Written by Subrata Mitra.

ABSTRACT: The acrimonious electoral campaign of 2019 will be remembered for the spectre of muscular Hinduism locked in battle with multicultural secularism. Judging from the deep ideological chasm that separates the contending parties, the main issue for political analysts is not so much who will win, but what shape and direction India’s electoral democracy might take during the challenging years ahead.

The acrimonious electoral campaign of 2019 will be remembered for the spectre of muscular Hinduism locked in battle with multicultural secularism

Few events quicken the pace of everyday politics in a democracy like the approach of a general election. India, a rare example of a successful post-colonial democracy, is no exception to this rule. A brief perusal of the Indian media today shows how the 2019 election being held from 11 April to 19 May has brought to the surface issues that lie dormant between elections.

Conflicts of caste, class and group identity as well as other contradictions that underpin the political system of India have gained renewed prominence. Leaders across the whole spectrum of political parties are furiously engaged in making deals and short-term alliances. The media and political commentators are deeply engaged in frenzied activity. However, in the five years that have passed since Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the top position in the Indian government with a decisive majority in the Lok Sabha (the national parliament) in 2014, one can discern a growing sense of unease that marks India’s polarised political community. Indian politics today is at a crossroads.

Five years of the Modi government, which gave prominence to muscular nationalism and an assertion of Hindu values in the public sphere, have polarised society. The country has now reached a point where intense competition among political parties has gone beyond political issues and spread to the values and norms that underpin the whole political system.

India’s political discourse today revolves around a number of key questions: How conducive is the process of majoritarian democracy to the sustainability of economic development and the creation of a cohesive and inclusive political community? Does the fact that the country is perpetually in campaign mode cause essential, long-term goals to be superseded by short-term thinking and strategising? Finally, how secure is the social foundation of India’s secularism? This backdrop to the parliamentary election of 2019 makes it different from previous elections, which have been held regularly every five years since Independence (see Table 1) with the exception of the national Emergency of 1975–77.

The political space in India today is crowded with salient issues such as the centralisation of power under Prime Minister Modi, iniquitous economic development, corporate and market-led development to the detriment of agriculture, attacks on religious minorities, and conflict with Pakistan linked to the violent secessionist movement in Kashmir buttressed by cross-border terrorism from Pakistani soil.

Table 1: Parliamentary Elections, 1952–2014

Source: Data Unit (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, CSDS), Delhi, and Election Commission of India (ECI)

The election pits two large coalitions – the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), currently in power, and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) – against one another. The BJP is the main constituent of the NDA. The BJP has a pro-market stance, which it seeks to combine with what Prime Minister Modi describes as vikashbad, a vernacular expression in Hindi that conveys a sense of inclusive development. In his political rhetoric he presents the programme of the government as sabkasaath, sabkavikash (collective effort, development of all).

Those opposed to the BJP see this slogan merely as a veneer to conceal Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist cultural, religious and political agenda that seeks to cast India in a Hindu mould. It is vigorously promoted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a social movement that is closely allied to the BJP and which claims to have five million members.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the main opposition grouping in the parliament, is led by the Indian National Congress (INC) and includes an assortment of regional parties that have come together in their resolve to challenge the Hindu nationalist BJP. A loosely defined programme of social justice and secularism that forms the leitmotif of the Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s election rallies gives a semblance of ideological coherence to this alliance.

India is a federal state where regional governments have considerable autonomy. Still, the election to the Lok Sabha is of considerable national importance. The winning party or coalition will constitute the central government, with a mandate to rule for five years. Under the federal division of powers, all subjects of national and international importance such as defence, finance, foreign policy and public order are under the jurisdiction of the Union (central) government.

India uses the first-past-the-post electoral system. This basically means that in each of the country’s 543 constituencies the candidate with the largest number of votes wins the seat. This can produce a discrepancy between the percentage of votes cast and seats gained (see Table 2). As such, ‘opposition unity’, referred to in the current political parlance as mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) – whereby parties opposed to the Hindu nationalist agenda desist from contesting against one another and thus pool their votes in favour of one candidate pitted against the NDA – makes logical sense.

Table 2: Lok Sabha Elections, 1952–2014 (Seats and Percentage of Votes)

Source: Data Unit (CSDS), Delhi, and ECI

Two features of India’s party-scape need special attention. With the exception of the BJP and Communist parties, unlike European political parties, most Indian parties do not have deep roots in society, cadre-based organisations, or a deep sense of identification with a stable social base. Although party manifestos seek to give a sense of ideological coherence to electoral campaigns, it is short-term alliances tapping into caste loyalties and a floating population of fixers that mark the electoral strategies of most politicians. Local and regional leaders such as Mayawati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, and Mamata Banerji of West Bengal, who leads the Trinamool Congress, are examples of charismatic women leaders at the regional level who have held high office and are a force to be reckoned with.

Any of the regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and BSP of Uttar Pradesh, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) of Tamil Nadu, the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) of Telangana, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of Odisha, the YSR Congress Party of Andhra Pradesh, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (JKPDP or PDP) of  Jammu and Kashmir, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of Delhi might play a pivotal role in the case that neither the NDA nor the UPA succeeds in getting past the magic figure of 272 seats in the election. However, which particular constellation comes together and coheres is contingent on multiple factors such as locality and region, the leaders’ social base and their estimate of vote transfer as a result of the alliance, and the specific political conjuncture.

It thus comes as no surprise that in the wake of developments following the terrorist attack in Pulwama and the Indian bombing of a terrorist training camp in Balakot, a new wave of negotiations has started all over the country. The media report that the SP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh that had specifically excluded the Congress party but had left two seats for Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi is being re-negotiated by the alliance partners, who now sense a surge in support for the BJP.

India’s crowded political space

The resounding victory of the NDA in the parliamentary election of 2014 was a personal triumph for Prime Minister Modi, whose party won a majority of seats on its own (Table 2). This resounding victory had created the impression of a critical realignment of forces in Indian politics. Spectacular victories that followed in assembly elections in some key states of India, including Uttar Pradesh, had reinforced this impression. However, a string of electoral losses by the NDA and the emergence of popular discontent have now eroded this image of invincibility of the BJP-led NDA. (See Table 3 below for data on public opinion polls.)

The electoral defeats of the BJP in the regional assembly elections in Delhi, Bihar and, more recently, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka show the potential power of anti-BJP coalitions to force the BJP into a corner and make it face up to the logic of the first-past-the-post electoral system in a resounding defeat. This was the case in the general elections of 1967, 1977 and 1989, where, as shown in Table 2, the ruling party lost seats disproportionately to the loss of votes. This spectre haunts the strategists of the ruling party, which now faces a similar mobilisation by opposition parties. It is noticeable how the NDA continues to fare better in the proportion of votes polled but loses out in the proportion of seats gained (Table 2).

Various organisations have carried out opinion polling to gauge voting intentions in India and the results of some of these polls are displayed in Table 3. The date range for these opinion polls is from the previous general election, held in April and May 2014, to the present day.

The issues that have emerged since the last election are wide-ranging. Top of the list is what goes under the name of ‘jobless growth’ in India. Even as the economy has kept pace in terms of growth, this economic success has been in parts of the economy such as software development, where few jobs exist. Agriculture is one of the main areas of concern. The overall contribution of agriculture to the national GDP has shrunk slightly to less than a quarter, but the sector still engages more than half of the working population in India. The low growth rate of the agricultural sector has created massive agrarian distress and led to suicides by farmers, which has in turn resulted in a large number of farmer protests across the country.

Major initiatives of the Modi government such as demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) are alleged to have caused joblessness. A Pew survey from Spring 2018 reports that there has been a 27 per cent decline – from 83 per cent to 56 per cent – in the percentage of Indians who believe that the current economic situation is good. The greatest challenge for the BJP in the coming years will be to deliver economic results combined with social harmony and political unity. Having fought an election campaign that promised to fight corruption, improve governance and ensure development, the focus now will be on tangible results, and the media especially do not miss an opportunity to expose empty or failed promises.

Table 3: Prediction of Electoral Outcomes Based on Public Opinion Polls

Source: Wikipedia, downloaded 10 March 2019

The challenge faced by the BJP goes beyond economic concerns. Both the opposition parties and India’s articulate civil society claim that the BJP and the RSS have systematically contested the autonomy of major institutions of the state such as the judiciary, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

There is also the deeply polarising issue of building Ram Mandir, a grand temple for Lord Ram at Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh, to mark the spot where the Babri mosque of Ayodhya once stood which was destroyed by Hindu fanatics in 1992. 

The attempt to bring this issue back again as an electoral ploy has become feasible thanks to the appointment of Yogi Adityanath, the religious head of a Hindu monastery, as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, as well as the appointment of members of the RSS to key positions in the political system (such as the country’s president) and the appointment of RSS members as Governors of several Indian states or as Chief Ministers and members of the Union cabinet. This gives credence to the allegation of a systematic attempt to endow the country with a Hindu political complexion.

On the issue of probity in public life, the charges of corruption and scandals that contributed to the defeat of the UPA government in 2014 have returned as the opposition parties make claims of corporate favouritism, particularly concerning the Rafale deal with Dassault of France. Rahul Gandhi, President of the Congress, has made this issue the cutting edge of his attack against Prime Minister Modi.

Another issue on which the government has faced criticism is the citizenship amendment bill of 2016 which planned to extend Indian citizenship to Hindu immigrants from neighbouring countries. Resistance against this has united ethnic communities in the border states, which feel threatened with being swamped by outsiders in their own homeland – as indeed has been the case in the northeastern state of Tripura.

In contrast to previous elections, the political mood in India is marked by a sense of anxiety among both the supporters of the regime as well as its opponents. Scenes such as the rejection of national honours by their recipients and the questioning of the veracity of claims made by the government over its operations against Pakistan are unprecedented. There is an almost united front among civil society and academics against the lynching of minorities over the issue of cow slaughter. This, together with violent street protests against the legitimate operation of the army chasing after terrorists, indicates a sense of crisis whose depth goes beyond merely the electoral condition.

Is Indian democracy at risk?

Twenty-first century India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the most visible face of the country’s aspirations – are polarising opinion, both at home and abroad. The polarity of attitude between the confident buoyancy of a resurgent India and the voices of caution and moderation is palpable. Apart from the national Emergency of 1975–77 and the leadership style of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, such intensity of debate about India and its Prime Minister, and on such a scale, has been rare.

Considering the deep anxiety and intense strife that have marked Indian politics in the run-up to the general election to the Lok Sabha, one has to ask: will India continue to be the exception to the rule, and emerge from this parliamentary election as a properly functioning democracy, just as it has been throughout the last seventy years since Independence?

Despite the deep polarisation that marks Indian politics today, a democratic political order will continue to prevail, although the post-election political landscape might have a radically different configuration. This conjecture is supported by a number of factors, including the deep sense of efficacy and legitimacy that has spread through the entire society, thanks to seven decades of vigorous democratic competition for power.

Thanks to the availability of good and reliable public opinion data, we are in a position to observe this sense of efficacy among different sub-sections of the Indian population. In response to the question ‘Do you think your vote has an effect?’ one can note the steady rise of the sense of efficacy in the population as a whole, going up from 48.5 per cent of the entire population in 1971 to 59.5 per cent in 2009 (see Table 4). Interestingly, the gain in efficacy has come from the steady decline in those who either do not have an opinion or are not able to take a position on the question. The percentage of those who do not feel their vote is efficacious appears to have stayed low (less than one-fifth of the population as a whole), and it has stayed stable over almost three decades between 1971 and 2004.

The further details we find when we delve down into sub-sections of the population are very interesting. Thus, in 1996 as well as in 2004, those indicating a higher level of efficacy tended to be male, upper class, upper caste, and highly educated. However, Scheduled Caste (SC)/ Scheduled Tribe (ST)  voters, Muslims and Christians also indicate higher levels of efficacy. This is due to political mobilisation driven by ambitious leaders working out of special interest constituencies within the electorate.

Table 4: Efficacy of Vote (Percentage)

Data Source: National Election Survey, CSDS (Delhi) 1971, 1996, 1999, 2004, 2009

A pattern similar to the sense of efficacy prevails in the case of legitimacy. Impressively, the percentage of those who see the political system as legitimate has gone up from 43.4 per cent in 1971 to 56.4 per cent in 2009 (Table 5). However, a small percentage of the population, hovering around one-tenth of the total, remains convinced that alternatives to parliamentary democracy might be better. Further analysis shows that highly educated voters, upper castes and Christians, urban, male and younger sections of the population all recorded higher levels of legitimacy.

Table 5: Legitimacy (Percentage)

Source: National Election Survey, CSDS (Delhi) 1971, 1996, 2004, 2009.

The electoral articulation of discontent is a sign of a healthy democracy where people feel a sense of entitlement, enfranchisement and empowerment to express their grievances. What matters for the resilience of democracy is a capacity for processing these grievances through institutional arrangements and the containment of discontent.

The Indian political system is well endowed with mechanisms such as a free press, an independent judiciary and new legislative measures such as the Right to Information (RTI) Act which makes it obligatory on the part of the civil service to provide information about Acts of government. Alongside this, the electoral system itself acts to reinforce the power of elections to act as the midwife of political change. Each election becomes a method of public consultation, and we can see from the past five years how elections have led to regime change at the regional level.

The Indian method of countervailing forces is built into the political system, whereby powers are separated between the executive, the legislative branch and the judiciary as well as being divided vertically between the Union government, the states and about 600,000 elected village councils. Further, these bodies have an obligatory proportion of women, former untouchables and tribal communities as well as significant political autonomy and funds, which they receive directly from the government. The civil service and the army remain neutral and highly professional, and all of this is closely watched over by independent bodies such as the Election Commission and the judiciary.

Democracy against development? An Indian conundrum

Although the continuity of India’s electoral democracy is not in any doubt, its transformation from an electoral to liberal democracy is fraught with deep uncertainty. The main issue here consists of the problematic relationship between democracy and development. The transformation of a still largely agrarian economy into a modern industrial economy and the creation of a cohesive nation through uprooting people from their traditional lifestyles has involved a degree of coercion and, in some cases, a great deal of violence. Thinking about such structural change, Barrington Moore* warned us four decades ago that in India, which chose the democratic path of social change:

“a strong element of coercion remains necessary if a change is to be made. Barring some technical miracle that will enable every Indian peasant to grow abundant food in a glass of water or a bowl of sand, labour will have to be applied much more effectively, technical advances introduced, and means found to get food to the dwellers of the cities. Either masked coercion on a massive scale, as in the capitalist model including Japan, or more direct coercion approaching the socialist model will remain necessary. The tragic fact of the matter is that the poor bear the heaviest costs of modernization under both socialist and capitalist auspices.”

Elections – India’s chosen method of political and social change – are vehicles of resistance for those endangered by development. Small land-holders, workers facing redundancy as modernisation marches in, or indeed, for that matter, minority communities facing the pressure of national ‘integration’ are easily mobilised against policies such as land acquisition and the inroads made by the market into traditional lifestyles and living spaces.

India has successfully solved the issue of a national language that split Pakistan and pushed Sri Lanka into civil war through the three-language formula, whereby regions can transact their official business in the regional language while Hindi and English function as link languages. However, the same success has not been achieved when it comes to religion. This is where we see the contradictions between Prime Minister Modi’s agenda of inclusive development and the shrill voice of the RSS. When the Hindu nationalists demand that the party in power should protect Hindu symbols such as cows, this protection endangers the livelihood of wide sections of the Indian population, including Muslims and former untouchables in particular. This is emerging as a crucial problem for the government.

One can identify similar unresolved issues that generate considerable political passion. Foreign policy and security issues have not been major factors in India’s electoral politics in the past except during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, which contributed to the massive victory of Indira Gandhi in the 1972 assembly elections. However, the current strife in Kashmir, the Pulwama terrorist attack that killed forty Indian paramilitary forces, and the Indian incursion into Pakistani territory to bomb a terrorist camp there followed by a Pakistani air attack might affect the electoral outcome. This is particularly relevant to the campaign of the BJP, which has positioned itself as a staunch defender of the territorial integrity of the Indian state.

Whether or not the latest crisis benefits the party electorally depends on the unfolding events and the capacity of the BJP to persuade the electorate that terrorism is an important issue and that the government’s strategy has yielded concrete results. This may win over urban voters who are exposed to the media more than rural voters, where agrarian distress has already cut into the BJP’s support base – as one can see from the recent assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which the BJP lost.

Conclusion: India rising, but where to?

The most salient achievement of India’s political system has been to induce a sense of dynamic equilibrium where the state and market balance one another, and in the process to generate the incentives for both growth and redistribution. A similar process of ideological convergence among India’s mainstream political parties has not taken place with regard to the basic components of national identity. Two conflicting formulations of the idea of India – multicultural secularism as opposed to muscular Hinduism – define an ideological chasm that separates the two main competing coalitions.

As things stand, India today is at a turning point. The state of intense mobilisation in which political forces and social groups find themselves in the 2019 parliamentary election constitutes a critical juncture. The outcome remains uncertain. The results of this crucial election will continue to affect the structure of the Indian state as well as its political culture and economic policy for many challenging years to come.

Regardless of the uncertainty of the electoral outcome, the institutional basis of the Indian state and the process of electoral democracy remain solidly entrenched. Therefore, one can safely predict that the country will stay on its democratic course, whatever the result. However, the unresolved structural issues of agriculture and the rural economy, territorial integration in Kashmir and India’s Northeast, the rights of forest dwellers threatened by encroaching markets, and the emotive issue of cow protection will continue to haunt democratic India in the form of sporadic violence and local conflict, despite the overall stability of the political system.

Subrata Mitra is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Heidelberg University, Germany.

*Barrington Moore (1966) Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Beacon Press: Boston, p. 410 (emphasis added).

**Some parts of this article were originally published online with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung under the title ‘Democracy and Discontent: India on the Eve of Parliamentary Elections’.

***Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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