Every election will have a winner and a loser, but every election may leave a nation more divided than it was before. That seems to be the lesson thrown up by the presidential election in the United States as well as the state Assembly elections in Bihar.
By-elections are a different matter. There was a time when one or more by-elections in a state were a test of the incumbent government’s performance and acceptability. No longer. In by-elections today, the ruling party starts with a huge advantage because it commands both power and money. The voters in a by-election seem to think ‘What the heck, let’s vote for the ruling party, at least we may get our work done’. Work here may stand for a hand pump or a road or a sarkari job for one’s kin. The asking and giving of a vote are purely transactional.
General elections are a better test. Kerala has settled on a pattern. The people of Kerala support two fronts — the LDF and UDF — and elect them in alternate elections. It has been so since 1980. In Tamil Nadu, it was so since 1989, until the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa broke the pattern in 2016 against the DMK, under an ailing M Karunanidhi. Punjab had a pattern similar to Kerala until it was broken in 2012.
In the states of North India, from Gujarat to Bihar, the BJP has displaced the Congress as the dominant party. In the Southern states (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and the UT of Puducherry), the regional parties hold sway with the exception of Karnataka. The Congress, CPI(M) and CPI in Kerala behave, and are regarded more, as Kerala-specific regional parties than the state units of national parties.
Let me come back to the ‘divided nation’ phenomenon. The driving force behind the deepening division is ethno-nationalism. In the US, ethno-nationalism hides base instincts like white supremacy, racial and gender prejudice, and an entrenched suspicion of globalisation. President Donald Trump could get away with outrageous decisions like repudiation of NAFTA, walking out of the Paris Accord, denying US monetary contributions to the United Nations, WHO and WTO, denigrating NATO etc. Sober reflection will reveal that each one of those decisions was harmful to the US’s interests; nevertheless ethno-nationalism prevailed.
In India, ethno-nationalism hides illiberal instincts like Hindu supremacy, upper caste dominance, animosity towards minorities, Dalits and Pakistan, and protectionism. No country can become a developed country — and certainly not a rich country — by keeping one-half or more of its population poor, discriminated against and deprived. No country can devote adequate resources for development if it is in a state of hostility with its neighbours. No country can become a developed country if it erects protectionist walls. No country can be talent-driven if it pulls the shutters down on any kind of immigration as well as internal migration. Rabindranath Tagore put it succinctly in the following lines of his celebrated poem Gitanjali 35:
“Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/ By narrow domestic walls…….
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way/ Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit…….. ”
Mr Trump polled 72.3 million votes (47.4 per cent) and lost the election. Despite world leaders acknowledging Mr Joe Biden as the President-elect, neither Mr Trump nor his most ardent supporters are in a mood, at the time of this writing, to concede defeat to Mr Biden. In India, despite his repeated success in elections, Mr Narendra Modi has not reached out to minorities (especially Muslims) or Dalits. His relationship with the poor is transactional: vote for me and I will give you electricity, toilets, free vaccine against coronavirus, etc. There is no attempt to re-imagine India where every child will have a world-class education, every family will have work/job that will lift them well above the poverty line, and none of the factors like religion or caste or language will be relevant for governance or participation in governance. There is no attempt to re-imagine India as a modern, science & technology-driven, secular, diverse and open society.
Counter Narrative Absent
In the US, an understated Mr Biden was able to put across, fairly successfully, his message of ‘healing the divisions, cooperation vs confrontation, a caring State vs laissez faire, and gender and racial equality vs discrimination’. In India, there appears to be no party on the scene, particularly in North Indian states, which can put across an alternative message that can dent the narrative pushed by Mr Modi and the BJP/RSS.
My conclusion is that the divisions will continue and may even deepen in the US as well as in India. The US will be hurt, definitely socially, but the economy may still flourish, attract investment, create jobs and provide a cushion for the poor. India will be badly hurt, the society will be divided, the economy will register indifferent and tepid growth, the poor will remain poor, and economic inequality will increase.
In the US, the changers prevailed. In Bihar, the no-changers prevailed by a whisker (37.26 per cent vs 37.23 per cent). Mr Modi has been in power since 2014 and Mr Nitish Kumar since 2005. Bihar is the poorest state of the country. If the people of Bihar have voted for ‘no change’, we must accept that decision, and move on.
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