Modi as the “Chowkidar-in-Chief or national security guard, and the BJP has launched a national campaign depicting the party members as the security guards of the nation. The effect on the electorate is yet unknown, but it is a catchy gimmick.
Rise of Hindu Nationalism
However, of greater concern is the rightward march of the BJP and the Modi government and the rapid rise of ‘Hindu fundamentalism’. Indian opposition parties and concerned citizens have pointed out the Modi government’s increasing discrimination towards religious minorities, especially Muslims. Intellectuals are anxious about the future of secularism, which is enshrined in India’s constitution. Aditya Mukherjee, a retired historian, called them “communal fascists” [vide The New York Times, April 13-14, 2019]. The Modi government has had a dismal record in upholding basic human rights during its entire tenure.
This is particularly in evidence in the so-called “Hindu Belt” – in the large states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar – where there has been an upturn in religious violence. Human Rights Watch has documented many cases in which vigilante mobs, in the name of cow protection, have brutally attacked Muslims and low-caste workers connected to the [legal] cattle trade, leather industry or just handling cow carcasses [which higher castes simply avoid].
This week, Mayawati, a leader of the low-caste Dalits [and former chief minister in Uttar Pradesh] was banned from campaigning for two days for merely calling on Muslims to vote en bloc against PM Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP. Yogi Adityanath [also a Hindu ‘holy man’], firebrand current BJP chief minister of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, was likewise sidelined for three days for his response to Mayawati, comparing the election to a battle between Muslim and Hindu gods. Another BJP contender, Maneka Gandhi [estranged member of the Nehru-Gandhi political aristocracy and aunt of Rahul Gandhi], blatantly demanded of Muslims in her constituency that they vote for her, otherwise their future requests would not be accommodated!
This intolerance had reached such heights that leaders from more than 20 opposition parties came together in January in Kolkata to form a loose alliance or “Mahagathbandhan” to combat the “communal forces” and rural backwardness. It remains to be seen whether this motley group representing diverse states will be a match to the united forces of majoritarian Hindu communalism at the ballot box. As one of India’s foremost thinkers, Gurcharan Das writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs succinctly said: “the country is polarized between those who love Modi and those who hate him.”
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]