Elections in India don’t happen in a day. They are rather a month-long affair. The world’s largest democracy, with a 900 million electorate (more than the entire population of Europe) is in the process of electing the 543 members of the 17th Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament), in an election which began on 11th April and is due to end on 19th May. But the statement made by those 900 million is often as obscure as it is loud.
It is just not the population, but also the multitude of communities, cultures and languages which make India appear more like a continent than a country. This is what makes deciphering Indian elections difficult not just for the novice but for experienced psephologists. To add to the problem, 84 million of these registered electors are first-time voters, who have just reached the minimum voting age of 18 and thus have no voting history from which to gauge their likely intentions, if one is even necessary.
It is helpful to try to understand the way elections work in India, and how the leader of the world’s largest democracy gets elected, because the process demonstrates both the triumphs and disasters of democracy. The fact that such vast elections are held at all, and the system is maintained by the people, is undoubtedly a triumph. But at the same time, how can anyone get what they want, or hope the system might deliver it one day in the future?
In or out of your house
General elections in India choose members of both the lower house (Lok Sabha) and upper house (Rajya Sabha) of the bicameral parliament. Lok Sabha members are directly elected, but Rajya Sabha members by an indirect method. The representatives of each State and the two Union territories are elected by the members of the Legislative Assemblies of those States and the members of the Electoral Colleges of those Union Territories. 12 further members are nominated by the President.
This hybrid system is supposed to produce “checks and balances”, in the classic British parliamentary tradition. No one interest should be able to ride roughshod over all others. But can you imagine any one interest group, political, financial, ethnic or religious, trying to make the rest of the country jump to its tune? Russians once thought they could that, both in the old Empire and the Soviet Union, and look at the map now.
Narendra Modi is the current Prime Minister of India. He belongs to the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which came to power in 2014 in a landslide. But it is the other major party in India, the Indian National Congress, which effectively decides the elections, win or lose.
Congress was the party of the independence movement, or at least the Hindu part of it. It claims to be a socialist party. When the electorate agrees, it is voted into power. When it thinks that centralised Indian socialism only benefits a few, the BJP gets in.
Furthermore, Modi is one of the very few BJP leaders to be a one party man. It was always said, and accepted by the electorate, that the first qualification for being a BJP leader was long years of service in the Congress Party. When the Janata Party, forerunner of the modern BJP, first toppled Congress from power in 1977 its leader, 84-year old Morarji Desai, had spent forty years as a notable Congress member, and this made him the ideal person to lead a disparate bunch of grassroots activists who had never supported Congress.
Congress is also closely associated with one family. Mahatma Gandhi himself was once its leader, and he was followed by Jawaharlal Nehru, long his lieutenant in the independence struggle, and then some time later his controversial daughter Indira Gandhi. After Indira’s assassination her son Rajiv took over, because her other son, Sanjay, who had been groomed as heir-apparent, had predeceased her in a plane crash.
After Rajiv was in turn assassinated his widow Sonia was eventually prevailed upon to lead the party organisation from outside parliament. The current leader is her and Rajiv’s son Rahul. So if Indians like the Gandhi dynasty, more of a right-wing phenomenon than a left-wing one, at any particular time they vote for Congress. If they don’t, they vote for the BJP.
Last time Congress and the Gandhi dynasty mucked up badly, so Modi was elected. But what then? No BJP victory is ever an endorsement of its policies, only of not being the status quo. It has nothing to do with the aspirations of Indians, and no indicator of what those aspirations are. So how is any BJP leader supposed to satisfy the electorate, or any Congress leader supposed to do more than sit there?
Majority of no one
A Lok Sabha majority is what the major parties look to gain in order to retain or take power. The Lok Sabha has 543 elected members from all Indian states, with two reserved spots in case the President nominates representatives from the Anglo-Indian minority community. Any party or alliance must gain a majority, 272 seats, to be able to form a government.
In 2014 Modi’s BJP won 282 seats, the first clear single party majority since 1984, while Congress won just 44 seats. No one expects Congress to do as badly this time, but once again the election will effectively be a referendum on Congress, regardless of Modi’s achievements, which have been lauded by a number of international commentators.
The BJP has always focused on Hindutva, or protecting/promoting the Hindu ideology, a position which fuels divisions between the Hindu majority and the 200-million strong Muslim diaspora. This damages the party and Modi in the eyes of many. Furthermore, Modi originally entered politics when he was sent by the RSS, a Hindu nationalist organisation, to “infiltrate” the opposition and turn it more in its preferred direction. So whose side is he really on, and whose agenda is he really pursuing?
In 2014 Modi promised jobs for the young, but India’s unemployment rate reportedly rose to a 45-year high during 2017-2018. His controversial demonetization move – aimed at combating black money dealings and hoardings by cancelling big denomination notes of 500 and 1,000 – has also become a black mark on his record. So the BJP has tried to steer discourse away from these failings towards the visceral appeal of Hindu-centric rhetoric. This is seen as either promoting a legitimate pride in being Hindu, or promoting a Hindu hegemony which is a danger to the republic.
While Hinduism is India’s majority religion (almost 80 percent of Indians are Hindu), Hindu nationalism is political. It’s the idea that the Hindu faith and culture should help shape the state and its policies — negating the contributions of others. Hindu nationalism is often explicitly at odds with the secularism enshrined in India’s constitution. It is also an attempt to bind the very diverse regions of India together with a commonality which only exists on paper, as Hindu does not equal Hindu nationalist any more than Roman Catholic equals Italian.
Many see this election as a turning point, in which India may decide to redefine itself according to its majority Hindu faith. “The shape of India is at stake,” says Milan Vaishnav, who directs the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C. “One of the important things this election is going to determine is India’s future as a secular republic that embraces pluralism and adheres to the founders’ notion that India’s unity is strengthened by its diversity.”
The last five years under Modi have seen Hindu nationalists grow increasingly assertive, inserting their priorities into Indian policy, laws and daily life. The ideology of Modi’s RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) — of which he is still an active member — has become especially prominent in recent years. The RSS is an all-male Hindu volunteer corps, which says that its aim is to promote Hinduism in civic life. But its critics accuse it of stirring hatred and violence toward India’s minorities.
One RSS priority which has become law in several Indian states in recent years is a ban on cow slaughter and the consumption or sale of beef. Hindus consider cows sacred. Police enforce these bans, which are punishable by up to 10 years in jail in some states and municipal fines in others.
But self-appointed cow vigilantes — laypeople, sometimes affiliated with the RSS or BJP — have also taken it upon themselves to investigate and sometimes attack and even kill people suspected of dealing in beef on the black market.
The victims of these attacks are often Muslims or lower-caste Hindus, who traditionally consume and trade in beef and have been deprived of their livelihoods due to the new laws. There’s been a rash of mob lynchings targeting those minorities in recent years. Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people — 36 of them Muslim — were killed in cow vigilante violence across 12 Indian states, according to Human Rights Watch. Hundreds more have been injured.
“Minority groups are shunted out or subordinated. As long as the majority is in the ascendency, it doesn’t really matter what the conditions for minorities are. Fifty years ago, 70 years ago, everyone was equal. Today, it’s majoritarianism,” says historian Romila Thapar, professor emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
But how can this make any sense? India is home to over 2,000 ethnic groups and 122 languages. Less than half the population speak Hindi as a first language, and although Hindus are the predominant religious group, their relative numbers have actually fallen in recent years. Furthermore, much of the violence surrounding Indian politics (such as the assassination of Congress leaders) has been linked to ethnic and religious minorities with grievances against what they see as a Hindu state.
Modi´s policies have no future unless you divide up India into separate states. He is not advocating that, and neither is Congress. But Congress has chosen to counter the BJP by playing the same game, and restricting choice even further. Scared by Modi’s success, it has chosen to present a “civilized” version of Modiism – which will satisfy fewer voters, and lead India further down the road to nowhere just as it has emerged as a new power in the post-industrial world.
Turning the turntables
After the 1977-79 government, which is not fondly remembered, India voted the BJP and its forerunners into power briefly in 1996, and then again in 1998 and 2014. If Modi is re-elected this time and serves another full five-year term, this would be the longest streak of non-Congress party rule in Indian history.
The way to prevent this would be to present different policies, which would appeal to a broader range of voters. More secular ones, in practice. But these days, even major secular parties like the Congress party don’t talk about secularism anymore, says Vaishnav.
“One of the most remarkable things about the 2019 election is how little opposition politicians are talking about secularism. It’s a four-letter word,” he says. “That’s something that BJP and its Hindu nationalist allies have succeeded in bringing about.”In other words, they have stifled all opposition to the main thrust of their policies, which cannot be healthy in a democracy.
According to a CEO and readers’ survey by the Economic Times, the government’s infrastructure push and its efforts to strengthen Brand India are seen as its biggest achievements. Modi has made more than 41 trips to over 56 countries – meeting world leaders and business leaders – which could be seen as a propagation of an India that is less protectionist and wants more FDI, thereby encouraging the growth of trade and manufacturing based out of India. Growing Hindu hegemony may be seen as less important by comparison, even by those who do not welcome it.
The much longer rule of Congress and its various allies generated a long list of corruption charges, some proven, some not. Deep resentment against this aspect of its rule, which people who vote for socialists often get but don’t expect, catapulted Modi and his party back to national prominence. The mere fact of having yet another Gandhi at the helm may mean Congress is still associated with corruption and nepotism in the eyes of those who voted against it for those reasons last time.
Congress is trying to form alliances with regional parties to stop Modi. These include chief ministers Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, Nara Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and Naveen Patnaik of Orissa. These figures are not well known outside India but are at least as powerful, or more so, in their home states, so this would give Congress access to several state machines once built to stop it.
In Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state and thus the most important political battleground, the former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has forged an alliance with another former chief minister, Mayawati, a popular leader of the Dalits – once referred to as “untouchables”. Mayawati has for decades blasted Yadav’s party as a “criminal enterprise” run by “goons” who oppressed the Dalits.
But all that is forgotten now, as Yadav and Mayawati work together to stop Modi, irrespective of what happens afterwards.
Such an alliance of former enemies is exactly what the BJP was, when its predecessor party was formed by a wide range of opponents of Indira Gandhi. Congress is now using the same tactics against the BJP itself. But where does that leave India and its voters?
All Indians can do is say what they think of Congress, which is still the established order, and drift blithely on in the hope that one day someone might listen to them. It may take several generations to turn India’s growth into a solution to its problems, but that is not nearly as long as it will take for Indians to start addressing them through their democratic system, meritorious though it is.
Politics in India is so colourful! It is a vast, diverse, and rich country. The fact that it has a rather ingrained British-style parliamentary democracy system allows for both multiple voices to be heard and for multiple pork barrels to be filled and rolled. At this point, one can say that there are two national-level political parties as major players (Congress and BJP).
But each region has its own local parties. Very often the local players end up as kingmakers, guaranteeing coalitions at the state and national level. There are very charismatic leaders around which citizens certainly rally, to be sure. But there are also two big competing ideas for India: a secular, diverse, multi-cultural state and a more nationalist state privileging its Hindu legacy.
That tension has ratcheted up over the past decade or two as the BJP has gained a stronger foothold. Elections in India are staggered to accommodate the scale of things. The Election Commission is a largely respected institution. I don’t know if voting is always 100% free and fair, given the circumstances of that country, but democracy is a well-established value. It’s not just lip service, I would say.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.