The world’s largest democratic election has started in India. Voting will take place in seven phases, which started from April 11 and ended on 19 May. The result will be announced on May 23. An extraordinary 900 million people are eligible to vote, 130 million for the first time. Not only is it the ‘largest democratic exercise’ in history, it is among world’s most expensive. In 2014, the Lok Sabha (lower house) elections cost the Election Commission of India (ECI) half a billion US dollars. In this 17th Lok Sabha election, the major fight will be occurred between Hinduism and Nationalism. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party. Modi’s muscular Hindu nationalism and his party’s majoritarian politics have left India a deeply divided and anxious nation, say critics. Leader of the opposition, Rahul Gandhi, leads the secular nationalist party Indian National Congress.
Though Modi is often cast as a popular strongman, no Indian leader has ever won more seats with a smaller share of the vote. Most seats won by the BJP in 2014 came in northern ‘cow belt’ states, where Modi’s brand of Hindu-centric nationalism plays well. Even in the north, his victory had less to do with overwhelming popularity than with the opposition, which was mobilizing not against him but against the other major national party. This time is different. Led by Rahul Gandhi, a scion of its founding family, Congress is trying to form alliances with regional parties to stop Modi. A more decisive force in, this contest is the regional party leaders, who include chief ministers Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha. Unlike Modi, they are not well known outside India but they are at least as powerful in their home states and some see themselves as future premiers.
Even bitter rivals are uniting against Modi. The most populous state of India is Uttar Pradesh, with 200 million people. It is the most important political battleground. In this state, the former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has forged an alliance with another former chief minister, Mayawati, a popular leader of the Dalits. Mayawati for decades blasted Yadav’s party as a ‘criminal enterprise’ run by ‘goons’ who oppressed the Dalits. But all that is forgotten now, as Yadav and Mayawati work together to stop Modi in a classically Indian alliance of former enemies. They are all also highlighting nationalism as their trump card to defeat Modi’s Hinduism.
India has a Westminster system of government, a legacy of the British Raj. In the Lok Sabha there are 543 seats up for grabs. An additional two seats for the Anglo-Indian community are nominated by the president. Local Voters will select their member of parliament. The Prime Minister is selected from the members of the largest party or coalition.
Several key issues are emerging in this election that will prove decisive in voter decision-making behavior. Unsurprisingly, economic development is front and centre. Despite having one of the world’s highest economic growth rates, growth slowed to 6.4% in the final quarter of 2018, down from a peak of 8.2% in mid-2018.
Unemployment rates are at their highest since the 1970s, as the economy struggles to create jobs for rural migrants moving to cities and a large youth cohort now entering the labor market. Unemployment and inflation, which directly affect household incomes, are widely seen as the biggest concerns for Indians in the lead up to the election.
Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi
There are two distinct personalities leading the major parties in this election. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leads BJP, won both of the seats he nominated for in the 2014 elections, Vadodara in his home state of Gujarat, and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. He chose the seat of will Varanasi again in 2019. It is unknown whether he will contest a second seat, but there is speculation he might in the south of the country.
Leader of the opposition, Rahul Gandhi, leads the secular Indian National Congress (Congress). Gandhi has already declared that he will contest two seats in 2019, Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, as well as Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala. Rahul is latest generation of Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which has played a decisive role in Indian politics since independence in 1947. In keeping with family tradition, Rahul recently appointed his sister Priyanka Gandhi as the All India Congress Committee secretary responsible for Uttar Pradesh. The All India Congress Committee is responsible for the Congress’ decision making.
Hindu nationalist BJP and the current coalition government, appears the likely winner, according to the polls, though several outcomes remain possible. BJP will have to duplicate its highly efficient geographic concentration of votes in northern India, or succeed in their eastward push. Congress hopes to replicate recent provincial victories in the BJP’s northern stronghold. Ultimately, smaller regional parties may prove pivotal, especially in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and electoral significant province.
The Modi’s trump card is Hinduism:
The Bharatiya Janata Party too sees potential in employing him in service of its kind of Hindu nationalist politics. The Congress may claim to be committed to secularism and constitutional values but it is Janus-faced: led by some liberal leaders in Delhi while caste patronage constitutes its foundational apparatus in states. It is this political culture that the BJP is successfully subverting to realize its dream of aligning its variety of Hindu politics, with popular Hinduism and the processes of vernacular modernity.
Central to the BJP’s triumph has been its success in evoking Hindu pride as a nationalist sentiment, as opposed to caste pride. It has thus turned Hinduism into a civil religion. Such sentiment is not necessarily anti-caste or anti-hierarchy, however. In fact, it mostly conforms to the upper caste Hindu ethos of caste purity. By deploying this nationalist Hinduism – mixing politics with religion and policies with Hindu ethics – the BJP has won election after election. In this framework, moreover, Swacch Bharat, Jan Dhan, demonetization and Goods and Services Tax are sold to the popular imagination as “nationalist policies”. The Congress has no counter to this.
The BJP particularly benefits from a deeper understanding of vernacular modernity, which has Hindu identity at its core. For the new middle classes, excluding untouchables, caste identity is not to be suppressed but valorized as a private space providing roots while Hindu religion facilitates national cosmopolitanism. Such cosmopolitanism is not necessarily inclusive of minorities such as Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis, but is in keeping with the Hindu ethos of hierarchy and untouchables. The national Hindu community and the ethic of national sacrifice evoked by the BJP are so seductive that even a strong regional Hindutva party like the Shiv Sena is not able to resist it in favour of its own regional (Marathi) Hindu radicalism.
The problem is that in the ‘Hinduness’ stakes, Narendra Modi trumps Rahul Gandhi hands down, as was evident most recently in the Gujarat Assembly election. The ethic of sacrifice invoked by Modi is also much more persuasive than the welfares rhetoric of the Congress. Modi is presently a national political icon with unmatched charisma that successfully mixes magic with science, caste with religion, and truth with untruth, peace with war and politics with Hindu spirituality.
Several academic critiques describe Modi and the BJP as fascist. Millions of their Hindu supporters may disagree. To them, the prime minister and his party may seem more as Hindu democrats, both harboring and sorting out the anxieties of modern Hindus. At the same time, drawing on Gandhi’s idea of Hindus being non-violent, the political Hindus see themselves as polite subjects following a genuine Hindu sovereign.
To counter the BJP’s nationalist Hinduism, the Congress is actively trying to mix Hinduism with the patronage structures and Mandal and Dalit politics. In this strategy, the other is missing. It may not take care of national cosmopolitanism among Hindus, which is combative towards Muslims and western individualism. The BJP, in contrast, has India’s clearly marked Muslim past as its other, not to be eliminated but out-castled. This while creating and circulating an inclusive Hindu universe that prizes upper caste Hindu ethics. In a way, the BJP’s continued rise points to a flourishing of conservative Hindu politics in India, but also a deepening of democracy.
Priyanka is trump card for Congress:
Priyanka Gandhi is the latest member of India’s Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty to officially join politics on 23 January. The 47-year-old Gandhi has been appointed her party the Indian National Congress’s general secretary in-charge of the eastern block of the crucial bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in northern India. Rahul wants to use his sister as trump card seeks to mount a challenge against the Hindutva nationalist government led by Narendra Modi in the national elections. With almost 80 key seats coming from the state, UP almost always plays the most important role in the national government formation exercise.
The Congress party cadre has long demanded Gandhi’s entry into the electoral fray. Originally a Congress stronghold, UP has in recent decades seen the party performing poorly, with the sole exception of 2009. The fact that Modi’s seat of Varanasi falls in the eastern block of UP—as also that of state chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s home turf of Gorakhpur—makes Gandhi’s appointment doubly significant. Rumors abound that Modi might go on to contest from a different state this time and if that happens in this backdrop, it will only add to the opposition’s narrative.
The Congress party cadre has long demanded Gandhi’s entry into the electoral fray as they seek a leader to turn the fortunes of the party around in the state. Apart from the family pocket boroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi, seats like Phulpur, represented by her great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru and grand-aunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit, would be on her radar as part of the 40 seats under her charge.
Two major regional outfits, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have formed an alliance to take on BJP. They left out the Congress from the grand alliance. India’s grand old party then seemed to be on the back foot. With Gandhi’s entry, the calculations could change now. Nevertheless, it will be a tough ask for the psychology graduate from New Delhi’s Jesus and Mary College to win seats without an organizational backup in such a short span of time.
Priyanka is no stranger to politics, though. For the longest time, she has been working behind the scenes although her public participation was limited to Rae Bareli and Amethi, represented in parliament by her mother Sonia Gandhi and brother Rahul, respectively. Their mother is also known to be keen on according primacy to her son.
Priyanka has always been rated a more spontaneous politician than her brother—she is known to be articulate in Hindi and for her ability to connect with the masses. This ability, coupled with her striking resemblance to her grandmother, former PM Indira Gandhi, is what the Congress may be counting on in a predominantly rural state like UP. Priyanka’s entry has coincided with the consolidation of Rahul Gandhi’s position as the undisputed leader of the party following its impressive wins in three heartland states under his leadership last December.
Although Priyanka has very little time to turn around the fortunes of her party in time for the elections, her appointment can go a long way in wooing back the traditional vote banks of the Congress and in tapping into the latent goodwill enjoyed by the party in UP. A section of the swing voters is expected to be significantly influenced by Priyanka’s campaign as it comes on the back of a double anti-incumbency for the BJP. She is also expected to make an impact on younger voters, who make up a significant percentage of India’s electorate.
What does future hold for Muslims and females?
Critics worried the BJP’s 2014 victory would empower the most violent majoritarian strains of Hindu nationalism. Large-scale violence has not marred Modi’s tenure – but the marginalization of India’s Muslims has unfolded in other ways. Muslims comprise just 4 percent of elected parliamentarians, the lowest share in the country’s history. The BJP has no Muslim parliamentarians, and its senior leadership has normalized anti-Muslim rhetoric. Modi’s closest aide repeatedly makes campaign speeches laced with anti-Muslim rhetoric – as does a Hindu priest Modi selected to head the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. Modi’s victory also appears to have emboldened Hindu vigilante groups. There are reports of an uptick in cultural policing by these groups since 2014, which frequently end in the gruesome lynching of Muslims.
Critics worried the BJP’s 2014 victory would empower the most violent majoritarian strains of Hindu nationalism. Large-scale violence has not marred Modi’s tenure – but the marginalization of India’s Muslims has unfolded in other ways.
The past few Indian elections have produced a remarkable rise in female voter turnout – women now vote at nearly the same rate as men. Research reveals Indian women do not hold identical priorities as men. Nor do they simply vote as the men in their household instruct. Some survey data suggest women vote for the BJP less frequently than men by a small but persistent margin. Other surveys find women view Modi less favorably, compared to men, in his handling of issues ranging from corruption to Hindu-Muslim relations. Noting these trends, Indian parties have catered their campaigns to explicitly court the female vote. These efforts include boosting the number of female candidates, and emphasizing policies many women favor, such as cooking gas subsidies and alcohol bans.