This is going to be the make or break election. It will either make the idea of India viable, or it will break it completely. The ruling dispensation knows that if they don’t win this time, they won’t win for a long time. And if they win, they’ll make sure they don’t lose again. Get ready for the bitterest, most cold-blooded election in the history of our democracy.
Early symptoms of the power play were already on show. In a short span of 30 days the prime minister declared open 157 projects, from an airport in Sikkim to a highway in Kanyakumari. They were all publicised in ways seldom seen in our country before. And most of them were crowned by no-holds-barred election speeches. Even the inauguration of the National War Memorial in Delhi saw the PM attacking Congress’s dynastic leadership. The Election Commission helpfully waited until the ground was prepared by all these shows and speeches.
India’s electorate is famously under-literate. Yet the savvy with which the illiterate and semi-literate voters of UP defeated Indira Gandhi after the Emergency is part of legend. Part of a more shameful legend was the way literate Kerala became the only state to vote for her in that historic 1977 election. The question that came up then was: Who is better for democracy—the literate or the illiterate?
This time the question is more complicated because religion is involved. So is nationalism in its new avatar. The rise of Hindutva has given a new emotional dimension to religion. It helped the BJP create some waves although, like all waves, they dissipated quickly. Dissipation happens because Hindutva activists resort to extreme steps that violate Indian sensibilities. Lynchings and whippings and killings in the name of religion repel more than they attract. The IS is an example. Islam’s concept of martyrdom was an attraction for over-enthusiastic youngsters to volunteer for suicide missions. But even in Muslim societies, IS lost the prestige it once had.
There can be healthy arguments over nationalism, like Rabindranath Tagore initiated with his notion that humanism was right and nationalism wrong. But it is something else when an Indian, born and brought up as an Indian, is asked to prove his bonafides as a nationalist. Diversity is the essence of this nation of many languages and diets and dress habits and cultural backgrounds. Unity in diversity is the ideal for such a kaleidoscopic nation. And it proved workable. To discard that in favour of a monolithic culture will be to invite disaster.
The highlight features of the last five years will have to be a guide to voting decisions this time around. Topping all lists of major policy decisions are demonetisation and GST. The passage of time has not helped paper over the disastrous impact of both, especially of demonetisation, which wrecked the lives of thousands of ordinary people and small businesses. Many deaths were reported due to exhaustion waiting in queues and to newly experienced poverty that blocked access to food and medicines. The government blocked all attempts to get relevant statistics about the deaths.
Many autonomous institutions had zealously preserved their independence to ensure checks and balances in governance. One by one these were compromised, none more worrisomely than the Reserve Bank of India. High-profile economic advisers like Arvind Subramanian and Arvind Panagariya resigned as they discovered that the finance minister neither needed nor desired advisers. An RBI governor abruptly resigned over issues relating to autonomy; the government appointed a bureaucrat in his place.
In short, the BJP government has been focusing on a partisan agenda to transform the basic democratic structure of the Indian polity. Its trump card has been the personality of the prime minister. There is no one in India today to rival his energy, his oratory and his non-stop campaigning style. He also has a capacity to attract sycophancy. Consider this India Today web desk item of May 2017: “The popular leader has completed three years, but the excitement on his being the prime minister has not died down.”
That excitement will be kept at high pitch during the voting weeks ahead. Is that the best for us? A kind of answer was given by a 19th century American columnist named Peter Dunne. He wrote: “A man who expects to train lobsters to fly in a year is called a lunatic. But a man who thinks that men can be turned into angels by an election is called a reformer and remains at large.” Beware of reformers.