The 2019 elections are a radical rupture in India’s recent electoral history, argues Dr Mukulika Banerjee (author of Why India Votes? and Director of LSE South Asia Centre).
Photo Credit: Shutterstock, denisproduction.com
This 2019 national election in India is nothing like the one before it in 2014. There is something fundamentally different about it, even though it is superficially familiar. The vocabulary is the same, but the grammar has changed. It is as if we are watching a game in Eden Gardens, wearing our team’s T shirts, cheering as the players work hard – but the game we are watching is something altogether different from what we grew up with and are used to. Not just the wickets/ goalposts have been moved, but the whole rules of the game have been changed. Let me show what I mean.
First, the referee is partisan. For the first time, the Election Commission of India, that much respected and celebrated public institution, has completely lost credibility in this election. News of discord among the three election commissioners has emerged and their repeated failure to create a level playing field for all players is evident. Utterances that lower standards of public discourse immeasurably, blatant violation of electoral rules such as the instrumental use of armed forces are nodded through while a retired soldier is disallowed from standing for election on the other. Bad tackles by one side, the favourites, have failed to be shown the red card whilst minor ones by other sides have been sent off the field.
Second, electoral finance has crossed all limits. Between 2014 and 2019, the new instrument of ‘electoral bonds’ was introduced by the BJP government, without any parliamentary debate, to make funding of political parties and candidates utterly opaque. Unsurprisingly, 95% of these bonds has gone to the ruling party, creating campaign wealth of an unprecedented order. Evidence of this is the capture of the public space by its ubiquitous and expensive advertising, and the easy availability of masks, flags, earrings, saris, brooches, pencil cases, umbrellas – all of one single party. Its marketing works on the same principle as that of a cement company whose strap line is ‘People Buy it, Because They Know it’ (Shobai cheney, tai keney). And it works, especially in places where the message is new. For instance, in a state like West Bengal where the party organisation is relatively weak, people enthusiastically stated that the BJP would come back. When asked why, their reply is ‘you see their colours everywhere, so they must be winning’. It is like going to a sporting event where merchandise of only one team is available.
Third, the chance to maintain the secrecy of the ballot – a key aspect of democratic elections – was explicitly rejected by the party in power. In 2015, the BJP and its allies blocked the introduction of the totalizer machine, which the Election Commissioned had commissioned and one that the Law Commission recommended be adopted, which would have electronically ‘mixed’ votes from all polling booths in a constituency before counting. Earlier, with paper ballots, this used to be done physically in large drums. With the introduction of EVMs in 2004, counting has been done machine by machine, thereby allowing political parties to ascertain how each segment of c.1000 people, the average population covered by a polling booth, voted – for them or against. One can see why the BJP blocked the Totalizer: as their candidate Maneka Gandhi said recently at a public meeting, her party would look at the booth level data after elections to punish those areas that had not voted for them. Thus the secret ballot, an essential reason why Indians vote in high numbers in elections and have faith in the electoral process in India, stands compromised, but many voters do not even realize it yet.
Fourth, this is the first time in recent memory that the country is voting in national elections not having seen or heard the Prime Minister face a single uncensored interview or press conference. Those who ask for accountability from an elected government are deemed to be spoil sports, or worse still, anti-national. In 2014, the majority of the print and electronic media had a modicum of neutrality and at least felt obliged to maintain the appearance of it. This is no longer the case in 2019.
Finally, Whatsapp did not exist in India in 2014. By 2019 however, the combination of cheap smart phones and affordable data plans – helpfully made available by at least one company owned by a single industrialist close to the ruling party who presciently stated ‘data is the new oil’ – has made direct texts, video and audio messages to individual phones possible. This combined with a formidable grassroots organisation of the same party has meant that voters receive regular feeds that are literally at their fingertips, to be rehearsed, disseminated and chanted with others. It is as if spectators continually receive messages on their phones while the match is on, telling them that their team is the best, that the previous victories of their opponents are all hollow, that Eden Gardens did not exist before their team played, and that their team will triumph as the only champions.
For these reasons, the 2019 election is a radical rupture from any that came before it. This time we have witnessed a truly twenty first century campaign where one party has combined the use of technology and organisation to disseminate the message it wants voters to consume, regardless of veracity, determined to win at all cost. And this desire to win elections as if they are an end in themselves, echoes a wider mood in the country. A recent survey conducted by CSDS-Azim Premji University, analysed by Suhas Palshikar, shows that commitment to democracy in India may be paper thin, and mainly an enthusiasm for elections with much less enthusiasm for broader democratic values, such as freedom of expression or the curbing of majoritarian disdain for accommodating and celebrating diversity. Elections are considered the only democratic game in town and winning them is the only goal to be scored. If this is indeed true, it has happened because a disdain for institutions, procedures, accountability, reason and evidence has been systematically encouraged – while maintaining the thinnest of veneers of democratic governance. Whoever wins the 17th Lok Sabha elections, the game that has been played is just not cricket!
[Note from author: Apologies for the incorrect date for Whatsapp in India. It was indeed introduced to India before 2014 but really gained in popularity in the last five years with a huge increase in smart phone penetration.]
This article gives the views of the auhor and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Mukulika Banerjee is author of Why India Votes? and founding director of the London School of Economics’ South Asia Centre.
An Amazing article while contains only falsehoods.
The Prime Minister of India has given MANY uncensored interviews. This includes interviews to media entities like Indian Express and ABP News that constantly criticise him. Yet the author choses to project the Prime Minister as someone who does not give interviews.
Secondly, the author seems to suggest that because one party has is strong at the grassroots and is dominating the political landscape, democratic institutions have been weakened. This is ludicrous to say the least.
The author also says that the BJP is good at marketing and so the election is not fair! No one has stopped the opposition parties, 21 of them having got together to market their vision and leader similarly. The author makes a wild comparison that this is like a game where only one team’s merchandise is available. This is the height of falsehoods.
The entire tone and tenor of the article seems to be that the author does not like the Prime Minister of India and his party. Because they are winning ,the author concludes the elections are not fair.
It is surprising why a reputed institution like LSE allows such one sided assorted falsehoods to be presented as an opinion!
Lastly, the author says this is not cricket! No madam, this is not cricket, this is democracy at its best where record voter turnouts have been reported. This shows people’s faith in democratic institutions. We don’t need this kind of propaganda to defame our democracy..
The article by Mukulika Banerjee takes a completely biased and prejudiced view of why India votes based on conjectures, suspicion and her perception of things. She is only trivialising the greatness of vibrant Indian democracy only and only because typically she belongs to the left wing thought process. She is only resonating with the opponents of the present govt. who during their dispensation in power did nothing for the country and thrived only on caste and minority appeasement; the condition of minorities, particularly Muslims, are worse than Dalits. The minorities, particularly Muslims, are much better off under Hindu rule than the other way round. The article reflects what Mamata Banerjee shouts from the rooftops. Allegations against the election commission, who are rigorously conducting this massive exercise, is appalling to say the least; it is possible that there was not unanimity among all members, hence decision is taken by majority which happens in every democracy. Banerjee has quitely ignored the amount of money in the possession of other leaders who run family business of politics.
Narendra Modi is a terrorist, he shouldn’t become the prime minister again if people of India want peace with Pakistan.
I wonder what would be the definition of “fair” for the author?
This election has been fought fiercely because it is a do-or-die for the opposition parties. The oppositions had been complacent in their thoughts after decades of voters throwing in coalition governments. In a system where every party big or small will wield influence if they happen to be part of the winning party, they forgot how systems with strong majorities function.
Election Commission and its laws were written before the advent of social media or multi pronged election campaign. Of course, there will be considerable discussions on how to control social media which doesn’t function like normal print media or TV and have data stored in countries with much stronger privacy terms. Dissent is common, hence the reasoning that majority opinion prevails. Even in Supreme Court of India, there will be dissent among the Judges during verdicts. This should be celebrated as victory of Democracy instead of accusing ECI to be partisan
BJP had only two advantage, that was the PM and its cadres. The victory of BJP was to convert this elections into a referendum rather than a political battle among ideology. Results, once declared will show whether this was a smart move or a suicide.
The author of this blog is of the view that the 2019 elections in India are free but not fair. The author then proceeds to explain why in her opinion (and it is her opinion) they are not fair.
She claims that the EC is partisan – the fact that EC has taken action against politicians of all colors including Menka Gandhi from BJP for her statements that are referred by the author. She further states that a retired soldier was not allowed to contest. The fact that the soldier is not retired but was dismissed and the reasons for the rejection for his nomination can be found here https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/elections/lok-sabha-elections-2019/uttar-pradesh/news/axed-bsf-jawan-barred-from-varanasi-big-fight/articleshow/69136799.cms
So the author has misrepresented the facts. So how are the elections unfair?
She then suggests that as the ruling party (majority) party has grassroots workers and uses social media well (including WhatsApp) better than other parties, it is not fair. The national parties – BJP and Congress both are using social media well and has followers across countries, regional parties by their scope have limited followers – How are the elections unfair?
The author of the blog states that the government blocked the introduction of the totalizer – the major political parties were divided over its introduction, some supporting it and some not sure on how full proof this was. Incidentally, it was in 2008 that the EC had suggested mixing as the politician from national congress party had threatened voters and then in 2014 one poll booth only one person voted as there was a fault. The totalizer is another layer on the secrecy of poll so it should be clarified that 1000 votes were polled in secrecy and one poll booth in Faridabad where this was violated, the EC has called for fresh polling with the poll officers suspended- How are the elections unfair
Very accurate article about the 2019 elections. The BJP has destroyed in 5 years what was built painstakingly over the last 60 years. Large sections of people are alienated by the current govt run by two unsavoury characters. Unfortunately India has only the mediocre Rahul to oppose them. He is trying hard but it may not be enough.
The commenters above have quietly ignored that BJP has gained 96% of roughly half a billion dollars of Electoral bonds in the last two months alone. This has enabled the ruling party to buy off media houses. This is the root of a lot of vices in this election. It is anybody’s guess if part of the money might have been used to buy out votes.
@Deepak, you say that marketing by BJP is fair since other opposition parties can do the same. This is not true. Marketing requires money, and if a political party has 96% of half a billion dollars of “anonymous” cash and the remaining 21 parties have 4%, you cannot claim to have a level playing field.
Also, there has been no press conference given by the PM. His interviews are notoriously scripted, as is evident in the photo of the poem that went viral on internet.
“The minorities, particularly Muslims, are much better off under Hindu rule than the other way round”
Really? What do you mean Hindu rule? We are supposed to be a secular country, and no, we do not want to be under “Hindu rule”.
@Both Chandra and Deepak:
Election Commission has given a clean chit to Modi for all violations of MCC.
“Rahul Gandhi went to Wayanad where minority is the majority”
“Dedicate your first vote to martyrs of Pulwama”
These are clear violations of MCC, stating that no one can claim voes in the name of armed forces, or use religion as a tool to create divisions.
As the world’s biggest democracy, India’s 2019 election will be one of the most important global political events of the year.
How one sided the article is…. How the author feels / concludes that the Indian electorate is such a vulnerable lot … How mush I wish that a great Institution like LSE cross checks all details / data before giving the platform for publication…..
Author has clearly analysed and written the article. Now the atmosphere in the whole country is very poisonous. One cannot even express their opinion. But we proudly call ourselves a great democracy. God save this country
Sad state my country is in, BJP is taking the country back to the dark hours… such a shame… the work of last 60 years to build the country has been failed in just 4years and now another term….