The general election of 1967 was a landmark one. It heralded the breakdown of the dominant Congress and provided the electorate with an alternative in the form of regional parties.
The anger and discontent with the way things are in 2019 is somewhat similar to that seen in 1967. There is, however, one crucial difference. The election this year presents the electorate with no clear alternative.
The good part of democracy is its systemic discontent. In this context, it refers to a generic anger against the social and political elites, irrespective of the political party and ideology they belong to. It is, however, suicidal to have anger without credible alternatives.
In the upcoming elections, the electorate will reject more than elect. While this is bad in itself, the more ominous aspect is the cynical use of this situation by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
In a democracy, political parties, especially the ruling party, are expected to ameliorate the situation to whatever extent possible. But what India is witnessing today is a cynical attempt by the BJP to exacerbate the crisis, robbing the electorate of any trust it had in the political process.
For the BJP-RSS combine, keeping the electorate frustrated has become the new instrument of political mobilisation. This is why the Centre is conducting raids on the leaders of the Opposition even as the electoral process is on. It is doing so to exploit this systemic anger against the political elite, even as it is delegitimising investigative institutions.
Even if the electorate understands that the raids on Opposition leaders are a brazen misuse of power by the ruling party, they might rejoice at the targeting of the elite who have lost credibility. Even if the electorate knows that such raids will not finally yield anything, it will be content with the symbolic humiliation of the elite. This is mobilisation of cynicism at its best.
The electorate will vote in this mood of overall cynicism. It is confused and less enthusiastic than ever, a phenomenon the popular media is referring to as a “wave-less” election.
The BJP’s control over the media has also helped it to prevent a coherent narrative from emerging out of the growing discontent.
With regard to Narendra Modi, the BJP is putting the voter in the dock by asking them to give him another chance just as the voter gave the Congress several chances in the past. The BJP’s appeal holds value because the voter has no decisive alternative to choose from.
Though Congress President Rahul Gandhi has attempted to change the narrative with the announcement of NYAY, a minimum income scheme, the electorate will weigh it against their experience of the past 70 years. The choice is between poor performer BJP, which has not been fully tested yet, and the hope that the Congress is offering. The electorate might well decide that the Congress has not fully delivered in the past.
Strangling of federalism
The story of cynicism is very similar in the states. The BJP’s strategy here has been a gamble: disallowing non-BJP governments from performing, even if it led to suffering among people in the states.
This strategy was clear from the way Modi responded to the floods in Tamil Nadu in 2015 and in Kerala in 2018, and from the way the Union government has undermined every meaningful effort at governance by the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi.
Even if the electorate understands that the BJP has a tacit role to play in this state of affairs, will it blame the failures of state governments on regional parties or on the BJP?
Here again, the BJP is banking on the overall lack of a credible alternative to help the voter assess the situation pragmatically.
Along the same lines, Muslims are likely to vote more to keep the BJP out instead of voting for a party that promises to look after the interests of minorities.
It is the same case with Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir. While Hindus in Jammu are evidently unhappy with the BJP for not delivering on its promises, in light of the Muslim politics of the Kashmir Valley, they have no other option but to vote for the BJP, much like the Kashmiri Pandits who go along with the BJP-RSS combine even though they know the BJP usually evokes them and their interests more to polarise the electorate than out of a positive compassion for them.
It is these cynical compulsions that are driving electoral calculations. The sad part is that the toothless “None of the Above” option is not really an alternative for the electorate despite their discontent.
Regional parties used to have an edge in the 1980s. That edge is now blunted because the electorate no longer views them as a force of resistance against the Centre, which was then the Congress.
Today’s electorate is more pragmatic in looking to align with the Centre to get whatever benefits are possible. The BJP’s mockery of India’s federal structure has only strengthened this process of pragmatism by the cynical electorate.
The BJP is trying to keep afloat the systemic cynicism by ensuring that it is seen to overlap with relatively more credible and more organic institutions such as family, nation, religion and the armed forces.
What the BJP is therefore attempting is to scrape through the elections with a thin majority to make sure it is the single-largest party, no matter what the overall score. Under Modi and party president Amit Shah, the BJP seems to be banking more on post-poll machinations than winning the elections.
It might then try and use its indomitable money power to buy smaller parties aligned with the Congress as well as the various regional parties that have little interest than to stay afloat by remaining in power.
The BJP can also use the continued threat of various legal cases that it has inflicted on politicians they see as having the potential to return to their fold.
This again is more of not leaving these individuals with a choice than allowing them to make a positive choice about who to align with.
How far this design of the BJP will fructify is for India to wait and watch, but what is here to stay is this new lens of cynical pragmatism that is suicidal for any robust democracy. A pragmatism that is looking for minimalist benefits through whatever means possible rather than a strong welfare agenda.
It draws more on a disempowered electorate than a narrative of positively empowering them. From a festive atmosphere associated with the elections in the past, the electorate has been pushed to the brink of a suicidal instinct.
Ajay Gudavarthy is assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He has recently authored the book India after Modi: Populism and the Right.