Beyond the obvious: 2019 elections a watershed moment in India’s polity

Updated: May 22, 2019 12:47:07 PM

Irrespective of which party forms the next government, India has changed forever. We need to therefore collectively ensure that we grow and prosper together, shoulder to shoulder.

Even though Prime Minister Modi addressed one rally less than Congress President Rahul Gandhi in the the month of April, news-channels showed him for more than 722 hours.

By Pushparaj Deshpande

Pundits will undoubtedly spend the next few weeks dissecting the mechanics and outcomes of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The manner in which parties articulated their vision, deployed their organisational machineries, and managed their financial, human and technological resources will be discussed threadbare. Regardless of who emerges victorious on May 23, this election marks a watershed in India’s polity for four reasons.

Firstly, politics has become so gladiatorial and performance oriented that truth has been reduced to a mere prop. Parties and experts-for-hire (with varying levels of credibility) have aggressively propagated divergent ‘facts’, that pander to the prejudices of the parties’ core bases. The polarised debates over whether surgical strikes happened under the previous United Progressive Alliance government, over whether INS Viraat was misused for personal reasons, and over the authenticity of Gross Domestic Product figures serve to illustrate the point. These inevitably obfuscate reality and reduce the complexities of real life to binaries.

Secondly, there is a sneaking suspicion that two key pillars of India’s democracy might have been appropriated to further partisan agendas. This is especially felt with regard to the Election Commission (EC) and the Media. On one hand, the EC has perceptively engineered a lopsided playing field by turning a blind eye to the infractions of senior members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by abruptly halting campaigning in West Bengal and by disregarding dissenting opinions by Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa. On the other hand, eschewing their role as a nation’s conscience keeper, a section of the Media has seemingly lost objectivity in its coverage of the incumbent government. Data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council reveals that even though Prime Minister Modi addressed one rally less than Congress President Rahul Gandhi in the the month of April, news-channels showed him for more than 722 hours. In stark contrast, Mr. Gandhi was shown for 252 hours, and Ms Mayawati for 85 hours. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the media was qualitatively biased in its coverage of PM Modi. Consequently, as a Lokniti National Election Study shows, that those with a greater media exposure, particularly in Hindi, prefer the BJP. If India has lost faith in either of these democratic institutions, it signals a grave portend for India’s social contract.

Thirdly, a federated pan-India coalition of progressive forces has been forged to safeguard constitutional values and champion peoples’ issues. It is telling that even though they objectively highlighted issues of unemployment, rural distress, burgeoning Non-Performing Assets, atrocities against Dalits, minorities and women, as well as BJP’s scale back of social sector expenditure, the exit polls seem to suggest that the BJP is well placed. This is because the BJP has deployed a nuanced set of messages, all centred around PM Modi and throughout the last five years. At the macro level, the “kaam ruke na, desh jhuke na” narrative has highlighted the successes of government schemes, Balakot and other surgical strikes, listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, bringing back Wing Commander Abhinandan, as well as India’s enhanced image on the global stage because of PM Modi. Similarly, the “chowkidar vs naamdaar” theme has consistently juxtaposed the “Khan Market regime” vs the supposedly non-dynastic new regime. At the micro level, the BJP has rolled out targeted messages that address different sections of society. This strategy has been successful partly because nearly every cleavage that plagues India- rich vs poor, majority vs minority, dominant vs disadvantaged castes, liberal vs conservative etc. has been systematically exacerbated for electoral ends. The unforeseen fallout of this is that more than ever before, India is focused on the things that separate, rather than unite us.

Fourthly, India social consciousness stands to be dramatically altered by the results of two constituencies- Begusarai, and Bhopal. Each represent different ideas that India has stood for. In Begusarai, an educated and articulate candidate has been supported by those with liberal, secular, feminist and Left-leaning sensibilities (who’ve been caricatured as “urban naxals”). In Bhopal, the Hindutva doyen Pragya Thakur has hailed Nathuram Godse as a patriot, espoused unscientific opinions, and is defiant about the Babri Masjid demolition. She is contesting against Digvijay Singh, who has tried to reclaim Hinduism as a pluralistic and inclusive religion. Both these places symbolise not just a contest between candidates, but also two different ideas of who we are, and who we should be as a nation.

Irrespective of which party forms the next government, India has changed forever. We need to therefore collectively ensure that we grow and prosper together, shoulder to shoulder. To do that, we need to be especially compassionate and constructive in our politics. And most importantly, we need to to dramatically re-conceptualise our relationships with the people if we are to safeguard India’s soul.

(The author is the Managing Trustee & Director of Samruddha Bharat Foundation. Views expressed are personal.)

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