Opinion | 3 things we will remember about the Lok Sabha elections 20195 min read . Updated: 24 May 2019, 04:33 PM IST
- The 2019 elections were marked by a flood of fake news and disappointingly few female candidates
- From Kunal Kamra to Satish Acharya, political dissenters got creative
By the time this piece appears in print, we will know if Bhopal’s residents thought it fit to send terror accused Pragya Thakur to the 17th Lok Sabha and which of two dominant slogans—#AayegaToModiHi or #ChowkidarChorHai—appealed more to voters.
This time round, we romanticized the first-time Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate from Begusarai and former Jawaharlal Nehru University student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar and watched silently alongside the Election Commission (EC) as hate speech dominated campaign rhetoric and our politicians freely said the most divisive things on record.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s aggressive, warm campaigning style hit the spot. “She has had a fairly outsized impact on Congress morale in UP and elsewhere. Organizationally, they are still weak but her entry electrified whatever workers the Congress has left here.... I think her long term impact will be felt in elections to come," says Raheel Khursheed, co-founder of Anthro.ai, an Artificial Intelligence anthropology experiment that analysed the election by focusing on the state of Uttar Pradesh.
The question we asked each other most frequently in the seven interminable weeks it took Indians to vote: When will this election end?
If television channels were accused of airing scripted, soft interviews with the prime minister, the foreign press was largely critical of the ruling establishment. In a strongly worded and even more strongly titled leader, “Agent Orange: Under Narendra Modi, India’s Ruling Party Poses A Threat To Democracy", earlier this month, The Economist magazine cautioned that India is “too combustible a place to be put into the hands of politicians who campaign with flamethrowers".
Irrespective of which team breasts the tape, I will always remember the 2019 general election for three key flash points.
The flood of fake news. “We had predicted that this was going to be an election where misinformation will play a dominant role and we were proved right," says Pratik Sinha, the founder of fact-checking website Alt News, over the phone. “Communal misinformation and the hate that it has caused in society is not likely to get reversed anytime soon."
Sinha, whose seven-member team fact-checked 200 stories after the election dates were announced, believes that the impact of misinformation has been deep.
He says there was a concerted campaign from both the Congress and the BJP, though the BJP and its affiliates were far ahead in this ugly fake news war that played out on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. “The BJP has recognized the fault lines in Indian society. They know our population is highly polarized and that their biases make them vulnerable to misinformation," he adds. Indians with a low level of digital literacy were easy targets and misinformation was often in the form of clipped videos that entirely changed/re-contextualized the meaning of what was being said.
Yet Sinha sees a silver lining. Thanks to the rush of fact-checking websites launched these past two years, he says, there’s greater awareness. “Because of the relentless pursuit of misinformation, we have created a model where all mainstream news organizations are fact-checking," he says. He just wishes newspapers and television channels would question politicians when they offer blatant falsehoods, despite evidence to the contrary. “Wilful omission or giving politicians a platform to put out any misinformation is the bigger issue here."
Women were left behind. After all that talk about the importance of women, our biggest political parties neglected half the population. In the final tally of 8,048 candidates, only 711 were women. “That’s 8.8%, up marginally from 8.1% in 2014," says Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Shakti, a non-partisan women’s collective dedicated to getting more women elected as MLAs and MPs. With such a slow increase in the number of election tickets for women, even if women win at a higher rate than men (as they did in 2014), they will only fill a quarter of the seats in Parliament in 50 years, Krishnaswamy says.
Both the Congress (which fielded 54 women among 421 candidates, or 12.8%) and the BJP (55 of 436, or 12.6%) disappointed. It was left to parties like the Biju Janata Dal, Trinamool and Naam Tamilar Katchi to up the abysmal ratio and give women their due. “The major parties are all rhetoric about gender balance," says Krishnaswamy, illustrating her point with what happened in the prestigious Bangalore South constituency. The BJP picked 28-year-old hardliner Tejasvi Surya over Tejaswini AnanthKumar, the widow of their former MP from that area. AnanthKumar is a well-known activist and an engineer who worked on the Light Combat Aircraft project; Surya is known only for his divisive speech.
The BJP explained its supreme decision saying it was not a dynastic party. “But the person they gave the ticket to was the nephew of the sitting MLA of that area, Ravi Subramanya. And this is the party that puts down other parties for harbouring dynasts," says Krishnaswamy, adding that 57% of the BJP’s female candidates were related to men in their party. The next battle? Passing the long-pending women’s reservation bill—which has made it to both the BJP and Congress election manifestos multiple times, only to be ignored when the party comes to power.
Dissenters got creative. Iqra Khilji, a 23-year-old law student, recited seven poems on Twitter to remind voters what was at stake, using the hashtag NotMyPM. Stand-up comic Kunal Kamra says he reached around one million people with his social media campaign #Don’tVoteForModi, where he morphed himself into various photographs holding a placard with this warning, including one where Bran Stark stares at Jamie Lannister in a favourite scene from the latest season of Game Of Thrones. His stand-up video, released the day after the EC announced dates, got millions of hits on YouTube.
A people’s campaign for solidarity and conscience that reaches out to survivors of hate crimes, Karwan-e-Mohabbat released 60 videos from January-May, profiling families victimized by hate crimes and featuring commentary from analysts and activists. Political satirist group Aisi Taisi Democracy went on an “Azaadi" tour that featured everything from cows to demonetization. Musician Aamir Aziz released two bleak and soulful songs on YouTube, Achhe Din Blues and The Ballad Of Pehlu Khan. Khan was a dairy farmer lynched by cow vigilantes two years ago.
Independent editorial cartoonist Satish Acharya kept up a steady stream of anti-establishment sketches. Acharya, who works on two-three cartoons every day, has a simple approach to his work: “They speak, I draw."
By the time this piece appears in print, we will know if voters understood their anxiety about the dangerous path our country has tumbled on to.
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