History is more than the path left by the past. It influences the present and can shape the future.
As India waits for May 23 and the 17th Lok Sabha results, it is necessary to take stock of the immense damage done to the democratic structure of the country during election campaigning. From the literal demolition of one icon to the verbal denigration of another, India witnessed a weird election campaign plummeting into the depths of amorality. The result is growing disbelief and skepticism about the vote itself, which is a first for independent India. That polling booths were captured is an old story but that the vote once cast could travel to some other party is a dangerous first, as it is shaking the very foundation of electoral democracy: the ballot.
In twirling times assassin becomes patriot, terror accused becomes public representative making mockery of India’s democratic ethics. These elections are not about PM’s false promise of economic nirvana. They are not about the disastrous policy decisions taken by him, a record rise in unemployment and falling economic growth rate. They are not about rural distress and farmers’ suicides. Language and civility are two prime victims of this vicious poll campaign. Hate speech makes a minority cower even as a vast section of the majority is made to feel insecure and besieged. Many people, driven by religious fervour and nationalism, have come to support a “muscular” messiah who crushes their external and internal enemies! Their feeling, magnified many times by the slavish TV channels, newspapers and social media, gives an aura of invincibility to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is seeking re-election after having run a presidential-style government in a parliamentary democracy.
2019 elections will be known for the terror-accused Sadhvi Pragya, fielded as a ruling party candidate. The answer to this question lies in the stacked Russian dolls. Despite the changing faces in the BJP, the party’s DNA remains the same – unabashedly Hindutva. And under Narendra Modi, we have seen various shades of saffron coming together, and even competing with the other. In this one-upmanship, Sadhvi Pragya knows that even if PM says that her remarks on Nathuram Godse are unpardonable, he doesn’t really mean it. After all, his following comprises of all shades of the Right. In 2019, if Narendra Modi indeed returns with full majority, as visualised by party president Amit Shah, expect Pragya Thakur to carry forward the ideological flag of the party.
As the opposition leaders began to remind the voters of Modi’s false promises, he grabbed the non-economic issues to distract the voters. The campaign took a weird turn. Hope was replaced by fear for driving voters. Having polarised the nation on the basis of religion, caste, region and political leaders, the party devised multiple narratives to suit the audience of the day. The campaign then turned to nationalism, casting aspersions on a minority community and calling all political opponents “anti-national”. In an atmosphere surcharged with patriotic fervour, issues such as the poor farmers’ suicides or the record rise in unemployment were lost. Modi is master in switching narratives with sustained social media campaigns. From the surgical strikes to the alleged misdeeds of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In a state where the charge of appeasement of Muslims gets political mileage, hurl that against the political opponents. In a state where the people appreciate a muscular leader, project that persona. Some political leaders the world over have shown that lies work to their advantage even if they are caught lying. During the election campaign, a few fact-checking organisations cannot cope with the material that comes under their scanner day and night.
These elections will also be known for repeated violation of the moral code of conduct that advises against seeking votes in the name of the military, religion and castes and against promoting sectarian hatred. Of course, this code does not bar the candidates from telling lies. Voters' faith in the Election Commission has deteriorated this past election season. That does not bode well for democracy. There is no level field in these elections as the ruling party is spending many times more money on propaganda than all other parties combined. The dark money amounting to more than half the funds circulates freely as the donors remain anonymous. These elections will have serious implications not just for the future of democracy but also for the idea of India and the soul of Hinduism, a faith used as fodder for the political campaign. At another level, the disruption of social cohesion and harmony will enhance, not diminish, the threat of terrorism. The continuing political confrontation will not let the next government spur economic growth and improve the law and order situation. If BJP wins again, religious polarisation, suppression of dissent and politicisation of institutions will gather further momentum.
These elections are unlikely to hand over a decisive victory to any single party. The poll campaign is only a trailer of a political thriller that will feature horse-trading before and after the installation of the new government. A great drama of betrayal by minor players will follow. Strategists of all parties have kept ready resources for political auctions. Newly elected parliamentarians will be offered power and pelf for forming and breaking unprincipled alliances. Strange political bed-fellows will trample upon their ideological commitments. In pursuit of power, they will forget mutual animosities. They will forgive their opponents for abusing them during the poll campaign. At times, the party winning the largest number of seats does not get to form the government as some of its legislators defect and another alliance grabs power! This theatre of the absurd is euphemistically known as democracy. Regardless of who wins or loses, this insidious whittling away of faith in India’s democracy and democratic institutions needs to be stopped and people's confidence and trust revived. It is ironical that those who have been attacking India’s unity and her people, are getting full help in this exercise by those who claim to be standing for rights and justice. This struggle will become irrelevant if the voter stops believing in his or her own vote. This is the real conspiracy that we are all becoming victims of.