India’s national election has produced the worst conceivable outcome by giving an outright majority to the Bharatiya Janata Party under a man who is widely believed to have been complicit in mass killings of citizens belonging to one faith, and who even 12 years on hasn’t been fully exonerated by the country’s legal system despite its compromised nature and vulnerability to manipulation.
Make no mistake. Despite a limited (31 percent) national vote, Narendra Modi’s victory is the result of a rightward shift in society, and the triumph of Hindutva combined with neoliberal capitalism.
It’s an ugly scar on the face of democracy, and the outcome of many long-festering social pathologies, including Islamophobic communal prejudice, belligerent nationalism, growing social intolerance, paranoid propaganda, and the elite’s craving for authoritarian rule.
Contrary to claims, Modi’s ‘presidentialised’ election campaign, in which billions of business dollars and the corporate media played as crucial a part as ‘56-inch-chest’ aggression, had nothing to do with ‘development’ or ‘governance’. It was India’s most communalised campaign ever.
Modi symbolises, personifies and radiates ‘alpha-male’, militarised Hindutva – even without hate speech. This time, his canvassing was actually lubricated by blood: early in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, and later in Assam.
Modi wickedly combined toxic rhetoric about expelling Bangladeshi ‘infiltrators’ (read, Muslims) and the ‘Pink Revolution’ (beef exports), with the crude use of religious symbols. Six-hundred-thousand Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh volunteers cynically used slogans like “love jehad” and “bahu bachao, beti bachao” (protect Hindu women from Muslim predators) to polarise opinion communally.
This helped the BJP exploit widespread discontent with the Congress rooted in high prices, corruption, economic elitism (growth that pampers Big Business, but creates no jobs) and the Gandhis’ arrogance. It laid the ground for shrewd caste calculations and the micro-level ‘booth management’ strategy perfected by Modi henchman Amit Shah in Gujarat, in which 20-25 RSS men ‘cover’ each polling-station.
The BJP won ‘saturation-level’ seat-scores in its ‘home states’ (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh), performed spectacularly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Karnataka, and secured its highest-ever vote in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, even Kerala.
The BJP’s 71-of-80-seats victory in UP is the highest score by any party there since 1984. The size of its UP vote (42.3 percent) meant that its opponents would be decimated in multi-cornered contests.
The Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party couldn’t win a single seat despite bagging a 19.6-percent vote. The Samajwadi Party too shrank from 23 to five seats despite winning 22.2 percent, only one percentage-point lower than in 2009. There were clear signs of a weakening of its core Yadav-Muslim social coalition because of Muslim disillusionment with the SP’s handling of Muzaffaranagar.
The BJP succeeded in winning over sections of Jats, low-caste groups and non-Jatav Dalits by communalising them and promising them jobs which they desperately crave. Another helpful factor was the relative consolidation of many Muslim votes, which normally get divided.
This again is attributable to the fear and loathing Modi provokes among Muslims. Yet, in a sour irony of history, this ended up helping him: constituency-wise, Muslims rationally chose the candidate best-placed to defeat him; they thus scattered their votes between the SP and BSP, weakening both.
The Lok Sabha now has its lowest-ever Muslim representation: just four percent of MPs, way below the Muslims’ 13.4 percent population share. For the first time, there isn’t a Muslim MP from UP, India’s largest (and the world’s sixth most-populous) state, where Muslims form almost a fifth of the population. Also absent from the Lok Sabha is the BSP – India’s third largest vote-winning party.
Such grave exclusion speaks of skewed parliamentary representation. Thanks to it, a 12 percentage-point national vote-difference between the BJP and Congress resulted in a 640-percentage-point gap in their seat-tally.
This strengthens the argument for replacing the British first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system that India blindly follows, by the widely prevalent (and fairer) Proportional Representation (PR) system, which allots quotas to parties based on the votes polled, in addition to constituency-based candidates. If PR were adopted for this Lok Sabha, the BJP would fall to 169 seats, and the Congress would rise to 105 seats from 44.
At any rate, the election has not just put a Hindutva fanatic in power, but established the ascendancy of Hindu-supremacism, for which the Sangh has fought for nine decades using repugnant methods, including assassination, communal riots, vile brainwashing, and propaganda about threats to the ‘Hindu nation’.
Today, the RSS can hide behind ‘democracy’, as Hitler did in 1933. But this is a degraded, communalised distortion of democracy, without equal rights for citizens, but charged with a bellicose ethno-religious identity. Hindutva militates against India’s constitution, which defines citizenship in universal terms, independently of such identities – unlike the BJP and Shiv Sena.
The Congress and the Left stand mauled and reduced to their lowest-ever seat-tallies (44 and 12). But no heads have rolled in these parties. They cannot reverse the setbacks without drastic corrective measures. The Aam Aadmi Party, which once showed great promise, won only four seats. All its big leaders lost. It too faces a grim crisis.
Now that the BJP has achieved an absolute majority, we can expect four things. First, it will be under pressure to revive the core Hindutva agenda, including the Ram temple, Article 370 on Kashmir, and a Uniform Civil Code.
Of the three, the temple is seemingly the least contentious. The Babri Masjid was demolished, and a makeshift temple exists at Ayodhya. But if the BJP tries to build a raucous agitation around the temple, by painting Muslims as villains, that will generate serious strife.
Article 370 will be internationally controversial, and risk reviving Kashmiri separatism in a vigorous form, thus further militarising the Kashmir crisis. If a Uniform Civil Code is promoted, not as part of a universal gender justice agenda, but imposed selectively on Muslims, it could violate minority rights and lead to bloodshed.
Second, the Sangh Parivar will soon begin its destructive ‘Long March’ through India’s institutions, which are not strong enough to defend themselves. It will do its best to subvert the judiciary and institutions in education and culture, thus further threatening secularism and pluralism.
The media too will be manipulated. The Parivar understands the media’s critical importance in propaganda and its vulnerability to pressure from giant corporations, which increasingly drive its agendas. The damage would be far worse than in 1977-79 or 1998-2004 when the Jana Sangh/BJP was in power.
Third, more militaristic approaches will be adopted against the Maoist movement. The BJP’s policies will promote rampant extraction of natural resources, especially forests, minerals and rivers, which lie in India’s central and eastern tribal belt.
As these resources are handed over to predatory corporations, fresh popular resistance will erupt, which the BJP government will tend to repress ferociously, both with direct military/paramilitary means, and by reviving murderous militias like Salwa Judum. This will lead to untold violations of human rights and brutalisation of some of India’s poorest people.
Finally, there will be very little resistance to the Hindutva-capitalist onslaught from the parliamentary parties. That burden will fall on grassroots civil society movements and progressive activists, which stand for a democratic-secular India. They are in for a long War of Position.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.