The 2014 elections produced a government which subsequently expanded its limited mandate. They also considerably complicated Indian democracy. It is worthwhile to ask if the 2019 elections are likely to strengthen democracy.
Five years ago, the BJP rode to power on the twin advantage of leadership and anti-incumbency. Both these issues tapped into the aspirations of young voters and sections that imagined a middle class location for themselves. Today, the BJP goes to the voters not as a challenger but as a defender. In all probability, it can hide behind the argument that there is no alternative and that an “unprincipled” coalition is only interested in removing the ruling party.
So, the elections might involve a competitiveness that was absent last time. But if we were to think beyond winners and losers, the relevance of the 17th Lok Sabha elections may be measured by contextualising them in 2014.
The 2014 elections need not be remembered only for the defeat of the Congress-led UPA government. They stand out in India’s electoral history as one of the few critical elections that had the potential to change both the nature of competition and the nature of politics. This happened in at least five ways.
The elections of 2014 brought back the leadership cult to national politics almost after three decades. Two, both during the campaign and through the entire term, those elections ensured that politics was reduced to optics. Three, resulting from what the elections produced, there has been a capture and erosion of institutions that in some respects even surpasses the dark period of 1975-77. Four, the last elections brought to the forefront a shrill public opinion impatient with nuance. For a large number of voters who chose the BJP over other options, these were arguably not the things they had bargained for.
But, above all, the last elections brought about the discourse of “New India”. This New India would probably have all the four elements mentioned above. But, more specifically, it nurses and encourages a sense of injury. It brought to the forefront a wound caused (to some political groups) by the imagery of India that originated in India’s national movement. It is indeed true that what remains today of the so-called idea of India is only a set of platitudes. This degeneration is the result of neglect of that idea during the Seventies and Eighties. Yet, the Modi-Shah led BJP has been uncomfortable with even the vestige of that ideological component of the national movement, so much so that the last five years have witnessed a constant ridiculing of that idea in the name of New India.
In the New India being imagined, the defining feature has been a majoritarian idea of political culture. Like the contested idea of India, this idea, too, is not confined to formal governmental power; going beyond that, it presupposes a redefinition of the social relations and restating of the relation between citizen and nation-state. While the rhetoric about New India has thus been inaugurated, 2014 was not about this transformation. Neither the BJP campaign nor the support it received hinged on the ideological battle that the BJP subsequently crafted.
As we enter the campaign for the next elections, it is important to remember this historical context. In a sense, the last elections brought about what the voters did not demand, expect or imagine. We may expect three ironies during and from the 2019 elections.
With the perceptible change in public opinion that the last five years have brought about, voters would now be expecting a certain type of democracy. This expectation would encourage the BJP at the grassroots level to take recourse to a more acerbic, exclusionary and sectarian argument as its key offering. While this may please the hard-core Hindutva elements within the BJP, the real irony would be that this voter expectation would discourage the Opposition from joining the debate with the BJP on the issue of an exclusionary and majoritarian idea of our collective self. The Opposition would be tactically focusing on the “economy” — where it may have valid arguments against the ruling party — but the Opposition would not be a real Opposition in the sense that it would not challenge the BJP on the most critical change it has brought about. They would not seek a mandate on fundamentals.
A corollary would be that while among the BJP’s voters this time around many would be explicitly driven by the attraction for the majoritarian logic and the exclusionary turn, votes against the BJP would be least driven by any steadfast association with the inclusionary logic. This suggests that while the elections would be competitive in terms of party competition and vote shares, they might actually be one-sided in terms of ideas propounded and arguments joined. The Opposition, instead of contesting the BJP’s imagination, may choose to squeeze itself into the same ideological space that the BJP operates in. While this could help the non-BJP parties to win seats, they would be losing the real battle. One is not sure if they really want to fight that battle.
This leads to the third and more serious irony. If the BJP retains power, whether with a reduced strength or otherwise, that will entrench the idea of New India. Already, public opinion has perceptibly changed and the proponents of exclusionary majoritarianism have become self-confident. The bursts of vigilantism are not merely manifestations of lawless enthusiasts, they represent an assertion of majoritarian claims.
With another victory for the BJP, the India of 2024 would be unrecognisable from the India of, say, 2004. Pre-2004 India did have its majoritarian moments, of 1992 and 2002, but India of 2024 would have made such majoritarian assertions “normal” parts of India’s democracy. This normalisation of sub-democratic politics would be the logical outcome of another term for the BJP.
But, and ironically, a defeat of the BJP government in 2019 may not ensure the arrest of these trends. It is uncertain if such a defeat will weaken the BJP’s project of reimagining social relations or result in strengthening the democratic imagination. This uncertainty is not merely because of the cunning of the BJP or lack of conviction among its opponents. It stems mainly from the way issues will be framed and debates designed in the course of the campaign. Afraid that they would unsettle the majority sentiment, the non-BJP parties would choose to look the other way as far as the crucial outcome of 2014 is concerned.
This article first appeared in the March 12, 2019 print edition under the title ‘2019, the irony ’