No matter who wins today, I don’t believe the 2019 election will have been stolen. Once exit polls were published predicting the National Democratic Alliance would comfortably form the next government, anti-Bharatiya Janata Party conspiracy theorists interpreted them as preparations for a grand heist in which Electronic Voting Machines programmed to hand victory to the ruling party would replace legitimate ones.
Exit polls may not be particularly accurate, but they aren’t part of a plot to undermine the popular mandate. EVMs have many shortcomings which the Election Commission has failed to deal with adequately, just as it has failed to deal adequately with dozens of complaints during the unnecessarily long-drawn-out general election, but the current voting process is no more susceptible to widespread subversion than elections of the past marked by booth capturing and ballot box stuffing.
No matter who wins today, I don’t believe this will be the last largely free and fair election in India. With all its deficiencies, the roots of India’s practice of universal franchise grow deeper with each local, state and national election, more difficult to pull out or poison.
I have always felt a profound sense of satisfaction and pride while waiting in line to vote. This year was no different, as I witnessed a familiar community gather to perform a secular ritual in which it was invested irrespective of the outcome, and chatted with friends of political persuasions other than mine in a space where those differences created none of the animosity characteristic of virtual exchanges.
That being said, there is no denying the virtual realm has emerged as a serious threat to liberal ideals. Should those ideals wither, democracies – defined not just as nations whose citizens freely elect governments based on majority rule but as systems concerned with protecting individual rights – cannot flourish. The rapid spread of cheap smartphones and data plans has reshaped sharing of information in the past five years. In India, as elsewhere in the world, virtual communities have gained over physical ones, and this technological revolution has tilted political discourse in favour of majoritarian nationalism.
Symptom of a sickness
Scroll.in’s excellent reporting from around the country indicated that the ruling party’s campaign built around muscular patriotism resonated across caste, class and region. Only the far south of the country remained largely impervious to it but, given the BJP’s success in opening up the north and the North East in the past five years, that might conceivably change in the future.
Liberals everywhere have struggled to counter the anti-minority, anti-immigrant rhetoric of right-wing nationalists, and no party is close to finding a solution, least of all a Congress hobbled by its attachment to dynasty.
The election to the European Parliament now in progress promises to strengthen the hand of Eurosceptics, demonstrating yet again that the death of the nation, proclaimed repeatedly since the fall of Communism, was greatly exaggerated. As Patrick Buchanan, an early proponent of Trumpian populist nationalism, wrote last week, “The nation, the patria, is the largest entity to which one can give loyalty and love. Who would march into no man’s land for the EU?”
Back in 1996, Norman Mailer wrote a laudatory profile of Buchanan for Esquire magazine, providing an early hint of how populist nationalism could muddle categories of Left and Right. It took 20 years for the ideology to find fruition, 20 years during which many theorists took as a given the fading away of the nation state and the unstoppable rise of transnational capitalism.
It turns out that the control Davos exerts over Washington, Beijing and Delhi is weaker than we imagined. Supply chains may be transnational, but a word from Donald Trump is enough for Google to cut links with Huawei. Huawei itself is embedded in a system of global capitalism strictly adapted to serve nationalist ends. In India, Walmart may buy Flipkart, but the government can, through a protectionist press note, kneecap its business model.
What is to be done, then, about the nationalist delirium which threatens the health of democracies everywhere? We must hope that bodies politic are robust enough to endure till the fever burns itself off, even as we attempt to tamp down its worst effects. The fever, while menacing in its own right, is also a symptom of an underlying sickness, a sickness of inequality, lack of opportunity, and loss of security. The fever may pass, but the sickness will remain, and we currently have no cure for that, either.
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