Elections in the Midst of a Pandemic

In my last blog post on India, I had written about the three Es that we will have to watch out for in 2022. This article is on the first E: elections, with those on the economy and on engineering economic reforms following in subsequent months.

The Omicron variant has set off the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in India and as can only happen in our country, the Election Commission has announced the dates for assembly elections to be held in five states. They begin on February 10, 2022 and counting is to be held on March 10, 2022.

To any sensible person, this strikes one as strange timing, since the Omicron variant is believed to peak by early February and ebb by end of March according to experts, and the Election Commission ought to have taken that into consideration. In fact, the Allahabad High Court had already requested that elections in UP be postponed due to the Omicron variant, but in the Election Commission’s wisdom it has been dragged into a 7-phase election in the state.

Just last year, we had assembly elections in several states, where it was multi-phase polling again with as many as 8 phases in West Bengal. And the campaigning in large public rallies, as I have written before, did lead to a surge in Covid cases there, as elsewhere. We never seem to learn from even prior experience, if not from listening to experts and what science has to say. The only difference this time is that the EC has banned public rallies, but only until January 15, 2022. What after that, is anybody’s guess and we might even have a situation where the ban is reapplied week after week!

That said, the electioneering had already begun around the end of last year with campaign rallies, announcement of new projects in various states, etc. The world’s largest and most raucous democracy going to the polls is a pageant, spectacular to watch, even in the middle of a raging pandemic. This time campaigning might be a little quieter, thanks to the ban on public rallies, with social media going into overdrive as far as campaign messages are concerned.

If only elections didn’t have to become a single-party phenomenon as they seem to have become in India. That’s largely because the GOP of India, the Indian National Congress (INC) has been in such a state of disarray and dare I say, atrophy, that there are no real alternatives at the national level. So, if we are witnessing the near-sweep of the BJP, it is not because our democracy is working; rather the contrary.

The only saving grace is that at the state level, there are still regional and local parties that are hold outs against the dominance of any national party. However, those are not the states going to polls this time; Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur are all states where national parties have tended to dominate. Punjab is the only one that has a strong regional party in the Shiromani Akali Dal, until recently an ally with the BJP and a member of the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) coalition. That alliance was tested by the new farm laws that the Centre tried to push through and the SAD (Shiromani Akali Dal) decided to part ways with the BJP.

In Goa, where I have now lived with my parents for the past 14 years, we are witnessing a strange and new phenomenon. Non-Goan political parties from outside such as the TMC (Trinamool Congress) from West Bengal and AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) from Delhi are testing the waters of Goan politics, promising to offer Goans a change from the past. How far they will succeed is questionable since none of them have any grassroot support or political base in Goa. Unlike NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) of Sharad Pawar which has a strong base in Maharashtra and has also been building a base in Goa, the TMC and AAP have no local or regional support base.

New as the phenomenon is, the TMC has wisely decided to tie up with a local Goan party, the MGP (Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party) in challenging the incumbent BJP government. The AAP has not decided to form an alliance with anyone, while the Congress Party has tied up with GFP (Goa Forward Party), which until recently was supporting the BJP government. As you’d expect in this three, or four-cornered fight, there have been party defections galore already. I am not from Goa, even though my parents chose to settle here decades ago, and I do not follow local politics here closely, but it seems to me a strange way to challenge the BJP. One wonders if the TMC will try to garner Christian and Muslim votes, since they like to claim secular credentials even in West Bengal. The Congress too for its part which has ruled Goa for decades until the late 1990s, is finding its support base shrinking, even though it is its secular politics that helped it govern Goa for so long.

No matter which way the alliances go and where the MLAs defect, there is still no clarity on what each of the parties are contesting the elections on, besides the only obvious one of fighting the BJP. There isn’t even a clear message from the BJP yet in Goa for the state elections. For a clearer portent of which way India is likely to go, we have to look at the high-stakes state of Uttar Pradesh. India’s largest and most populous state with the largest state assembly as well as the largest number of representatives in parliament matters most even in state assembly elections.

Besides the fact that the leaders of the two largest national parties, the BJP and the Congress, fight their parliamentary seats from their strongholds in UP, it is where national level strategies are tested, won and lost. Whether it is the BJP’s religion and caste politics, or the sudden pro-poor pivot in the last assembly elections in 2017 when a Rs 30,000 crore farm loan waiver was lavished on rural farmers in order to soften the blow from demonetization, it is testing ground for the rest of the country.

And last time, the choice of a hardline Hindutva priest-turned-politician as Chief Minister of UP by the Modi-Shah duo was a clear indication of what direction the nation is likely to take. Clearly Hindu Rashtra.

After decades of wrangling over the Babri Masjid demolition case – in which nearly all the charged have been acquitted – the Ayodhya temple issue seems to have been decided. Then came the Kashi corridor project – another glittering symbol of Hindu pride – which was only recently launched with great fanfare. Next station: Mathura, Brindavan… It is not hard to see why Yogi Adityanath was chosen as the pointsman for achieving the visions of the centre.

Voters during Gujarat Assembly Election, in Gandhinagar, Gujarat in 2017; Image: Election Commission of India via Government Open Data Licence- India on Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, what is happening on the economic development front in the state is another matter. In terms of education, healthcare, investment and job opportunities, UP is a laggard, one among many in the BJP-ruled Hindi-belt states. For decades, it counted among the BIMARU states, the sick men of India (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and UP). It is a laggard even during the Covid pandemic, with only around 30% of its population fully vaccinated. For the size of the populous state, it had rural unemployment of 4.3% and urban unemployment of 10.6% in 2018-19 according to RBI data  

Even if the poverty data on RBI’s website is a decade old, it is quite telling that in 2011-12, UP had a poverty rate of 29.4%, higher than the national average of 21.9%. And invested capital in the state continues to lag most large states of India according to the same RBI data. The UP government has been releasing huge full page – sometimes double-spread newspaper adverts – in Goa and besides the wrong choice of media, I worry about the wrong information being shared with the public, not to mention the monumental waste of money. The advert claims that UP’s is the second largest economy in India, when that cannot be a fact. According to the same RBI data cited earlier, UP was the fourth largest economy in India in 2019-20, trailing Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.

If Prime Minister Modi had the Gujarat model of development in mind for India (itself such a myth, since Gujarat was already one of the most industrialised states), he seems to have the Hindu Rashtra model in mind for UP, where the party’s and its ideological fount, the RSS’s, most cherished Hindutva ideals are implemented and put to the test. Therefore temples, pilgrimage tourism, cow protection and cow science dominate the investment and economic activity.

How does all this augur for the health of Indian democracy? For one thing, it tells us that a single party has been dominating the political landscape and that is a terrible sign of what’s to come. For this sorry state, the Congress Party is as much to blame as is the Indian voter. During the last assembly elections in 2017 in both Goa and Manipur, the BJP also subverted democratic process in rushing ahead to form the government, when the Congress Party was the single largest party in both states and ought to have been given the first chance to form a government. Many might say that was smart of the BJP; smart in the sense of crafty and cunning is probably right.

What’s more, have we as a democracy matured over the past 75 years, enough to be able to vote not along caste and community lines, but for all the issues that matter such as jobs, education, cost of living, economic development, etc. And have we been able to hold the government to account, when it has failed to deliver the goods? Sadly, that is not yet the case, else the BJP would not have been re-elected with such a thumping majority in 2019, when the economy was still reeling from the effects of demonetization and extreme farmer distress.

What can change the status quo? For democracy to survive and thrive in India, we need more voters among the educated classes and more of India’s youth to exercise their franchise. One would expect that the youth would be more concerned with issues like education, cost of living, jobs, etc. than with religious and communal matters. Unfortunately, unlike in the West where extreme right-wing conservatism is rising among the older, more rural and less educated population, in India it is the urban youth that are being radicalised. And it is part of a concerted programme by the BJP to make India’s youth more conscious of their Hindu civilization, even if it is nothing more than jingoistic nationalism of a very superficial kind. And a lot of it is indoctrination through social media, through the youth wing, through the education system where textbooks are being rewritten, etc.

It is probably also a well-calculated plan, since India’s youth are the largest population cohort, and the educated among them would also constitute the largest proportion that can’t find jobs and are likely to be disenchanted. Young, impressionable minds would be perfect breeding ground for toxic politics, when you can’t provide them with employment or better standards of living.

All this speaks of a muscular authoritarian Hindu ideology that will increasingly take over our lives, even those of moderate, secular Hindus like myself. In fact, the BJP probably sees people like me as the greatest danger to their agenda of total Hinduisation of the country. If this trend continues, we will finally see Veer Sarvakar’s vision of a militant form of Hinduism, one that is based on Aryan purity of race and worse, become a reality. Not any different from fascism or Nazism, since the RSS is hugely influenced by the latter. 

This will be the beginning of the end. And it must be resisted with all our might. As of now, I see our states as the only hope, the few that stand in the way of Hindu Rashtra. But I am afraid, I might be clutching at straws.

Post script: I had applied for a new Voter Card in Goa in January 2019, so I could vote in the general elections that year and have still not received it. I have, in effect, been disenfranchised even though I continue to be an Indian citizen and a tax-paying one!

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