With results due to be announced on Thursday May 23, Susan Ram explores the mammoth voting operation in terms of issues, significance and possible outcomes
A very great deal hangs on the polling booth decisions made by hundreds of million Indian voters over the past seven weeks.
On seven successive Sundays, beginning on April 7, a high proportion (67.1%, a historic record) of the country’s estimated 900 million voters have participated in phased ballots to elect 542 representatives to the lower house (Lok Sabha) of the national parliament in New Delhi. The scale and complexity of a general election in India, and the logistics involved in ensuring a free and fair poll, tend to send pundits into flights of hyperbole: there are predictable references to the ‘world’s largest democracy’, and gasps at the willingness of millions of extremely poor and deprived people to queue for hours to record their vote.
But on this occasion it’s difficult to overstate the significance of what’s been happening in voting booths across the land. Five years on from the landslide victory of the far right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the general elections of 2014, Indian voters have been charged with an historic choice: whether to endorse the Hindu majoritarian BJP and its ‘muscular’ leader, Narendra Modi, for another five years in government, or to throw them out.
In terms of significance, the 2019 elections have much in common with those of 1977, held while India was under emergency rule. Two years earlier, in June 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had slashed at the roots of Indian democracy by imposing a state of emergency in which opponents in their hundreds of thousands of were jailed, the press was muzzled and civil liberties were suspended. After a nightmare period whose horror was symbolised by the compulsory sterilisation campaign conducted by Sanjay Gandhi, her loutish younger son, Indira Gandhi fell prey to hubris: in the expectation of a convincing win, she decreed general elections. Across India, millions of exemplary, stoical and politically savvy voters, many of them illiterate, acted decisively and showed her the door.
Forty years on, Narendra Modi and the BJP have not required emergency powers to wreak havoc on multiple dimensions of Indian life and society. Their barnstorming victory in 2014, in which the BJP-dominated National Democratic Alliance (NDA) took a total of 339 Lok Sabha seats, effectively painting India saffron, was achieved through insidious long-term calculation. A landmark event in the BJP’s road to power was the December 1992 demolition, by politically mobilised ‘Hindu’ zealots, of the ancient Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya – on the surreal grounds that it had been built over the ‘birthplace’ of the Hindu god Ram.
The BJP constitutes the political front of the overtly fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (‘National Volunteer Organisation’), the toxic spider at the centre of a web of organisations geared to embedding and institutionalising Hindu majoritarian rule in India. The project, which dates back to the 1920s, seeks to destroy the social and constitutional foundations laid by India’s struggle for freedom from British colonial rule. For all its flaws and weaknesses, the Indian freedom movement asserted, and derived strength from, a commonality of interest that spanned religion, caste, ethnicity, language and sex. This commitment to a common endeavour is spelled out in the preamble of free India’s new Constitution (1950) which defines the country as a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic.”
The project to demolish this ‘tryst with destiny’ (the memorable phrase voiced by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of free India, at the midnight hour of independence in August 1947) was given a turbo-charged boost by the 2014 BJP election victory. Public institutions; the educational system; data-gathering; judicial independence; decades of expertise in national planning and public sector development: all have taken a battering at the hands of the Modi government and its sprawling network of cheerleaders, enablers and accomplices. Bearing the brunt of the assault have been the country’s religious minorities, above all the 200 million Muslims who constitute just over 14% of the population, along with tribal people and those of ‘Scheduled Caste’ origin: the ‘lowest of the low’ according to the strictures of the Hindu caste system. Once called ‘Untouchable’, people in this last category now use the term ‘Dalit’ (oppressed). Together with the equally downtrodden and exploited tribal peoples of India, they make up roughly a quarter of the population.
Two core dynamics can be seen at play within project ‘Hindutva’: the bid to establish the hegemony of Hindus and ‘the Hindu way of life.’ The first involves a political mobilisation strategy which taps into, and reifies, the religious beliefs, traditions and practices dear to large sections of India’s Hindu majority. This explains the emphasis placed on ‘othering’ minority groups, above all Muslims (medieval-era ‘invaders’, according to Hindutva’s rewriting of history). Under BJP rule, bans on cow slaughter (the cow is held sacred by traditional Hinduism) and the beef trade have been extended to cover much of the country. The bans have provided a ‘legal’ pretext for hundreds of attacks on Muslims and Dalits, including hideous lynchings, often video-recorded. Over the past five years, such attacks have risen by 97%.
Standing in Janus-style contraposition to this embrace of religiosity is the second dynamic of the Hindutva project: crony capitalism of startling brazenness. Multiple sets of data suggest that income and wealth inequality have increased substantially since Modi came to power in 2014, driven by a policy regime geared to furthering corporate business interests. For Indian economist C.P. Chandrasekhar, a differentiating feature of the Modi years has been “a visible collaboration between selected sectors of big business and the state” in which particular corporate houses (among them the Reliance, Adani, Essar and Tata groups) have been singled out for preferential treatment. The stench of corruption enveloping Modi’s ‘Mr Clean’ administration has been intensified by news of the latest scam: the sale by state financial institutions of electoral bonds, enabling corporate donors (including subsidiaries of foreign firms) to pour funds into BJP party coffers. On May 5, the State Bank of India, responding to a Right to Information request, revealed that anonymous political donors had in the course of just two months (March and April 2019) bought bonds totalling $514 million.
Misery for the vast majority; jam today, tomorrow and in perpetuity for those at the top: in summary form, the reality of BJP rule over the past five years.
In an earlier piece, I outlined the impact of Project Modi on specific sections of the great majority of Indians: farmers and agricultural workers; the industrial working class; public sector workers; those battling to make a livelihood of sorts within India’s immense informal sector. I pointed to a mood of protest, of readiness on the parts of huge numbers of struggling people to take to the streets or join epic marches traversing vast distances. To me and other commentators, this suggested a fading of the aura of invincibility that has sought to be built into BJP rule, a sighting of change ahead. Now comes the moment of reckoning.
What to look out for as the 2019 election results come rolling in?
Firstly, there are key states to watch. Most important of all is the giant northern state of Uttar Pradesh: with a total of 80 seats in the Lok Sabha, this is the kingmaker state and one which every past winner has needed to take. In 2014, the BJP took 71 seats here, helped by a divided opposition. Five years down the line, powerful opposition forces have come together in a grand alliance, the Mahagathbandhan. Led by two former state chief ministers, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati, the Dalit leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the alliance has the backing of other smaller parties and seems poised for big gains.
A second big state to watch is Bihar (40 LS seats), where the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal, headed by politically adroit former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, is expected to make gains.
Also important to follow is the performance of the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance UPA, the largest opposition force in most parts of the country (although not in Kerala, still a bastion of the Left). With a new generation of the Nehru/Gandhi clan presiding over its fortunes (Indira’s grandson Rahul Gandhi is party president, while his sister Priyanka was recently drafted in to head campaigning in eastern UP), Congress – something of a shadow of its previous self -- hopes to profit sufficiently from mass discontent to be able to forge a coalition government at the centre.
The results will also test the accuracy of the exit polls which have become the staple of the Indian mainstream media since the first phase of voting in April. Given to assuming ever more fanciful forms, exit poll fever has been doing its best to talk up the BJP and its likely performance: evidence, if more were needed, of the captive, cringing state to which five years of Modi rule has reduced much of the Indian media.
I’m putting my money elsewhere: on the voting projections published a few days ago by NewsClick, a member-supported Indian online video news network. Abjuring exit polls entirely, NewsClick’s projections are based on a detailed state-by-state analysis of past voting trends, current alliances, and attribution of vote swings based on a host of governance-related factors. What they point to is a dismal outcome for Modi and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance: a total of just 166 seats (against the 339 seats won in 2014), and departure from government.
It’s worth taking a look at the analysis – and the maps that accompany it. If these projections prove even partly accurate, the political map of India will shift in the blink of a results declaration – from monochrome saffron to the multi-coloured intricacy of a vivid, life-affirming mosaic.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.