For most festivals in South Asia, preparations begin early. Indians like to term elections as festivals of democracy. India is a land of serial elections — hardly a few months go by before it is in the midst of either a national election, or a government election in one or more of its 29 states and 7 Union Territories, or local urban and rural self-government bodies, or for municipalities or panchayat elections.
Currently, India is in the process of electing governments in three strategically significant states of the northeast — Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland. This is barely days after urbanites in Gujarat voted for local bodies, which again is just two months after they elected a new state government in Gujrat. In less than two months, there will be another poll in the southern state of Karnataka. This will be followed by another round in four states later during the winter of 2018. And so on…
Consequently, almost every political party, especially ones at the national level, are perpetually in election mode. This means an unceasing political campaign where leaders trade charges against each other.
During parliamentary sessions, the battleground is extended into the two Houses of the Indian Parliament, which has for decades witnessed declining standards of debate and increasing levels of disruptions. Noises in Parliament get louder during elections of more political significant states which elect more lawmakers such as we saw in Gujrat recently.
Yet, none of these match the decibel levels found during parliamentary elections. This has happened as politics became more competitive and the party system changed from being dominated by the Congress, which was bequeathed with the legacy of the national movement, to a multi-party system where other parties have also become aspirants for power.
Secondly, as the social base of politics has widened it has enabled people from different sections, not hitherto from trained in western-educated liberal traditions, to enter politics. Adequate efforts have not been made to inculcate ‘respect’ for parliamentary conventions. In the normal course of events, the term of the current Lok Sabha, India’s Lower House, is due to end in early June 2019.
Consequently, it is mandatory to complete the electoral process well in time, ideally by mid-May. The elections have to be called for by Election Commission and a schedule has to be announced. Given the vastness of India’s electoral canvass, there are 543 elective seats, elections are held over several phases to prevent outbreak of poll violence and also to ensure adequate security coverage during the elections to be provided by the police and para-military officers.
Is Modi Going for Early Elections?
During the 2014 elections, there were nine phases of polling, beginning in the first week of April after conclusion of the end of school examinations for students of Standard XII. Currently, speculations exist over Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for early elections, later this year, to time with important state polls in three states governed by his party, Bharatiya Janata Party.
However, the chances are he will not bring the date forward, because time is still needed to provide a semblance of BJP government’s achievements and to deliver on promises he made during the last hustings. The argument that Modi may opt for an early election is based on the thesis that there has been considerable decline in his popularity since August 2017, almost a month after the hasty rollout of Goods and Service Tax, India’s most ambitious indirect tax reform.
This was put in place, eight months after the contentious step of scrapping high-value currency notes — popularly termed demonetisation — which crippled countless businesses and caused incessant trouble to the average Indian for weeks; the move proved highly unpopular. Added to this was the concerted effort to formalise the informal sector of the Indian economy.
These moves have greatly rattled the Indian middle class and created a significant schism between the BJP and its traditional voter, the Hindu upper caste urban Indian, the socio-economic group which had backed Hindutva forces for decades. Because of this disenchantment with the BJP, the argument is that it is wise for Modi to cut his losses at the earliest much before his party’s slide downhill bottoms out.
Read more: Pakistan: Declining moral standards
Modi will Sell to the Electorate what he Knows Best: Right Wing Ideology
However, the counter to this argument is two-fold: a leader like Modi who nurtures ambition of leaving his stamp on the history of India would prima facie, be disinclined to cut short his tenure, unless there was certainty of securing another term.
Secondly, more time would mean greater opportunity to at least partially reverse his decline in popularity, either through improving effective governance or after fabricating an overarching political idea which though contentious in nature, sharply polarises the country on party, community and ideological lines.
Part of this has happened already over the past three years nine months and the process began within weeks of Modi assuming office in May 2014; when he appointed the fiery Hindutva mascot, Yogi Adityanath — now chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state — as the campaign manager for a string of by-elections.
In 2014, it was wrongly assumed that Modi had abandoned the hawkish plank adopted in the wake of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Yogi’s appointment provided a signal to hotheads in Modi’s political fraternity; the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, that Hindu nationalistic politics would be given impetus under Modi. Consequently, religious minorities have been slandered and their places of worship attacked.
The loyal voter base of the BJP and Congress is almost at par at 19 percent of the total electorate. The verdict is thereby directly linked to either emergence of a ‘wave-situation’, a rare ‘performance-based’ endorsement of the incumbent, or localised factors and issues.
The situation worsened to such an extent that American President Barack Obama, during his visit to India in January 2015, chose to remind Modi of his constitutional obligations. India under Modi has seen greater patronage for politics that spreads prejudice towards India’s religious minorities, especially Muslims, who are often painted as pro-Pakistan.
Disagreements with Pakistan and the responses within India to these developments are mostly looked through the prism of domestic inter-community conflict. Religious tolerance and respect for social traditions is under jeopardy and people have been targeted over mere suspicions of either eating or carrying beef.
Most episodes targeting members of religious minorities or other marginalised groups have been overtly or tacitly supported by not so unimportant leaders of the BJP, central and state ministers and even leaders of the RSS and its affiliated organisation. Domestic politics is seeing the promotion of prejudice and a rise in majoritarianism within the country.
India has also slipped significantly in the recently released Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. (India has slipped to 42nd place from 32nd place last year due to “rise of conservative religious ideologies” and an increase in vigilantism and violence against minorities.) Undoubtedly, for the next elections Modi is intent on pursuing a polarising and divisive campaign, while aiming to use a basic modicum of ‘feel-good’ by focusing government policies or apparently pro-poor programmes as props.
In contrast to 2014, when latent Hindutva in his campaign was weaved into the narrative of development; this time, there is a distinct possibility that the primary thrust shall either be hyper-nationalism or plain Hindutva with a veneer of egalitarianism — to show the emergence of the Hindu Left. This clever tactic is also a necessity because of the decision to expand his core support from one dominated essentially by upper caste and urban Hindus to that which is more ‘proletarian’ in character and reaches out to the rural and urban poor.
Read more: Pakistan continues to defeat terrorism
Normally, advocates of Hindutva have been considered as adherents of right-wing economic policies, this has not always been the case. In the early years after the formation of RSS, not much thought was given to economic policy as its primary focus was strengthening Hindu society.
But, after independence when the RSS decided to engage in electoral politics through its affiliate, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (1951), one of its early philosopher and leader, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya propounded the party’s commitment to the last person in the line.
But because the Jana Sangh and its later avatar, the BJP, was not in government, its economic policies were not studied. Significantly when Indira Gandhi took the leftward turn in the late 1960s and nationalised private banks while scraping privy purses of former princes, she was backed by the Jana Sangh.
An indication of Modi’s success in universalising the Hindutva template in Indian politics was discernible during the recently elected Congress party president, Rahul Gandhi’s decision to eschew the traditional ‘secular lingo’ of the party which underlined India’s inclusive character.
After economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, the RSS took the lead in mobilising support against neo-liberal policies of the government and formed a new affiliate, Swadeshi Jagran Manch. It evoked memories of the movement against foreign goods launched in the first decade of the twentieth century and ran a concerted campaign against India’s entry into the World Trade Organisation.
The SJM also opposed entry of multi-national corporations during 1990s and early 2000s, even during the BJP government with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister. This positioned itself as left-of centre on economic issues. But because of his pro-corporate image, Modi was considered to be a market reformist, which he has not turned out to be.
Modi has in fact, smartly ‘modernised’ the idea of swadeshi or the principle of promoting the indigenous industry. He has liberalised India’s Foreign Direct Investment policy and raised the cap for investments in various sectors. But by also announcing various pro-poor and agri-centric proposals, even in this year’s budgetary proposals, Modi has neutralised possible opposition from sections within RSS.
This has also been possible by adequately furthering the agenda of Hindu nationalism in other vital sectors, most significantly in education where college curriculum and regulations have been altered to undermine the centrist or left-of-centre positioning of some leading educational institutions.
Modi’s Success in Universalising the Hindutva Template in Indian Politics
An indication of Modi’s success in universalising the Hindutva template in Indian politics was discernible during the recently elected Congress party president, Rahul Gandhi’s decision to eschew the traditional ‘secular lingo’ of the party which underlined India’s inclusive character. In the elections in Gujarat, Gandhi did not raise concerns over social polarisation and continuing alienation of Muslims in the state.
Issues central to their security too were not raised by the Congress party for fear of earning the disapproval of Hindus. This has resulted in disquiet from the party ranks and from liberal supporters because for most of the campaign he did not emphasise ideological distinctiveness of the Congress from the BJP’s.
Moreover, it was also particularly problematic because Gandhi’s Brahminical family origin — his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was a Kashmiri Brahmin — was emphasised by his party colleagues when Gandhi’s Hinduness was questioned by BJP during his temple-hopping spree.
In a polity where much of the contemporary narrative has been built by challenging the rigid caste hierarchy of Hinduism and by empowering the lower castes, emphasising Gandhi’s Brahminical link is indeed an oddity. While Gandhi has matured beyond expectations since his elevation to the position held by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, there are limitations to the party’s growth.
Read more: Beating the Indian Navy without going broke
Will BJP Win 2019 Elections?
Over and above, there are certain mathematical realities that have to be kept in mind when considering various possibilities which could emerge after the next election. In 2014, the BJP became the first party in three decades to secure a majority on its own, a feat that appears extremely tough to replicate in 2019.
In seven parliamentary polls since the emergence of BJP as a significant force in 1991, the two largest parties have won an average of 316 seats. With an average collective tally of 227, other parties underscore their necessity in government formation and functioning. Moreover, the loyal voter base of the BJP and Congress is almost at par at 19 percent of the total electorate.
Normally, advocates of Hindutva have been considered as adherents of right-wing economic policies, this has not always been the case. In the early years after formation of RSS, not much thought was given to economic policy as its primary focus was strengthening Hindu society.
The verdict is thereby directly linked to either emergence of a ‘wave-situation’, a rare ‘performance-based’ endorsement of the incumbent, or localised factors and issues. Both within his party and outside, Modi has detractors aplenty and knives will be out if the BJP tally starts dropping. There will be little or no threat to his position if the BJP on its own falls short of majority by 50 odd seats for he can strike a bargain with allies to cobble up a majority.
The trouble will begin if the BJP tally dips below the 220 mark because the party will require more allies and Modi may find it tough to secure their backing. In that scenario another leader from BJP stands good chance to become prime minister. A third possibility is that the BJP numbers fall below 200 and closer to the 180 mark in which case the Congress will fancy its chances provided it has 150 seats or whereabouts.
Depending on the way numbers are stacked, Gandhi may choose to become prime minister or appoint a trusted aide like his mother’s decision in 2004 — she nominated Manmohan Singh for the position. There is yet another possibility – both BJP and Congress do not have sufficient numbers to get ‘moral’ authority to head a coalition.
In that case, like in 1996 when HD Deve Gowda appeared from nowhere to become prime minister, India may have a completely unknown face as its chief executive. Indian politics always needs careful watching. This scrutiny needs to get more intensive now.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based researcher, author, columnist and political commentator. His books include: “Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984” and “Narendra Modi – The Man, The Times and The Demolition: India At The Crossroads” He writes columns in leading Indian papers and websites, appears as a commentator on various TV channels and is working on his next book; he tweets at: NilanjanUdwin.
The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village space.