What 2019 polls mean for the idea of India10 min read . Updated: 26 May 2019, 09:02 PM IST
BJP’s personality cult-driven dominance has a real danger: the public could be mobilized to undo our republic
A future historian might recall 2019 as the year when Indian democracy missed a turn and entered a long tunnel instead. She might identify 23 May 2019 as the day when India entered the tunnel, the day that confirmed the path taken in the last five years, the day that foreshadowed the next five. Let us stay with her for a glimpse of our present and future.
What we have witnessed is not just a staggering electoral victory but an enduring and, no less, staggering shift in the nature of our democracy. More than the scale, it is the spread and depth of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory that attests to its electoral dominance. During much of the election season, the nature of public debates and their reception confirmed that the BJP has captured the public imagination and shifted the spectrum of public opinion to its side. The role of various institutions in the run-up to the election left little doubt that the BJP controls state power in a way that few governments in the past did. All in all, we are now officially in the age of a BJP hegemony.
You don’t need the eyes of a future historian to understand the enormity of the BJP’s electoral dominance. On paper, this might look like a repeat of 2014. But in many ways, it is more significant than the previous election. Not just because the BJP’s final tally is 20 seats higher than last time. Not just because it has added 6 percentage points to its national vote share. But mainly because it has turned an exception—a “black swan"—into the norm.
The party of the Hindi heartland that made serious forays into the west only in the 1990s is now on course to becoming a genuine all-India party. The BJP’s stunning rise in West Bengal, its consolidation in Assam and Tripura, its impressive show in Odisha, and the surprising success in Telangana is a testimony to its rapid expansion in the territories where it was virtually non-existent. The BJP has placed itself in the reckoning to capture power in West Bengal in 2021 and in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in 2024. It won’t be a surprise if political mergers and acquisitions expand the BJP’s footprint in Tamil Nadu before the next state assembly elections. The BJP is going to be the only nation-wide political party for some time to come.
The party has also deepened its social reach. By 2014, BJP was no longer an upper-caste, urban party. It had made significant in-roads among OBCs and Adivasis in many states in west and north India. In this election, the BJP has made larger than proportionate gains among Dalits and the rural voters. It is clearly the first preference of the OBCs. Barring the minorities, the BJP is now a “catch-all" party, just as the Congress used to be in the years of its dominance.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory speech on 23 May brought out the second dimension of BJP’s hegemony. He claimed that thanks to the BJP, no party dared to campaign in the name of secularism. He was right. The BJP set the terms of the public debate in this election. Nothing illustrated it better than its “narrative capture" of the national security issue after the Balakot retaliatory air strikes. The opposition was paralyzed by the BJP’s communication offensive. There was no way anyone could question the government on national security. Similarly, the opposition remained on the defensive on the BJP’s brazen attempt to create a Hindu-Muslim divide. Now, that was not possible without almost complete control of the mainstream media through a mix of clever spin doctoring, meticulous capture of key media positions, gross misuse of state patronage as well as naked use of money-power, blackmailing and arm-twisting. While the media was complicit in under-informing the public and under-scrutinizing the government’s claims, the public too was more than willing to believe the government.
The fact is that the party with little roots in India’s freedom struggle has managed to present itself as the sole representative of Indian nationalism. Modi has successfully positioned himself as the custodian of national interests, whether on security or foreign affairs or the economy. As a result, the BJP has captured the mindscape of a vast majority of Indians, including many of those who may not vote for it.
The BJP’s ideological hegemony manifested itself in two ways in this election. The proportion of voters who voted on “ideological" consideration, defying traditional family loyalty or caste community ties, clearly went up this time. In a similar vein, the proportion of those who voted on “national" issues rather than state specific or local issues also went up. Both of these were related to the rise of voters who said the choice of a PM mattered the most to the way they voted. The BJP secured an overwhelming proportion of these ideologically inclined voters.
The third and final dimension of the BJP’s hegemony is that the present regime wields far greater coercive power, both legal as well as extra-legal, than enjoyed by any ruling party in post-independence India. Modi government has used its Constitutional-legal power without any formal or informal restrains. This legal power was supplemented by the use of state power for extra-legal coercive measures by way of harassment and persecution of political and ideological adversaries, protection to vigilante groups, and the misuse of anti-terror laws, besides the silent, everyday form of surveillance, intimidation and infiltration.
No wonder, the run-up to the Lok Sabha election was a story of institutional capture or surrender: the developments in higher judiciary since the historic press conference by four sitting judges of the Supreme Court, the drama surrounding the removal of the director of the CBI, the CVC’s dubious role in that episode, the CAG’s unusual report on the purchase of Rafale aircraft, and finally, the partisan role of the Election Commission through this election. To this list, we should add the army and the national security apparatus that are beginning to be aligned with the political requirements and demands of the ruling party.
To be sure, institutions have never been the strength of our democracy. Successive regimes have contributed to the decline of institutional autonomy. Modi regime sounded the death knell to autonomous institutions of governance and oversight.
The future historian might pause at this point and ask: What was wrong with a hegemonic dominance of one party? After all, India saw single-party dominance of the Congress in the first two decades of our democratic experience. While India-baiters saw that as signs of a lack of democracy, we now recognize that the “Congress system" actually incubated democracy in a young post-colonial nation. So, if Congress dominance was fine, what’s wrong with the BJP dominance? Historians might notice one critical difference between Congress dominance of yesteryear and the BJP’s hegemony today. Congress’ dominance was a result of inclusion: the ruling party contained within itself the opposition as well. The Congress provided space for all ideological shades from the Left to the Right. As noted above, it was a “catch-all" formation, which drew fairly even support from all sections of society and, in turn, provided somewhat uneven representation to them. The Congress system of the 1950s and 1960s was about consensus building, power-sharing, and moderation. Hence, that hegemony was compatible with and actually furthered democracy.
The BJP’s hegemony is a study in contrast. It is headed for dominance similar to that of the Congress. But this dominance is based on division rather than consensus. In ideological terms, it is narrow and sectarian. In social terms, it firmly excludes the minorities, especially the Muslims. In terms of decision-making, this is the opposite of consensus building. If there is one good parallel between the Congress dominance and that of the BJP, it is during Indira Gandhi’s regime, when she bypassed her own party to reach to the voters. Modi cult is in many ways modeled after Indira Gandhi’s personality cult that led to the Emergency. That is why the BJP’s hegemony cannot be compatible with anything more than an appearance of democratic routines.
What future holds
What, then, lies in store for the next five years? I managed to sneak a look and remember some key points from the next chapter of our future historian’s book.
The one feature that would stand out is an unprecedented concentration of power. In the second regime of Modi, this concentration would take multiple forms. Notwithstanding Modi’s assurance on federalism, we are likely to witness a rollback of effective decentralization of power which took place over the last two decades and a shift of state power into the Union government. Within the Union government, we are likely to witness greater imbalance of power in favour of the executive. Legislature’s autonomy was always a fiction. Now, we might see a disciplined, if not pliant, judiciary. Governmental power is likely to shift to the ruling party, leaving little space for autonomous or professional decision-making. And, of course, the power of the executive and the party will be concentrated into the hands of Modi. The previous instance of concentration of power during Indira Gandhi’s time may pale into insignificance.
The constitutional form of parliamentary democracy may not be tinkered with, but for all practical purposes, we could become a Latin American-style presidential democracy, where the supreme leader draws power from the people and is responsible only to them.
In general, our political system would move towards “competitive authoritarianism". Elections will be held, contrary to the fantasies of newly-elected Member of Parliament Sakshi Maharaj (during poll campaigning, he had predicted that there would be no elections required after 2019). In fact, the occasional electoral affirmation would be critical for the regime. But that might be the only democratic aspect of our politics. Instead of being one of the episodes in a representative democracy, elections might become the only democratic episodes. Any form of political contestation outside the electoral arena—protests, civil society organizations, dissent—will be systematically curtailed. National interest would be used to tighten the screws on civil liberties. The big media has already surrendered. Now, we might see systematic pressure on the few windows of free expression left in the media space. Elections would be largely free of open rigging. The counting would be fair. But that might be the only fair aspect of elections.
In between two elections, our political system would resemble an authoritarian system. For its survival and popular endorsement, this regime would depend on occasional electoral endorsement, informal regimentation of the media, crushing of dissent, ongoing crusades against “internal enemies", and continuous military adventures.
On the diversity front, we are unlikely to become a theocratic state. But if the BJP sticks to its manifesto promise of passing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and introducing the National Register of Citizenship all over the country, there would be a de-facto hierarchy of religious communities. This would confer legal status to the discrimination that the Muslims already suffer. We are unlikely (or so I really hope) to witness any large scale anti-minority pogroms, but everyday violation and symbolic violence would reduce the minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians, to the status of a second-rung citizen.
The word fascism has been overused. I don’t think we can relive the experience of Germany or Italy. I don’t think we should describe our pathology in someone else’s terms. Nor are we likely to play to the script of populism represented by Putin’s Russia or Erdogen’s Turkey. Nor are we going to see a second formal declaration of Emergency. A future historian would need to give it a new name.
What matters is that Modi’s second regime could lead to a mutilation of the idea of India. All the core components of this idea—democracy, diversity, and development—are already under simultaneous and vigorous challenge like never before. This challenge is now informed by a vision that stands in opposition to the idea of India. This onslaught enjoys considerable popular backing. After 23 May, we can now say what could only be whispered earlier: there is a real danger that the public could possibly be mobilized to undo our republic.
(The writer is a political scientist and the founder president of Swaraj Abhiyan)
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