By Dr Satish C Aikant
As the countdown for elections 2019 has begun and an estimated 900 million Indians will be heading to the polls in April-May to elect the next Lok Sabha, politicians throughout the country can already be seen kicking up the heat and dust of electioneering.
In India, every election is a spectacle often resembling a festive season. But behind the festive appearance one can discern a grim battle – 2019 is qualitatively different from 2014. In 2014, Narendra Modi and the BJP were voted into power for two principal reasons. First, anti-incumbent sentiments were rife against the Congress-led coalition government, which faced a barrage of accusations of corruption. Second, Modi managed to raise people’s hopes by making several ambitious promises. The 2014 election was all about a larger than life persona of Narendra Modi and he succeeded in turning what was essentially a parliamentary political contest into a presidential style showdown. The resounding victory of the BJP created an aura of invincibility about him. But it is no longer the case on the eve of forthcoming elections. The voters who were shown a rosy picture of acchey din are a disenchanted lot. The crucial issues of society, economy and governance can no longer be ignored as these are the issues that directly impact the survival of millions of individuals as well as the future of democracy and the plural ethos of this country.
Reforms were initiated in the 1990s which made the Indian economy more market friendly, and generated high levels of growth, unleashing a new wave of prosperity, but over the years there has been a downward drift. The decline began during the second term of the UPA, but the situation has only gotten worse now. New figures from the independent researchers at the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) show that joblessness is rising alarmingly. The unemployment rate in February this year stood at 7.2%, up from 5% in February, 2017. The agrarian sector is in real crisis. Farmers have staged numerous protests in recent years amid reports of falling incomes and increasing distress in the farm sector. Overall, it is a grim scenario with GDP down 2 per cent after demonetisation, fuel prices highest in the decade and unemployment shooting through the roof.
Economically, the Modi era has been one of disruptions. The first big disruption was demonetisation that was declared out of the blue on November 8, 2016. The move, as it was announced, was ostensibly to rid the economy of black money and wealth accumulated through avoidance of taxes. However no less than 99% of this money came back to the banks making a mockery of Modi’s grandiose declaration. Instead of curbing the black economy, the measure wrecked small businesses and resulted in creating more unemployment in the country. Post-demonetisation, none of the trumpeted objectives has been achieved – there is no visible control of terrorism, which reached a flashpoint in Pulwama attack, and cross-border violence is at the decade’s highest. The second disruption to the economy was the imposition of the goods and services tax (GST). In more ways than one, the GST is a good idea, but ill-conceived. The legislation was implemented with a convoluted multiplicity of rates that is still in the process of being streamlined.
The sudden spike in tension between India and Pakistan in February, just weeks before the election announcement, has put national security firmly on the agenda – and is certain to impact the voter behaviour. National security is a big issue but it has sparked an unreal debate in social media and the news channels. Modi received a boost with his tough stance on arch rival Pakistan in February, but even though the hardline approach to Pakistan has been welcomed by all opposition parties the BJP is quick to run down the opposition for their alleged secret love for the enemy. Election in the time of social media is all about perception and Modi stands tall in this battle of perception. Disinformation is willfully amplified and propagated on the news channels as part of invidious agenda of the political parties. The ruling BJP has been unremittingly promoting false narratives of nationalism. Not to be outdone in the game the opposition mounts its offensive but falls prey to the same narrative, which the compromised media assiduously promotes. After the Pulwama attack there has been spate of fake news on the social media aimed at rousing passions rather than providing credible information and comments.
The moot point is: what does the voter do and how can he make an informed choice when the hour of reckoning comes? Can a fragmented opposition that wants to emerge as an alternative take on the might of Modi whose rhetoric and bluster can drive the opposition to a corner? Rahul Gandhi’s Congress once seen as the natural party of government is in a shambles and reviving it to make it a viable opposition to Modi’s BJP is a herculean task if not impossible. Rahul of course has steadily shown political maturity and acceptability among the people and is expected to improve the fortunes of his party in the coming election but the party in most states lacks organisational structures. Priyanka is seen as an X factor for the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh and she might make some difference given her appeal among the people but one doubts if she will work wonders. Not enough efforts have been made by the Congress to stitch up strategic alliances to give a straight fight to the BJP. Therein lies the strength of the BJP.
Ranged against the RSS-BJP cadres and their formidable electoral machinery, the opposition has simply resorted to portraying itself as anti-Modi, instead of presenting an alternative vision for the country. They want to stall a powerful ruling force, yet so far, the best case being made by the parties opposed to Modi-BJP is that they are anti-Modi. But an alternative has to be an alternative in substance and not of mere negation. The prevailing attitude of the opposition has only prompted Modi to rebut: “They all want Modi out, but I want corruption out and development in.” The media in turn helps him build a narrative of one tall, ‘honest’ leader versus a bunch of dishonest pigmies wanting to drag India down to the path of anarchy and misgovernance. The alternative force has to be that of an alternative worldview and of an alternative approach to governance which the opposition must present to convince the voters. It must present an alternative economic model based on structural changes needed to bring about concrete measures that address both urban and rural distress.
The upcoming election is crucial in that it is likely to seriously challenge the country’s inclusive political culture. It is feared, not without some reason, that if Narendra Modi secures another emphatic mandate, the country will move perilously close to becoming an authoritarian state which will give the government hegemonic control over all state institutions, as well as the media and public discourse. This would further undermine the integrity and autonomy of several institutions, including the judiciary, public watchdogs and, more importantly, state-run institutes of higher learning. Over the past four years, the BJP government has repeatedly turned a blind eye on attacks by fringe groups on religious minorities. Manufactured hate and anger, chest-thumping, and the vocabulary of retribution have become a part of national discourse. Any dissent is dubbed ‘anti-national’ so much so that one is expected to wear one’s patriotism on one’s sleeves. Modi conflates India with himself and his government and anyone opposing him is heaped with loaded pejoratives. One can find a parallel in Indira Gandhi who was referred to by adoring sycophants that “Indira is India”. Emergency was a dark chapter in the modern history of India but the current situation perhaps is worse as Arun Shourie points out: “Indira used the law to impose emergency – this diffused undeclared emergency is creeping and slowly taking away all freedoms.”
The 2019 mandate may result in a rainbow coalition of opposition parties which should be a welcome development. Call it a khichdi coalition if you must, but one must know that khichdi is a wholesome and comfort food of common man from a chaiwala to a chowkidar. The richer can relish their biryani.
(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)