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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 22 New Delhi May 18, 2019

A Weird Election Campaign!

Sunday 19 May 2019

by L.K. Sharma

What are the current elections about? About an “endangered” majority, misdeeds of the “anti-nationals” colluding with a minority, Pakistan being threatened with a nuclear war, a Congress Prime Minister travelling by an aircraft-carrier in 1988, and other past events!

These elections are not about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s false promise of economic nirvana. These are not about the disastrous policy decisions taken by him, a record rise in unemployment and falling economic growth rate. These are not about rural distress and farmers’ suicides.

Language and civility are two prime victims of this vicious poll campaign. Hate speech makes a minority cower even as a vast section of the majority is made to feel insecure and besieged. Many Hindus, driven by religious fervour and nationalism, have come to support a “muscular” messiah who crushes their external and internal enemies! Their feeling, magnified many times by the slavish TV channels, newspapers and social media, give an aura of invincibility to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is seeking re-election after having run a presidential-style government in a parliamentary democracy.

These elections will be known for the terror-accused Sadhvi Pragya, a saffron-clad Hindu nun, fielded as a ruling party candidate. The growing criminalisation of politics has acquired a new dimension. “The implications seem to be that the more deadly the crime people are associated with, higher are their chances for a career in politics; the more the business of elections relies on crime, the more is the depreciation of any meaningful claims of being a democracy...”, write Christophe Jaffrelot and Malvika Maheshwari.

These elections will be known for the Prime Minister’s repeated violation of the moral code of conduct that advises against seeking votes in the name of the military, religion and castes and against promoting sectarian hatred. Of course, this code does not bar the candidates from telling lies.

Never before were so many complaints lodged against a campaigning Prime Minister for the violation of the moral code of conduct. The Election Commission sat over these till the Supreme Court forced it to give its decisions. The Commission then gave clean chits to the Prime Minister, ignoring dissent by one of its members. The Prime Minister continued to make subtle references to the voters belonging to a minority and attack his political opponents for appeasing it. The impartiality of the Election Commission has been questioned not just by the Opposition parties but also by independent commentators.

There is no level field in these elections as the ruling party is spending many times more money on propaganda than all other parties combined. The dark money amounting to more than half the funds circulates freely as the donors remain anonymous.

India’s nastiest, costliest and longest poll campaign will leave behind the legacy of toxic Hindu nationalism and a broken democracy. These elections will have serious implications not just for the future of democracy but also for the idea of India and the soul of Hinduism, a faith used as fodder for the political campaign.

At another level, the disruption of social cohesion and harmony will enhance, not diminish, the threat of terrorism. The continuing political confrontation will not let the next government spur economic growth and improve the law and order situation. If Modi becomes the Prime Minister again, religious polarisation, suppression of dissent and politicisation of institutions will gather further momentum.

These elections are unlikely to hand over a decisive victory to any single party. The poll campaign is only a trailer of a political thriller that will feature horse-trading before and after the installation of the new government. A great drama of betrayal by minor players will follow. Strategists of all parties have kept ready resources for political auctions. Newly elected parliamentarians will be offered power and pelf for forming and breaking unprincipled alliances.

Strange political bed-fellows will trample upon their ideological commitments. In pursuit of power, they will forget mutual animosities. They will forgive their opponents for abusing them during the poll campaign. At times, the party winning the largest number of seats does not get to form the government as some of its legislators defect and another alliance grabs power!

This theatre of the absurd is euphemistically known as democracy. The lead actor is Naredra Modi, the Prime Minister, who went into the election campaign mode the day he assumed office five years ago after a spectacular victory of his Hindu nationalist party. The victory was attributed to him and he came to be known as the Propaganda Minister! With his personalised populist campaign peppered with alternative facts, he pushed his party on the sidelines. Every candidate fielded by his party seeks vote in Modi’s name. Modi set the vicious tone of the election campaign, unleashing the demons of religious nationalism, extremism, bigotry and polarisation. Every statement is designed to consolidate the Hindu votes in his favour.

In the 2014 elections, Modi had successfully sold a potent mix of Hindutva and economic development. Then his message reached beyond his core religious-Right-wing constituency, thanks to his oratorical skills. Many of those opposed to sectarianism and fake religiosity were swayed by his promise of economic nirvana.

Gradually, while Modi continued to perform brilliantly on social media, the government’s record disappointed the Hindutva as well as development lobbies. The contentious Ram temple remained unbuilt on the site of the demolished Babri mosque. As to the promise of development, while a few rich people got richer, the common man saw his economic misery growing.

As the Opposition leaders began to remind the voters of Modi’s false promises, Modi grabbed the non-economic issues to distract the voters. His poll campaign narrative has been kept free of the real issues related to the people’s problems. Modi could not talk again of “economic development” in his election speeches. Hope was replaced by fear for driving voters.

Modi’s campaign took a weird turn. Having polarised the nation on the basis of religion, caste, region and political leaders, Modi had to devise multiple narratives to suit the audience of the day. Initially, the movement for building the controversial Ram temple was revived but it had to be switched off abruptly because of lukewarm popular response. The renewed Ram temple movement in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections could have worked against Modi. Many Hindu devotees, feeling empowered by their party in power, would have asked why the temple had not been built in five years. Better to keep it safe as a time-bomb for use against a secular government!

The Modi campaign then turned to nationalism, casting aspersions on a minority community and calling all political opponents “anti-national”. This began to play well. At this point of time a Kashmiri terrorist killed some para-military troops by ramming his bomb-laden car into their bus on a highway. Since Pakistan has been helping such terrorists, a cross-border surgical strike was undertaken. And that became the key element of the ruling party’s poll strategy. The official intelligence failure was blacked out and the Prime Minister began to boast of the military action. In an atmosphere surcharged with patriotic fervour, issues such as the poor farmers’ suicides or the record rise in unemployment were lost.

The daily feedback from regions with different profiles of the voters keeps altering Modi’s narrative. So, when the surgical strikes against Pakistan seemed to be losing potency in the election campaign, Modi switched to the alleged misdeeds of the former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, whose son Rahul Gandhi leads the main Opposition party. Five years of sustained social media campaigns have convinced sections of Indians that Nehru was a Muslim and that Indira Gandhi was married to a Muslim!

Modi had to flit from one narrative to another. In a state where the charge of appeasement of Muslims gets political mileage, hurl that against the political opponents. In a State where the people appreciate a muscular leader, project that persona. In the border State of Punjab the voters are repulsed by the sound of war drums in election meetings. So, skip the nuclear threat to Pakistan and remind the people of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in which some Congress members had participated. If the aggressive attacks on the Opposition have gone too far, project the Prime Minister’s soft image through a video of a “non-political” interview with a film actor. If Rahul Gandhi has to be fixed, scream that his late father was corrupt and that he once used an aircraft carrier as his “personal taxi”.

Some political leaders the world over have shown that lies work to their advantage even if they are caught lying. During the current election campaign, a few fact-checking organisations cannot cope with the material that comes under their scanner day and night.

The campaign for and by the terror-accused Hindu Sadhvi Pragya will be remembered for long. Sadhvi Pragya’s past performance establishes her credentials as a brave Hindutva leader. She was granted bail on medical grounds but was fit enough to run a hectic election campaign. A court case can be made irrelevant if the accused wins a mandate from the court of the voters! That is what her campaigners kept saying.

The Prime Minister said in his campaign speeches that Hindus cannot be terrorists and asked the voters to “punish” the Opposition leaders for insulting Hinduism by linking it to terrorism.

Of course, the political reward given to a terror-accused will be noted by any Hindu wanting to be a terrorist! Could it be a plan to make certain crimes more attractive and acceptable so that some come up to fight the terrorists belonging to a different religion?

(Courtesy: Open Democracy)

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a freelancer.

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