A battle for plural, secular India as 900 million people gear up to vote

Published on Mar 18 2019

C Uday Bhaskar


India goes to the polls in a seven-phase national election that will commence on April 11 and conclude on May 19, with the results declared on May 23. As the world's  largest democracy , the current voter base is 900 million, more than the 814 million of 2014. The election will vote in 543 members to the 17th Lok Sabha (lower house). The current BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi  at the helm, hopes to be sworn in for a second five-year term. 

By way of numbers, this is the biggest electoral exercise in the world and ballot papers and officials will be spread across one million polling booths installed with electronic voting machines and a “voter verifiable paper audit trail” to minimise fraudulent practices – a charge often made in earlier elections. In addition, the Election Commission of India will deploy intrepid officials who travel on elephant, camel or yak – or just walk – to the most remote hamlets across the length and breadth of the country to ensure that every eligible voter can exercise his or her franchise.

At stake this time is a battle for the very idea of India, which has been held up as a democracy committed to a plural, secular and liberal ethos. In India, there should be no citizen discrimination on the basis of religion. The constitution adopted in January 1950 enshrined these principles and values and, barring a brief period when then prime minister Indira Gandhi imposed an emergency (1975-1977), there was an implicit acceptance that freedom, unity and equality were inherent in India’s vast diversity.

In this nation of 1.35 billion people, the diversity is bewildering. While Hindus constitute the majority religion (almost 80 per cent), the Muslim population, at about 180 million, is under 15 per cent and is the largest “minority”. Only in India could a demography of this order be referred to as a minority.

Concurrently, the constitution also sought to address centuries-old caste identity that was a major determinant in establishing indefensible social hierarchies.

For decades, the Congress party, led by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-64) and later his daughter Indira Gandhi (assassinated in 1984) and subsequently his grandson Rajiv Gandhi (assassinated in 1991), steered the ship of state with visible adherence to the principles of liberty, citizen equality and keeping the majoritarian Hindu sentiment within the ambit of the constitutional framework.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, founded in 1980 through the merging of Hindu nationalist parties, slowly consolidated its position in the Hindi-speaking swathe of India and from winning just two seats in the 1984 election. It romped home to victory in the 2014 election with a record 282 seats.

Unexpressed fear can be discerned among those citizens who do not support the Modi trajectory with uncritical adulation

This spectacular victory was enabled by projecting Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, as the resolute PM-candidate, born to electioneering. The Modi profile was favourably burnished to disparage incumbent prime minister Manmohan Singh, an economist of global repute but an uncharismatic politician when it came to the hustings.

In the current election, Modi as the sitting prime minister, is in a very strong electoral position – one that has been further enhanced by the recent air strike  that India carried out against terrorist camps in Pakistan. This led to a similar response from Pakistan and the potential for military escalation  between two nuclear-weapon-capable neighbours lingered – and then receded


The air strike has been seen by large sections of India as being reflective of a “new India” – a resolute nation that will no longer be constrained by its own self-imposed red lines – and that the resolute Modi deserves a second term to complete the various tasks he has embarked upon to restore Indian pride.

However, the track record of the Modi government over the past five years is uneven. Many earnest promises have been made but implementation has been spotty. For example, the radical demonetisation of the currency did not lead  to the desired results and job growth remains elusive.


More troubling still, the Modi victory of 2014 and the consolidation of the Hindu nationalist constituency and Hindutva (an ideology that seeks to establish Hindu primacy socio-culturally) in the past five years has led to a disturbing domestic environment. The Hindutva forces and their militant cadres have donned a mantle of shrill hyper-nationalist vigilantism and the hapless Muslim citizen is often targeted mercilessly.


Regrettably, Modi and his core team have chosen to ignore this trend, thereby allowing the perpetrators to act with even greater impunity. Unexpressed fear can be discerned among those citizens and groups who do not support the Modi trajectory with uncritical adulation.


The opposition to the BJP electoral machinery is divided. The much-weakened Congress has 

Rahul Gandhi , great-grandson of Nehru, to lead it but he has not been able to inspire that degree of confidence in the voter. Thus, for most Indians, the cynical question is: who is the viable alternative to Modi?

Modi’s personal vendetta against the Nehru-Gandhi family is part of the current Indian political slugfest and it is ugly. The great Indian democratic churning process is under way through cyberspace, social media and hitting the road. What is at stake is the idea of India. Will fidelity to the liberal order and equal citizenship as enshrined in the constitution be respected? The outlook is murky.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank based in New Delhi

SCMP March 17, 2019