Reading the wind for the big bight

General elections used to be 3-4-day affairs before 1999; except in 1971, when it stretched over 10 days. This year, the 44-day juggernaut of an election is witnessing a momentum-shifting tussle between sub-regional tensions and the Centre’s consolidatory tendencies
Reading the wind for the big bight

Any number of liberal luminaries have propounded that the 2024 general election could change the face of India’s polity. Narendra Modi was elevated to the status of authoritative infallibility after the 2019 general election. If GE2024 returns him again, as it is likely to—especially if with the absolute majority of his two previous victories—opposition leaders fear the BJP will take the road to monocracy.

This apprehension is not limited to the opposition. These elections have the entire world taking notice. Waiting for 969 million fractious people to elect a national government can reduce psephologists, academics and diplomats to dizziness. While being tentatively optimistic that “it is more likely the obituary of India’s democracy has been written too soon”, Diego Maiorano, senior professor of Indian history at the University of Naples and author of Autumn of the Matriarch: Indira Gandhi’s Final Term in Office and co-author of The Politics of Poverty Reduction in India: The UPA government 2004-14, hazarded, “In the near term, the elections will determine whether voters are still comfortable with democratic erosion witnessed in recent years.”

That there have been erosions on the institutional chequerboard of India is not in doubt. Nor has Modi or the BJP tried to minimise the soi-disant virtues of limited freedoms. Modi himself hinted at the probability of post-election “big decisions” at a recent pow-wow of star-rated business honchos, eliciting not the uproarious applause of yesteryears but rictuses of discombobulation. Many observers, from the left to centre-right, expect the Constitution to be brought under the legislative hammer, starting with the 42nd amendment that introduced “socialist” and “secular” to the constitutional description of India.

Now, take the juggernaut electoral solution being cannonaded by the PM—One Nation, One Election—which the BJP has promised in its manifesto. Modi reiterated that India would benefit “a lot” if ONOE were implemented. India has never had general elections as long as this year’s—44 days. Until the 1999 elections that brought the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee to power, general elections had been brief affairs of three or four days, with the 10-day-long 1971 general election having been the longest.

There are also reports of a new project for funding parties in the works—a la the electoral bonds scheme that was illegalised by the Supreme Court—but without legally actionable weaknesses. Nonetheless, until the Tuesday of June 4, these fears, while understandable, are conjectural.

The BJP—read Modi, for what is the party without him?—fought the 2014 and 2019 elections on the basis of one leader, one policyman, one mover-and-shaker. Helped along by the outrage of the Pulwama attack and Balakot airstrike, the 2019 election was all about a colossal presidential figure whose presence was defined not by gold braids and epaulettes, but by populist sub-cultural headdresses and raiments. This monomorphic one-person-one-issue turned into an electoral sine qua non during assembly elections, which were sought to be modelled on the lines of a general election.

At least in north, north-central and western India, this homogenisation worked. State-level concerns took a backseat to force-ripened national issues of precarious security and ‘hyper-nationalism’, to use economist Kaushik Basu’s cautionary word. Until three months ago, this monolithisation was the BJP’s intended methodology for GE2024.

Then, something changed. The regional parties decided, almost as if by coincidental agreement, to focus on state-specific issues during this election. The BJP seems unable to breathe back the wind taken out of its sails by the SC’s electoral bonds judgement. Last month, more than four years after it was ratified by parliament, the central government notified the rules for the Citizenship Amendment Act. But, tellingly, the move has not caught on and the BJP, never more aware of the mood of the moment, has backburnered it.

Modi’s inauguration of the Ram mandir at Ayodhya, a self-regarding act of political defiance to the pietistical proscription on consecrating incomplete edifices, was supposed to be his wrap-up of GE2024. But according to a reliable survey, while 22 percent voters considered the mandir Modi’s “most liked action”, only 8 percent said it was their primary concern. The appeal of the Hindu Rashtra, vaguely defined and endlessly deferable, stands at 2 percent.

Neither is a game-changer. Not even in the north. And certainly not in the south or the east, two disparate regions united by the choked devolution of funds from a saffron Centre to differently-coloured states. There is growing disconcertment—with sub-regionalism segueing over into occasional secessionism and even balkanist theorising—about the electoral over-weightage of states loyal to saffronism. A seemingly irreconcilable contumacy, difficult to not sympathise with, now sets the southern states apart from the northern.

It is no great prediction, therefore, that the results of GE2024, whatsoever they are, will exacerbate this separation. Nor that this roiling disaffection will grow inexorably until the year of the delimitation of constituencies—whether 2026 or 2029, because the BJP, unable to reconcile detrition with its own consolidatory tendencies, might decide to kick it down the road.

Whatever it is, this is that general election which polities loosening at the seams fear: one fought not on unificatory national lines, but on those of sub-regionality.

Kajal Basu

Veteran journalist

(Views are personal)


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