A duality of capacity and intent casts a patina over elections in India. At one end, battery-powered, surround-sound “hologram discs” worn around a party worker’s neck shock and awe while belting out the BJP’s message in remote Himachal Pradesh. At the other end, the less well-endowed Aam Aadmi Party in metropolitan Delhi is falling back on traditional, direct public contact via volunteer foot soldiers, despite the attendant risks of getting physically assaulted by irate discontents in Delhi’s sweltering heat, as Arvind Kejriwal did.
Election Commission – different strokes for different people
Duality also pervades the functioning of the Election Commission of India while ruling on complaints about breach of the Model Code of Conduct by the Prime Minister. Principled dissent by one commissioner dims the shine from the clean chits given, thus far, by the EC.
On process, there is a delicious irony in the EC striving for international standards to protect the vote of large swathes of barely literate voters through state-of-the-art, standalone electronic voting machines, introduced two decades earlier as a manipulation-proof solution to the erstwhile pervasive problem of “booth capture” and the resultant “stuffing” of ballot boxes with fraudulent votes.
Digital voting services are best-in-class but one third of the voters are functionally illiterate
Most recently, to deal with widespread elite complaints of voting machines being hacked — though no credible evidence was ever available — the EC enabled printing out of the vote. Each voter can now challenge the machine instantly, if an incorrect vote is registered. Never mind that one-third of voters cannot read. A triumph of process over substance.
The Annual Survey of Education Report 2018 records that one-third of those schooled till Class 8 cannot even read a Class 2 text. This factoid illustrates the duality of State action — deep commitment to protect the periodic political rights of the top two-thirds, while ignoring the basic human development needs, like functional education, of the bottom one-third, particularly women.
Some more equal than others
The recent book by psephologists Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala, The Verdict, estimates that 21 million women are missing from the electors’ list. Despite one-fourth of people living away from where they were born, no arrangements exist for poor, domestic work migrants – estimated numbers at around 140 million – to vote from where they work. But enthusiasm abounds for facilitating the well-off 16 million Non Resident Indian’s (UNDESA estimate) living overseas to do so.
Expensive election jamborees, jet hopping leaders, generic national issues have no connect with local voters
Duality is also embellished by the tradition of massive, hugely expensive election meetings with thousands of supporters taken in buses to a central point so that “star campaigners” — the EC’s nomenclature for top leaders of recognised political parties — can jet hop daily to address several events across states. These jamborees achieve little. They don’t allow a dialogue between national leaders and local voters. The rhetoric is anodyne and sufficiently generic to be repeatable, with minor variations, across multiple locations. But it becomes incomprehensible to local voters. National leaders often fail to engage the crowd beyond entertaining it via mud-slinging and bragging — the more scathingly humorous the better — in the earthy manner patented by Lalu Prasad Yadav.
BJP plays the muscular nationalist with international connections
The BJP invariably highlights the strong government it has provided as evidenced by standing up to China in the Doklam crisis; launching the cross-border surgical strikes and airstrikes punishing Pakistan for covertly aiding terrorism in India and now its success in getting Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar labelled as a “global terrorist” by the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee — an illustration of India’s rising international clout and external stature.
Opposition points to neglected domestic development and rising inequality
The riposte from the Congress remains that the strength or weakness of a nation should be judged by the results its government delivers on the ground — income growth, jobs and the well-being of the bottom half and not linked merely to the rising prosperity of a few at the top or their overseas cheerleaders.
Both accuse each other of being corrupt and self-serving. The BJP fingers the Congress for being soft on Islamists. The latter accuses the BJP of crony capitalism, being anti-dalit and anti-farmer.
But votes are decided on municipal issues via granular give and take negotiations locally
Visiting dignitaries launch their broadsides at each other and then scoot. But the reality of national politics lies in local, municipal issues, managed through quiet backroom work by local cadres stitching together alliances based on past affiliations, favours done and received and future promises. It is this ground level patchwork of loyalties which determine how people actually vote. The BJP has better community networks in urban areas — courtesy the RSS. The Congress, ironically, is better placed in rural areas, where the sun has been setting for the past three decades, ever since economic liberalisation in 1992.
How real is the risk to secularism from a BJP redux
Duality also afflicts the trope that secular governance is at risk if the BJP wins a second term. This narrative is roundly rejected by the BJP, which maintains it only seeks a level playing field — especially so for Hindus, by ending the electoral muscle of the minority community pocket boroughs. Its multi-regional alliances are evidence of this. Besides the Shiv Sena, which has a history of Maratha chauvinism, the key allies of the BJP — Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu; as well as “half-allies” like the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha; potential allies like TRS in Telangana or Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh; do not buy into Hindutva.
Is it sheer opportunism which allows these parties to sleep soundly with the BJP even as Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh; the Left Front in Kerala; Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party; Mamata Banerjees Trinamul Congress and the Congress see aligning with the BJP as abhorrent to their ideals?
How committed are BJP leaders themselves, to the stated goals of Hindutava?
This begs the question whether the loose Opposition Mahagathbandan merely , others” the BJP just as the BJP “others” Muslims? Can it be that the BJP’s Hindutva stance is just a periodical, political convenience during elections, rather than a binding, real-time, social objective?
What future might Hindutva hold for “lay” Hindu leaders like Narendra Modi or Amit Shah versus the stoic mystique and spiritual prestige of a “religious” leader like Yogi Adityanath? Is there a yawning duality within the BJP, between the political convenience of playing the harsh, Hindutva tune just enough to keep the communal pot boiling versus working actively towards handing over real political power to the sants and mahatmas who represent the core of Hindutva?
There are more questions than answers here. But these contrary, often conflicting themes are cracks through which the truth slips, thereby retarding an open, mutually rewarding, synergistic relationship between India’s voters and political parties.
Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, May 7, 2019 https://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/070519/a-strange-duality-casts-a-shadow-over-election.html