Indian Elections 2019: Theatre of the Absurd

It is said that Indian elections are the greatest experiment in democracy. In a nation of 1.3 billion people and over 900 million eligible voters, that does mean a grand pageant. Some observers, talking to Matthew Amroliwala on BBC World News, even called it a great “festival of democracy”. If you watch the news and the rallies on television, with candidates dressed in fancy and colourful costumes and some even brandishing swords (when not making menacing and inflammatory statements), you could be forgiven for thinking that it is a festival. Unfortunately, it is nothing but the theatre of Indian politics playing out.

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Bathers taking a holy dip in the Ganges at Varanasi, Narendra Modi’s constituency; Image: Thomas Young on Unsplash

This time, it seems it is the turn of the theatre of the absurd. For one thing, the election campaigning has been particularly divisive and ugly. The political discourse has never been lower, the real issues have never been more concealed, the speeches have never sounded hollower, the manifestos have never been more bereft of ideas. Even the language of campaigning this time is more coarse and violent. As the two main national parties (the ruling NDA and the Congress) go head to head for parliamentary seats, it appears that the federal structure of Indian politics is asserting itself in several regional parties exercising their power. Something tells me that this has actually strengthened over the past five years, even as the BJP has been sweeping elections, in state after state.

I think it is because people have seen through the mirage promised by the BJP five years ago. In many cases the BJP has actually brought trouble upon itself, as it did with the Citizenship Amendment Bill, soon after establishing power in the North-East. In Kashmir, their so-called coalition government with the PDP was always as much a question of whether it would last, as how long it would last. It has sown discord and distrust among the people and most of all, let people down on the grand election promises it made in 2014.

Let us examine a few of the critical issues facing this country, even if our politicians will not talk about them. These elections are taking place against a backdrop of slowing economic growth, across all sectors of the economy. The GDP growth numbers deserve to be questioned (not just the frequent and recent revisions, but the basis for changing the method of calculation itself soon after the new government took over in 2015). Even with all the slowdown and “policy paralysis” that plagued UPA 2 (as the second term of the previous Congress-led government is known), India was growing at a healthier pace, given the huge economic challenges of large capital inflows in the aftermath of the financial crisis and high oil and commodity prices fuelling inflation, than now. There is no denying that the government’s ill-thought demonetization programme dealt a huge blow to an already slowing economy since 2015, and a death blow to the weaker sections, such as small enterprises. When you consider that the informal sector accounts for 90% of the Indian economy, you can imagine the effect demonetization had on people and livelihoods. The government’s claim that India grew at its fastest pace in the aftermath of demonetization is laughable. It is nothing but an attempt to hoodwink the citizens of this country, a statistical sleight of hand, a way to reclassify, “rename” and tinker around with categories, as only this government can. And the new avatar of the former planning commission, the NITI Aayog, is the department now entrusted with the task of finding ways to present manipulated and distorted data. This news report from the Huffington Post tells you how the Indian government has been claiming a high level of digitization and e-governance. It makes a mockery of governance itself.

PM Narendra Modi addressing a campaign rally at Dwarka, Delhi in 2015; Image: PMO CC by SA 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

Next, we have the huge problem of rising unemployment; at 6.1% it is the highest it has ever been in the last four decades. In a country with a 65% youth population, and 12 million college-educated youth ready to enter the workforce each year, you can imagine what that is doing to our demographic dividend. Here too, we have our Prime Minister fooling the youth by telling them that making pakodas (equivalent to flipping a burger) is gainful employment. And our junior Finance Minister claims that this government is helping people create their own jobs by helping them become entrepreneurs! They also try using EPFO (pension) data and all kinds of subterfuge to convince people that millions of jobs have actually been added since demonetization.

The truth is rather grim. According to CMIE (Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy) India lost millions of jobs since demonetization, including 11 million, last year alone. There are reports of businesses shutting down, swelling numbers enrolling for MNREGA in the aftermath of demonetization, farmers having to feed their farm produce to livestock because demand had contracted to such a great extent.

Important to note is also what is happening to women in the workforce. The labour force participation rate among Indian women has fallen sharply from 36.7%% in 2005 to 26% in 2018. Even more surprising is the reason for the fall: families that are better off don’t see the need for women to work. I think the rise of the “Hindutva” mindset has something to do with this as well. As soon as the economic necessity of the second income ceases, so too must the woman’s aspirations and ambitions. The BJP considers women’s rights only as part of its electoral strategy, according to this news report in Huffington Post. We know they are extremely concerned with abolishing Triple Talaq, but there too it is only because it plays a role in their grand plans for the country. And when it comes to elections, according to a new book, The Verdict, by Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala, India’s best known psephologists, 21 million women are not on the electoral rolls in this election, and the largest numbers are missing in, where else, but the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Back to jobs. There is also no new private sector investment to speak of, so where will the jobs be created. Beside stalled projects having resumed, there is no capex in business. This is because there was still excess capacity, huge debt load in certain industries, and also because banks were reluctant to lend, with the ongoing bad loans saga that is still playing out. India’s Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanian, had then called it India’s “twin balance sheet” problem, referring to business’s inability to invest and banks’ inability to lend.

Opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, addressing a rally in Ernakulam, Kerala 2011; Image: Hibi Eden CC by SA 3.0 on Wikimedia Commons

Agriculture is in dire straits and has been, for many years. This sector needs a raft of sensible policies that will raise farm productivity and prices for farmers. Instead, we have record farm production coupled with falling incomes. What has been the response of political parties? To throw more money at the problem and hope it will go away. As I had written in my post on Universal Basic Income, raising minimum support prices, and offering loan waivers aren’t a long-term solution. Neither are farmer income support programmes. They can offer brief respite, but no more. Against this backdrop, this news report about a village in Maharashtra that has found a way of overcoming drought-like conditions is heartening to read.

While people in India face economic hardship and a bleak future, the BJP’s campaign focuses on national security and India’s muscular response to the Pulwama attack. As if that is going to fetch people jobs or get investment going. The Congress is focusing on its own version of the income support programme targeted at the lowest income quintile, when not targeting the Prime Minister over the Rafale defence deal for which Rahul Gandhi has been charged with contempt by the Supreme Court. Regional parties are all banking on their social welfare schemes to get them votes, since every state virtually has some form of social schemes to help the poor.

Meanwhile, the theatre of the absurd is really playing out in the social sphere. An accused in a terrorism case (still being heard in court) is given a ticket to contest for a parliament seat by the ruling BJP party. The Prime Minister even defends her candidature on the grounds that it is to counter allegations of “Hindu terrorism”. If there ever was blatant communalizing in Indian elections, it has to be this one. And it is all being done by the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party; their party president has gone on record to say that India will welcome Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs from neighbouring countries (he chiefly means Bangladesh and Pakistan) while making his election campaign speeches. It is clearly meant to exclude Muslims and Christians and marginalize them in the country even more than they already are and it dovetails neatly with their Citizenship Amendment Bill.

Election voters in Sikkim in 2014; Image: PIB, Government Open Data License, on Wikimedia Commons

Election votes in India have always been decided on the basis of caste and this time it’s no different. It is to be seen how Uttar Pradesh (India’s largest and most populous state) will vote this time, but it appears that the alliance of the SP and BSP (both parties appeal to lower caste Hindus and Muslims) this time may give the ruling BJP a run for its money.

The weirdest turn of events in this election so far has to be sexual harassment allegations against the Chief Justice of India, by a woman who is said to have once worked with him. Her complaints have appeared in a few online publications, just ahead of important election-related cases that the Chief Justice is to hear in a week’s time. It is quite obvious which party and its dirty tricks department are behind this. As a government, the current regime has done everything possible to undermine and even destroy important democratic institutions in this country. From the Central Bank to important statistical commissions, the media and the judiciary, the government has cocked a snook at everyone, even threatening them with dire consequences. It is also flouting several rules even as the elections take place and the Election Commission seems powerless in stopping them. The EC seems to be keen to show that it is taking action against a few candidates, when in fact, it has spared the Prime Minister and the BJP party president any questions.

This then, is what the world’s largest democracy has been reduced to. A country where the poor, weak and minorities have no voice. For some strange reason women are often included among minorities, when we are anything but. I have been forced to count myself among the 21 million missing women in this election, because my name has not been registered in Goa despite the fact that I applied for a new voter card in January this year.

The rule of majoritarianism is here to stay. If, as is believed, Narendra Modi is back for a second term (note how president-style the campaigning is), parliamentary democracy will be crushed further. It will strengthen India’s steady march towards a “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu nation). I can only hope that even the weakened democratic forces in India will steady his hand by forcing the BJP to join an even larger coalition government this time. That is the smallest kind of checks-and-balances that we can hope for.

It does seem appropriate then, for me to end this post with a verse from W B Yeats’s great poem The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

May 23, 2019 is when India will know of its fate and its tryst with democracy.

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