“This is a Landslide. India is Now a Majoritarian Democracy”
May 23, 2019
What can one say on this really sad and discouraging day. But at least I can underscore what others have already said. What is very clear, is that this is a vote for Hindu consolidation.
Secondly, that the BJP’s strategy, of divide and divert, has worked. Very, very successfully. At the end of the day the Hindu vote bank has been consolidated, consecrated, and sanctified in a sense.
It looks like there will be an increase in the BJP’s vote share. The last five years we have consoled ourselves that it won only 31% of the vote. But at the end of the day if the vote goes up to touch 40% that will be a very, very significant increase. It is a signpost, of the consolidation of the Hindu vote bank.
We should also note the two or three growth areas of the BJP. There is Bengal, and also significantly Telangana, and in Bihar and UP it has done better than expected. These are sites of hindu-muslim division.
To have the BJP doing well in Telangana, where there are concentrations of Muslims, marks a significant shift. The Hindu-Muslim division strategy is working.
While this polarisation politics is important, tried and tested, and has clearly worked well, this election is about more than that.
It is about strongman politics – Narendra Modi as this strong man, versus numerous party fragments. Even the Congress was a fragment with 44 seats, only a few more than the Trinamool Congress. In terms of party politics, the whole structure of political competition after 2014, given the presidentialisation and huge political centralisation of the 2019 election, was very lopsided, very different, and the election was clearly designed to support this kind of strongman, strong party politics.
In the worldwide context, there is a shift not just to the right, but to the rightwing populist, embodied by strongmen. Look at Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil and others in South America that are going in this direction – this is a worldwide trend, where democracy, which we hoped would check authoritarian tendencies, or autocracies, is not really standing in the way.
This is especially true of our system, the first past the post system, which does to an extent contribute to this tendency.
In India you have this hugely powerful party, which claims to be the largest party in the world, arrayed against 80-90 other parties. This is not the case in the USA for example, where you have a clear, distinct alternative, which is in a sense ideological, or at least it is different. Here in India we cannot say there is any alternative against this strong man. We have not been able to buck the worldwide trend.
A consequence, obviously, of this is that the monsoon has come rather early. It is a monsoon that’s covered the entire country, in just one day. In 2014 it seemed concentrated in north and northwestern India, but now it covers the east as well, and even the south.
So, I believe, the 2019 election is even more significant than in 2014. Back then, all said and done, most people were giving a first chance to Modi. Most were willing to set aside the 2002 mass violence, which was limited to Gujarat and didn’t really bother people in many parts of the country.
But in 2019 to re-elect the BJP and RSS and Modi, despite their very poor economic record, despite the social disharmony, the low-intensity communal and caste conflicts being kept up – for these reasons the re-election in 2019 is far more significant.
I often say I have great faith in the Indian voter, I salute the Indian voter – but one is really beginning to wonder if that faith is justified, given the increase in vote share and in the number of states the BJP is winning.
In the past we talked about the dangers of majoritarianism. Now, it is something that’s clearly present, it’s there, and on the basis of this election, India’s democracy can clearly be described as a majoritarian democracy.
That said, while it is clear that Hindu-Muslim issues matter, there is much more to it. India has turned to the right, and has turned to the right very firmly.
The Modi cult is not just “there” – it has been built up over the past five years or more. By the Modi machine, the RSS, by technology, and clearly the media, which has made a very major contribution to the building of the Modi cult. We must think about the role of the media and the RSS behind building up Modi.
Now let us spare a thought for the opposition. While we must criticise the opposition, for we want a strong opposition and hope there will be a change in the next few years, we must not at the same time overlook that the odds were very heavily stacked in favour of Modi and the BJP. When you have a powerful government like the Indian government, and a leader like Modi, who makes use of it rather differently from previous governments – with the exception of the Emergency – that use of the state machinery is very important.
When we talk about the BJP having so much money, the role of money in recent elections, and the role of electoral bonds in this election, has been extraordinary. And the opposition did nothing. Can you imagine any other country where the party in power introduces non-transparent electoral bonds, and collects 95% of the funds through this instrument, and gets away with it? It’s hard to believe.
Then of course, there are our institutions. Institutional autonomy has never before been eroded to such an extent. Many of us, even critics of the BJP and Modi, say “Oh, this has happened before.” The legitimacy we give to the BJP in this manner – that there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing, and it’s all been done before – we must give thought to how we contribute to the legitimisation of a very different, very rightwing government, led by the RSS.
The less said about the role of the Election Commission, the better. Never before has the EC functioned in the way it has this time. I won’t belabour that point.
We have to wait for the final results, particularly in UP, but there has been a lot of talk about alliances and so on – and I must say, if it is true that the BJP has won such a huge share of the votes and seats in UP, alliance or no alliance, with 50% of the vote it would have been home and dry either way.
One could say, if there had been a pan-India alliance, there would have been a certain momentum, a certain coherence to the opposition, and the BJP’s strongman politics could have been tempered somewhat.
But this is a landslide. This is not a normal election. Going by the numbers as they stand, an alliance in UP or some other states would not have made a difference.
Another point is that it takes two hands to clap. If the main opposition party has 44 seats, and the one after it has 42 seats, why would you expect them to go out of their way to form an alliance? We mustn’t forget that there is a basic conflict between the Congress and the regional parties – most of them are breakaways from the Congress, many of them even have Congress in their names! Can we expect them to come together, to forge an understanding? We were under the impression that parties would set aside their very real differences, but why would they?
I am a student of the Congress, and have an academic interest in it. In this election, clearly they made tactical mistakes, and it could be argued that failing to form alliances was one of them. But there is also the leadership question that the Congress will have to confront: whether it can afford to continue with its family or dynastic leadership.
Another mistake was the unending focus on Rafale. To end every speech with ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ wasn’t working, and clearly hasn’t shown results.
But the Congress’s biggest failing is that it has no organisation. Take NYAY – if you have no organisation on the ground, who’s going to communicate NYAY? As far as its own organisation is concerned, the Congress did zilch in the ten years it was in power, and in the past five years too it has done zilch.
Now what lies ahead? One thing is clear – unlike what we’re going to hear, that with a comfortable majority the BJP will focus on development, that a 100-day plan has been drawn up with the bureaucrats – we cannot be fooled into thinking that there is a change in the RSS and the BJP. There is every reason to think they will be encouraged to do more of the same, or even worse.
Centre-state relations will also change, and the federal structure will come under renewed pressure.
The erosion of institutions will continue. The university system will face an attack, and so will civil society organisations, NGOs, activists and others.
But this change is not irreversible. Rightwing parties do come to power through elections, but they are voted out of power as well.
With that in mind, I think the opposition has to focus on politics between elections. They must focus on mass mobilisation, which they haven’t done enough so far. The fight will have to go on, as it must, and we will have to do more than we have in the past five years.
First published in The Citizen.
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