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You can’t take anything for granted in Indian politics

Now that it is nearly all over, bar the shouting, what has this general election campaign been about?

Well, for a start, it certainly hasn’t gone the way we thought it would.

 

We imagined that because most people believed that the election would be a walkover for the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would treat the campaign as no more than the run-up to his third coronation. We thought he would campaign on his record in office, treat the Opposition with dismissive disdain, accept the cheers of the teeming masses, and return in triumph to Race Course Road and South Block.

 

   But it hasn’t worked out the way most of us expected.

 

   Belying expectations, the BJP went into the campaign with intensive pre-emptive strikes against its opponents. The Congress had its bank accounts frozen. Two sitting Chief Ministers were arrested. And non-BJP politicians all over India lived with the fear of raids and arrests.

 

   There was another unexpected development. Usually, even when questions have been raised about the conduct of elections, the Election Commission has largely been regarded as above reproach. For instance, in previous elections, when doubts were expressed about the sanctity of EVMs, the underlying assumption was always that the machines themselves may have been tampered with, but this was done without the knowledge of the Election Commission.

 

   This is the first general election where the Election Commission has been treated with suspicion and derision. It is regarded by much of the Opposition as a pliable body that does what the ruling establishment tells it to.

 

   I make no value judgements as to whether this assessment is fair or not. The Election Commission itself has issued angry and intemperate statements proclaiming its innocence and criticising the Opposition. The Commission may well be telling the truth, but the tone and targets of the statements have probably strengthened the allegations of bias.

 

   No matter which side of the political divide you are on, the decline of the credibility of the Election Commission is bad for Indian democracy. The Commission says that this is entirely the fault of its critics. And, of course, its critics say the opposite. But either way, Indian democracy loses.

 

   Similarly, the government has claimed that the raids, arrests, etc., of sitting ministers and legislators have only to do with economic offences, and the fortuitous timing is a coincidence. Whether you accept this explanation or not probably depends on which side you support.

 

   The most notable feature of the BJP campaign when it began was how personalised it was. There is no doubt that Narendra Modi is the most popular leader in the country and is easily the BJP’s strongest asset. So the BJP usually leverages his popularity even during assembly elections where he is not a candidate.

 

   But never before has a BJP election campaign been so clearly identified with a single individual: the projection of Modi was even greater than the way in which Indira Gandhi based the 1971 campaign around her own appeal.

 

 "There is a dynamic within Indian politics that suggests Hindu voters can be mobilised along either religious or caste lines."

   Curiously, this was not the imperial Prime Minister we had expected, dismissing his opponents and reassuring a grateful electorate that he would do even more for them over the next five years. Instead, we got a Narendra Modi we had not seen before at general elections: aggressive, full of strong emotions and stronger language, and even more focussed on his own role than ever before. He frequently referred to himself in the third person.

 

   More interesting was the abandonment of his old reluctance to play Hindu-Muslim politics at general elections. The Prime Minister managed to drag coded and not-so-coded references to Hindu-Muslim issues into his speeches in a manner that he has not done since his Gujarat days.

 

   One theory — which I still favour — is that he ramped up the sectarian rhetoric after the low turnouts in the first two phases, either because he thought this approach would win more votes or because (as some of his supporters suggest) he thought that the BJP’s workers had become smug and lazy, and he needed to re-energise them with fighting talk.

 

   Once it became clear to him after the later phases that he would comfortably form the next government anyway, he went to great lengths to disown sectarian politics and to insist that some of his best friends were Muslims. He dialled down the references to opposition parties snatching mangalsutra from the necks of Hindu women and the enforced confiscation of Hindu buffaloes if the INDIA bloc came to power. But the Hindu-Muslim theme never entirely went away. He brought up ‘love jihad’ in Bihar just a few days ago.

 

   There is a dynamic within Indian politics that suggests Hindu voters can be mobilised along either religious or caste lines. The most famous example of this was in 1990/91 when VP Singh announced the adoption of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations of providing reservation to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Confronted by this sudden move, the BJP’s LK Advani went on a Rath Yatra, and the Ram Mandir issue took centre stage in the BJP’s campaign.

 

   This time too, there are echoes of that battle. When the Prime Minister suggests that the Congress will take wealth from Hindus and give it to Muslims, Rahul Gandhi counters with the claim that the BJP is not the party of all Hindus, only of the upper castes. The Congress, on the other hand, he claims, stands for a caste census and for the advancement of all the other caste groups that have been neglected by the BJP’s upper caste bias.

 

   In addition, the Congress has added a class-based element, accusing the BJP of favouring crony capitalists and the rich. Should it come to power, it says, the Congress will play Robin Hood and help the poor. Not since Indira Gandhi campaigned on a soak-the-rich platform in 1971 has the Congress adopted such extreme rich-poor rhetoric.

 

   Obviously, this took the BJP by surprise because the Prime Minister chose to respond unexpectedly that the Ambanis and the Adanis had sent tempos full of cash to the Congress to shut it up.

 

   I don’t think any serious analyst doubts that the BJP will form the next government or that Narendra Modi is set to remain at the top. But the campaign shows us how you can’t take anything for granted in Indian politics: new issues emerge out of nowhere, and campaigns rarely follow the paths you expect them to.

 

   But of one thing, there is no doubt. This campaign has done the Indian electoral system no favours. The depths plumbed by the rhetoric, the apparently ‘coincidental’ use of investigative agencies against the opposition, and the derision openly expressed by most non-BJP parties about the Election Commission are not welcome developments.

 

   Because, in the end, what really matters is not which party wins but whether the Indian democratic system triumphs.

 

  

Posted On: 30 May 2024 11:45 AM
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