The Lok Sabha election of 2019 generated a lot of sparks and fury by way of personal attacks, recourse to undignified language and abandoning of the political narrative for tactical use of stray events for some perceived advantage in the immediate term.
With the shrinking of the Congress beyond recognition as an all-India party in 2014, the election this time pushed up the visibility of regional parties — the product of the phenomenon of caste-based politics that was so characteristic of India. They filled some of the space vacated by the Congress and this, in a way, facilitated a decisive advance of the BJP as a national party — the organisational consolidation of this cadre-based party was in any case being ensured by Amit Shah, the new BJP President. The prolonged electioneering helped to spread the presence of BJP to new areas and establish Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the best known political leader at the national level at the end of his five-year tenure. BJP has acquired a lasting presence in India’s east and south over this period. It has become the principal opposition to the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. The Congress is scattered across the country but is now a clear second to the BJP in terms of membership.
A parliamentary election is anchored on national consciousness, affirmation of sovereignty and a recognition of the great fundamental of democracy – that all citizens were at the same pedestal as far as their rights were concerned. In a federal system like India’s, responsibilities for development, healthcare and education lie primarily on the shoulders of the state governments and the Centre is expected to account more for national infrastructure like highways, railways, power, telecom and river management as also the fiscal policy of the country.
Certainly our Constitution holds the states primarily responsible for law & order maintenance – in which safety of women would come at the top – but in a distorted narrative the opposition tried to make out that it is the Modi government that had failed to protect women against the offences of rape and molestation besides other forms of gender injustice. Likewise, the problems of rural distress, farmer’s suicides and unemployment put a major share of responsibility on the states and could not be pinned unilaterally on the Centre. Beyond the fact of loss of jobs in the unorganised sector because of demonetisation, fault lines if any in the economic policy of the Modi government were not defined by the opponents – their campaign progressively became focused on launching personalised criticism of the Prime Minister. At the mass level, the image of Modi as a leader remained intact.
Another learning from this General Election was that the opposition generally shied away from emphasising Indian nationalism in the belief that this gave advantage to the BJP and made the minorities uncomfortable with the reality that this country was, population wise, a Hindu majority nation. The fact, however, is that the Hindus were traditionally divided so much on caste, language and region that the political spectrum here was full of parties flourishing in public life by rooting their politics in these divisive features of our demography. In the face of a highly divided majority the opposition focused on the votes of the large minority as a matter of practical politics. With the decline of the Congress, however, the caste and region-based parties showed a definite resurgence in their states and struck a meeting of minds with the Congress – the principal opposition – in building an anti-Modi campaign. This fuelled their ambition to share in the rule at the Centre, particularly because India had seen in the past the spectacle of small parties capturing the prime ministership with the outside support of the Congress.
The fact that those governments had short lives is another matter. A vast country like India being ruled by caste-based groups or small regional outfits should be a cause for concern. This country should be governed by all-India parties leading the alternatives so that national perspectives would not be in danger of being overshadowed by lesser politics and group interests. This General Election gave a peep into the harmful fallout from an excessive fractionalisation of the party system in India. This could damage the very substratum of parliamentary democracy here.
In this election, India’s sectarian and communal divides came into sharp focus even on the fundamental question of whether the symbols of national identity and integrity could be challenged out of political motives. Hoisting of the national flag, singing of national anthem, advocacy of patriotism, emphasis on Jammu and Kashmir being an integral part of India and appreciation of strong action against Pakistan in the context of cross-border terrorism – all of these were turned into points of controversy for the implicit reason that ‘sensitivities’ of the minorities had to be kept in view. This comes close to embarrassing an entire community for the sake of the political support of a handful of elite or Ulema who used communal politics for securing power. On the issue of India’s air strike at Balakot, the valour of IAF had, of course, to be praised but the political will of the government of the day had also to be acknowledged. By trying to find fault with the Prime Minister by discrediting the strike itself, the opposition fell between two stools. Its argument that the ruling dispensation was taking political advantage of the event fell by the wayside in the process.
It is the constitutional obligation of the political executive governing the country to come off strong and decisive on issues of national security and defence, to sternly deal with the saboteurs on our own soil and to ensure that development and protection of law – the two basic instruments of secularism in a democracy – were extended to all citizens alike. Common people of all communities have the same problems of livelihood, scarcity and exposure to disorder. The opposition could not show that the Modi government practised any sectarian approach in development. On law enforcement, it tried to pin down the Prime Minister whereas it should have taken the state governments to task for failures there.
On the whole, the debates in the run-up to this election created an atmosphere of communal disharmony, dragged the minority community here in the discussions on Pakistan in a manner that tended to put Indian Muslims and this hostile neighbour of India on the same side of the fence and diminished the extraordinary achievement of Indian democracy in establishing the supremacy of every voter – regardless of any distinction – in choosing the rulers. The General Election did manage, notwithstanding the shallowness of campaign by the parties in the fray, to prove that all Indians enjoyed an equality of right in the matter of deciding how their country will be governed. The pattern of street violence during electioneering threatened this right in some areas and the nation must find a way of not letting that happen in future.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)