Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Democracy is at stake as India gears up for national elections

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his recent speeches has expressed confidence in coming back to power for a third consecutive term as the country prepares for parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in seven phases from April 19 to June 1 this year. In his speech at the National Council of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) on 18 February, the Prime Minister confidently stated that despite the polls being months away, he’s already receiving invitations from other nations for events after the elections, suggesting widespread anticipation of his return to power. Moreover, he boldly proclaimed that the ruling alliance would secure more than 400 seats in the parliament, a majority rarely witnessed in Indian politics. While his supporters claim it is the PM’s popularity and his party’s perceived integrity that remain the sources of confidence for making such audacious predictions, the opposition argues that the PM’s confidence stems from his government’s stranglehold on democratic institutions, law enforcement agencies, and media in the country.

On March 20, Delhi’s Chief Minister and one of the opposition’s principal leaders, Arvind Kejriwal was arrested on charges of corruption by the central government’s anti-corruption agency. Kejriwal is the second chief minister to be arrested by the central agency in the last two months. Only last month, the Chief Minister of the state of Jharkhand, Hemant Soren was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate hours after his resignation. While the cases of Jharkhand and Delhi Chief Ministers are the most high-profile, they are not the only ones where the Enforcement Directorate has gone after politicians that oppose the Modi government. In many states across India, politicians with corruption cases against them have defected and joined the ruling party and then the cases against them seemed to slowly disappear. This is probably the reason why opposition and govt critics claim that the govt is arm-twisting opponents into defection. Those who do not defect, face summons from the Enforcement Directorate and in many cases like that of Delhi and Jharkhand CMs, jail time. Only last year, the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was suspended from the lower house of the Indian parliament after the High Court of Modi’s Home state, Gujarat, declared him guilty in a flimsy defamation case. It was the Supreme Court of India that came to the opposition leader’s rescue and overturned the decision and helped Rahul return to the parliament. These cases highlight the challenges currently faced by dissenting voices in India.

As recently as the first week of March, it was brought to public notice that the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was the largest recipient in the electoral bond scheme which allowed anonymous donations to political parties. From the data that was released on orders of the Supreme Court of India, it was found that the BJP received around 50% of all the electoral bonds sold while the principal opposition party, Congress, garnered less than 10% percent. This news which may have caused a massive political stir in any functional democracy saw very little debate on Indian television and print media. Attention swiftly shifted as the government announced the implementation of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act which enables persecuted religious minorities from India’s neighbouring countries to expedite the process of acquiring Indian citizenship. The Act leaves out Muslims from the list of religious minorities who can be granted citizenship speedily and makes religion a consideration in acquiring Indian citizenship for the first time in the country’s independent history.

Many see the announcement of the CAA’s implementation as well as the arrests of opposition leaders as a distraction tactic by the government to shift public attention away from the findings related to electoral bonds. With money, muscle, media, and central agencies on their side, and not to forget the genuine popularity of the PM especially amongst the country’s Hindu voters, the BJP seems to be in complete control in quite a few states for the upcoming elections. However, there are still provinces where they are expected to face a formidable challenge. It remains comfortable in the larger states of Northern India most notably in the state of Uttar Pradesh where the consecration ceremony of a grand temple in January, at the site of a mosque that was demolished by the right-wing mob in 1992 took the form of a cultural festival. Uttar Pradesh houses 80 parliamentary constituencies and is the most important state when it comes to national elections. Madhya Pradesh, another major state with 29 seats in the national assembly also proved itself to be a bastion for the ruling party when the BJP comfortably came back to power in the state assembly election last year after analysts had predicted a tough fight. Rajasthan, where the BJP came to power after defeating a popular CM is also a site where the ruling party is hopeful of doing well. Gujarat, the home state of both the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, has been a safe state for the ruling party for decades and no trends suggest any significant changes there. In addition to these larger states, the BJP is also successfully forging alliances with the locally dominant political parties in the smaller states of India’s northeast. 

Nevertheless, there are states where the BJP had done spectacularly well in the previous national elections but may face significant challenges in the upcoming parliamentary polls. In the state of Bihar, Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has regained prominence in recent years. While the BJP had managed to get the former Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar of Janata Dal (United) to abandon his alliance with the RJD and put his weight behind the ruling party, that seems to have only added to the RJD’s popularity. Another major state, West Bengal has been the stronghold of Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) for a very long time and has ever since been a thorn in the BJP’s side.

The Southern states remain the BJP’s weakest political spot. Even though they have been longing to make a mark in the 5 southern states, they seem to be nowhere near to posing any serious challenge to the regional parties in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana and the Congress in the state of Karnataka. Karnataka was the only state where the BJP had been in power recently at the state level, but they had to bow out after a comprehensive defeat to the Congress in 2023. Many had then seen Congress’s triumph in Karnataka as a possible turning point for their electoral fortune but that was not to be the case. 

In the past two elections, the BJP had employed a highly effective electoral strategy that systematically discredited the main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi portraying him as an undeserving leader lacking political acumen and intelligence. This concerted effort, where the television media played a very important role, to undermine the opposition leader yielded substantial political dividends for the BJP, leaving even government critics grappling with the question, “If not Modi, then who?” Despite enduring a decade of electoral setbacks attributed to his perceived lack of leadership, Rahul Gandhi managed to shed the label of a naive politician through bold initiatives such as the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Covering a distance of 3000 kilometres across the country in 2022, this march served as a rallying cry for national unity and garnered significant attention. Regardless of the condescending remarks made against him by government supporters, Rahul Gandhi has succeeded in asserting himself as a serious political contender, demanding attention, and recognition on the national stage.

While mainstream Indian media may perceive Prime Minister Modi’s victory in the upcoming 2024 national elections as inevitable, several factors suggest that there is a lot that remains to be seen. Despite the BJP’s stronghold in certain regions, challenges persist, including its vulnerability in the Southern states, accusations of corruption, and opposition from regional parties. Additionally, the emergence of a more credible opposition leader may have an electoral effect as well.

However, it cannot be ignored that another significant victory for the BJP and the re-election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister are major possibilities. The party’s adept use of strategies such as fueling antagonism against minorities, fostering hyper-nationalism, implementing welfare measures, and projecting an aura of Hindu dominance has proven to be a potent political formula. However, the incarceration of opposition leaders, coupled with the swift implementation of major legislative and constitutional changes without adequate debate, raises apprehensions of democratic backsliding and institutional erosion. As we move closer to the upcoming elections, it seems like along with political power and position, it is democracy itself that is at stake this time. 

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