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).
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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.]
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Mukulika Banerjee is author of Why India Votes? and founding director of the London School of Economics’ South Asia Centre.