When 11 million poll officials, over 900 million voters, and 8,000 candidates converge across one million polling booths to participate in the world’s largest democratic exercise, you have an incredible story at hand: a tale of challenging logistics and a fascinating saga of immense faith in democratic process of people who see Indian democracy through its many challenges and ordeals.
The people are too diverse in several ways – culture, language, dialect, class, caste, region, religion, expectations, and aspirations – but they are united on two things: democracy and the Constitution. The Constitution embodies the idea of India: secular, democratic, plural, liberal, inclusive and non-discriminatory.
However, the outcome of the election does not inspire the kind of confidence the people have in India’s Constitution and its unity in diversity because the very values, principles, individual rights and freedom of choices the Constitution guarantees have come under threat and been subjects of ridicule from right-wing forces, both political and ideological, in the last five years.
It is why general election 2019 was construed as a battle between two ideologies: the idea of India as promised in the Constitution and the right-wing majoritarian idea of India that the RSS and its political progeny BJP have envisioned and pursue as their long term ideological goal.
For some, democracy is synonymous with elections, but for others, it is about more than just voting. It is about ensuring that the voices of all people are heard and represented by their government and their interests served. In mature democracies, voters tend to base their choices on political and ethical values, rather than offers of rewards and freebies.
Most mature democracies are developed prosperous and liberal nations. India is an evolving democracy and a developing country and therefore, lacks the important qualities that make a mature democracy. When people suffer increasing inequality, poverty, abysmal healthcare, poor educational system, and awful infrastructure, it is not surprising that elections in an economically and socially backward country like India have degenerated into hostile and spiteful battles fought on non-issues.
Every election has a narrative. Elections in the 1950s and 1960s were all about nurturing democracy, hope, building institutions and establishing industries. The elections in the 1970s and 80s were about poverty alleviation, providing basic amenities like roads, water and electricity, financial inclusion and agricultural development.
In the 1990s, the narrative shifted to Ram temple, Mandal and liberalisation of the economy. In the first decade of the 2000s, election narratives were constructed around regional aspirations, caste assertion, economy, prosperity, and social justice. We all know the 2014 narrative: faster development and economic growth. But 2019 was largely about nationalism, national security, polarisation and running down of the Congress and its past prime ministers.
If elections are about organisational skills, booth management and a lot of planning and hard work in which the BJP excels, governance is about performance and delivery. Did the BJP govern as it promised and deliver on those promises? Had it delivered, there wouldn’t have been issues of high unemployment, agrarian distress, fall in private investment, huge rise in bank NPAs and loss of economic growth.
Had it upheld the Constitution and enforced the rule of law, there wouldn’t have been cases of lynching and chain of violence against minorities and Dalits. Had it upheld the institutional independence, there wouldn’t have been controversies about undue interference in functional autonomy of institutions like the RBI and CBI.
So, what does one make of the 2019 election results? It’s a stunning verdict; stunning because the ground reality is different, the economy is on a downward spiral and there is joblessness everywhere. What explains such a stunning verdict then? Nationalism and national security: according to CSDS post-poll survey, Pulwama and Balakot were largely responsible for turning the tide in Modi’s favour in the western and northern states of the Hindi heartland where the BJP held on to its 2014 performance, besides making remarkable inroads in new territories, particularly West Bengal.
This election marks a significant shift in electoral politics. It has challenged the old assumptions about regional caste-based politics of the post-Mandal era. Castes will not go away. But the configurations and proportions of the electorate voting on caste loyalties, as some analysts have pointed out, have tangibly reduced.
As old caste combinations fade because of newer and workable options to access a share of the state resources, settled notions of social order will get disrupted. Political parties will have to accommodate this change and prepare for more churning in political spaces to remain relevant.
A L I Chougule is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.