Elections 2019: Redrawing Contours of Democracy in India
(Secular Perspective June 1-15, 2019)
The exercise of general elections in the largest democracy in India concluded with victory of second consecutive term of BJP at the centre. The BJP got a staggering majority with 303 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats. In order to politically analyze this electoral success of BJP and understand its implications on Indian democracy and polity, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) had organized a round table discussion on the poll results on 28th May, 2019. The discussion was attended by 20 participants consisting of prominent activists, scholars and peace workers from Mumbai. The analysis of the results were based on various factors such as emergence of PM Modi, his popularity and his carefully constructed invincible persona with the help of different institutions, the shortcomings of the opposition, the discourse on nationalism, role of RSS and its relentless immaculate groundwork in the grassroots to build narratives that helped the BJP and other factors. Similarly, the implication of this mandate on different institutions was discussed. Lastly, the discussion dwelled on what are some of the measures to be adopted by the civil society organizations to promote diversity, liberty and democracy.
One of the prominent reasons for the massive electoral success of the BJP was attributed to Narendra Modi. It is believed that this mandate was not a vote for the BJP but to Modi due to the widely prevailing notion that there is no alternative to him. This argument that there is no viable alternative to him is a deliberate perception constructed in which Modi is projected larger than life- masculine, decisive, ruthless, meritocratic, non-corrupt and representative of aspirations of a common Indian from a humble background. As a part of this persona, he reached out to different sections of the society, middle class, youth, entrepreneurs with tall promises and impression of a stronger India on the global map with PM Modi hobnobbing with powerful world leadership. To the poor he promised of INR 6000 in their accounts, gas cylinders, and healthcare. Even the Muslim women were not spared from wooing- he pushed for abolition of the practice of triple talaq. Mr. Modi was thus able to capitalize on the emotions of the voters. He glorified the virtue of sacrifice to garner support for demonetization which cost so many jobs and livelihood leading to plummeting of the economy. Yet demonetization didn’t have an adverse effect on the votes for BJP. Modi made it a moral issue.
Modi resonated with the people at large in India. He captured their imagination by giving voice to their aspirations of social mobility and occupying important positions of power inspite coming from humble backgrounds. His use of media to spread this message is very significant. With massive resources at his disposal, the media is used as an instrument to promote his image as omnipresent.
Second most important factor contributing to the victory of the BJP was the infiltration of RSS at the grassroots level and its intricate network in the northern and western states. RSS with its ideology of Hindutva steeped in hierarchy re-affirmed the already feudal attitudes and inequality in society. The RSS selectively manipulate Hindu icons and festivals and mobilize people along religious lines. It is observed and documented that festivals were used in a big way for political mobilization and fomenting communal riots in places like West Bengal and Bihar in 2018. Hindu supremacist organizations were found organizing such religious processions during festivals which were aggressive and displayed behavior derogatory towards other communities leading to violence. This violence promoted polarization along communal lines. RSS provides BJP with its ideology and a network of committed cadre.
Some time back BJP’s popularity was seen faltering in the wake of Congress victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh state assembly elections. But the Pulwama attacks followed by Balakot strikes carried out by the Indian defense forces provided BJP the much needed opportunity to strengthen its narrative on nationalism and invoke pride and bloodlust in some sections of the country. The narrative that BJP sought to boost was the nation was safe in the hands of Narendra Modi with his aggressive and decisive position on national security. His slogan of “Ghar mein ghuske Marenge” though pulverizing the ideal of non-violence and civilized restraint, gave a sense of power and invincibility to a common Indian when confronted with terrorism supported by Pakistan. The Indian media lapped up the issue non critically. Thus the issue of nationalism entirely high jacked the discourse on economic growth, providing livelihood, better healthcare reducing income inequalities etc. While it was shrilly put across to the Indians that Pakistan is foe externally, the BJP through the statements of some of its leaders created a perception that internally; the foe is the Muslims, who are threatening the majority Hindu community. Thus the only way India can be safe is by being a part of the project of Hindu nationalism which is based on exclusion and hierarchy.
One factor attributed to the win of BJP from across all quarters is the weak opposition to BJP and Modi. It was a unanimous perception that Congress led by Rahul Gandhi was not seen as a viable political alternative to Modi. Congress was unable to take the positive campaign on NYAY to the potential beneficiaries. The campaign came late in the day. The stigma of dynasty attached to Congress also didn’t help it win the confidence and sympathy of the voters when pitted against a social underdog represented by Modi. The opposition lacked charismatic leaders like Modi. The in fighting in the UPA alliance exposed cracks and didn’t inspire hope of a stable and decisive government. On the other hand, BJP was successful in stitching up alliances across caste denominators under the pan-Hindu identity by bending over backwards to accommodate alliance partners. BJP along with its allies was able decimate the caste combination and arithmetic by winning over castes not traditionally favorable to it by using different icons like Ambedkar and Gandhi and also celebrating their culture. Different castes and also Adivasis were united under the Hindu identity. This explains the geographical expansion of the BJP eastward in the country.
Lastly, the powerful nexus of money and media came into play and proved to be a game changer in the election. This election was one of the most expensive one- funds to the tune of 60,000 crores were spent compared to 40,000 crores in the last election. The BJP with massive support from the corporate houses had a huge kitty at their disposal. This helped them in engaging with different forms of media to send their message across different sections of the society. The medium of whatsapp in particular was used decisively headed by experts to strengthen narratives and build an image.
Implications of this mandate:
The discussion pointed out to some implications that the results will have on the overall state of democracy. One of the implications based on the trend of the last five years is the shift towards majoritarianism. The right ward shift in public discourse has seen steady growth in the Hindutva agenda which has manifested in dismantling of democratic institutions like the judiciary, Election Commission, investigation agencies like CBI and educational institutions. This trend is likely to strengthen. Laws and policies will be used by the ruling dispensation to fulfill their political agenda. The National Register of Citizen (NRC) which has seen turmoil and tragedies by rendering millions of residents stateless in Assam might be replicated in the rest of India as promised by BJP chief Amit Shah. The Hindutva agenda of rendering non Hindus as second class citizens and impose the hegemony of upper caste Hindus will be pursued.
From the day of the results of the elections till date, instances of lynching of Dalits and Muslim men and women have been reported. The attacks continue even as the PM spoke about winning over the trust of the minorities. The participants in the discussion largely believed that the lynching of the disadvantaged will continue. Communal riots which in the past achieved polarization along religious lines and also paid electoral dividends, it was discussed, will take place on a lesser scale. Social upward mobility or social assertion by Dalits and Muslims in the face of rigid social hierarchies will have repercussions in the form of violence to maintain status quo and privileges of the powerful. Large scale communal riots and the accompanying social upheaval and turmoil will be considered an impediment to the economy and not desired by the corporates which supported the BJP. Besides the polarization sought is achieved already.
Overall through policies and laws on one hand and violence on the other, the project of homogenization will be pursued to exercise complete domination. The parent body of BJP and its ideological fountainhead, RSS will have more say in the shaping of governance. Thus the manipulation of Hindu symbols will be used impose the hegemony of the powerful and in turn consolidate the entrenched hierarchies- deepening the inequalities based on caste, religion, gender etc. Along with changes in the socio-political landscape of India that this mandate will spell, there are ramifications on the economic front too. India can expect more crony capitalism and privatization. This will be accompanied by environmental degradation and loss of livelihoods.
Future of interventions by civil society organizations:
Democratization of culture:
The mandate to the BJP and Narendra Modi in some way will inevitably translate into the implementation of their political agenda which will re-enforce hierarchies as seen above. The civil society should aim at countering these hierarchies by promoting democratization of culture. The prevailing feudal culture is not allowing critical thinking and questioning inequality. The culture sought to be promoted is essentially of upper castes, upper classes, patriarchal and of one religion. The voices of the marginalized find no visibility. The marginalized should be heard.
India has a rich heritage of composite culture which is also a social capital. This compositeness of Indian culture should be revisited. Different communities have contributed to make India culturally rich. Sufi and Bhakti saints have given the message of love and compassion which still resonate with the masses. The saints like Kabir, Bulleshah, Tukaram and Mirabai have promoted the liberal values of equality and self-reflection. These are sane voices during the times when violence and bloodlust is normalized.
The RSS and BJP have appropriated progressive icons like Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar and reduced them as mere images on campaign posters without challenging caste or other denominators. It will be timely to reclaim these icons and spread their message of equality, liberty, and critical thinking.
Culture of resistance:
The civil society should effectively create and engage with alternative media to spread alternative narratives. These narratives should be about diversity, pluralism and constitutional values. These should inspire different sections of the society and especially those on the margins to work for their rights. The ruling dispensation is doing the agenda setting. But the real concerns and issues of the common people must find space and voice. Some of the pressing issues are caste inequalities, economic disparities, gender oppression etc. Social movements for annihilation of caste, gender equality, workers’ and farmers’ rights will strengthen democracy in the country. The youth who are found indulging in hate crimes amidst rising unemployment must be made part of social movements by reaching out to them in the campuses.
The vote share of the BJP was approximately 37.4% in this election. There is over 60% which didn’t vote for it. It is necessary to reach out to that majority and also who voted for BJP since their vote wasn’t necessarily for Hindutva and raise awareness about Constitution and desirability of robust democratic institutions. Awareness should be built to educate people about the pitfalls of politics of hatred and thus reject this politics of hatred and fear. This awareness building should be done with youth on campuses and engage with them through innovative ways to introduce them to diversity in the society and counter homogenization.
Solidarity and networking:
Civil society organizations should create and strengthen existing platforms to raise the issues related to democracy and secularism. These platforms and forums must have representation from diverse groups and discuss contemporary issues. There has to be collaboration and synergy on issues cross cutting religion, caste, gender and democracy. In order to build such alliances and benefit from collective learning, it was agreed that there will be discussions held in once in a month to explore opportunities for collaborations.