India election: Can the country's tradition of diversity withstand a second 'Modi wave'?

Published on Jun 25 2019

After India’s six-week election that ended on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks set to lead a coalition government and rule for a second term.
But unlike 2014 when corruption in high office and the perceived weakness of Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance became major electoral issues, 2019 was a more personality-driven campaign. Yes, national security was highlighted by the BJP but it was more Modi’s persona as a “strong” leader that mesmerised many voters.
However, this election has also left some among the 900 million eligible voters uneasy about what the next five years will bring. It was seen as one that would define the political trajectory of India – whether the country could remain wedded to the liberal, democratic principle of diversity as enshrined and envisioned in the constitution, or morph into an intolerant and authoritarian Hindu majority nation.
Developments in the last week of voting have given rise to an uneasiness about the “Modi wave” predicted by pollsters. An emphatic majority in the lower house of parliament for the BJP would pave the way for efforts to cast aside India’s commitment to respect and nurture its vast and complex diversity. Related to this is the worry that an ecosystem of fear and sectarian division is being institutionalised by prioritising the less tolerant and insular Hindutva, the politically aggressive form of Hindu nationalism in India.
Most exit polls suggest the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of right-leaning parties, will win upwards of 300 seats in the 543-member lower house, but experts caution that in 2004 pollsters predicted a comfortable win for the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA but the final result was different. Will this be repeated on May 23? It is unlikely, at least according to the country’s confident television networks.
Yet the bitter political divide exposed by the campaign and concerns about institutional degradation due to the electoral process will linger. Two incidents are illustrative.
An ugly episode of vandalism in Kolkata on May 14, involving a violent scuffle between supporters of the BJP and the local Trinamool Congress, resulted in the toppling of a statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a much revered polymath and icon of the 19th-century Bengali Renaissance. Both parties said the other was responsible and the Election Commission invoked a previously unused provision to ban campaigning in the affected areas at just a day’s notice, but allowed Modi to complete his scheduled rallies.
The commission is a widely respected constitutional body often held up as the custodian of fair elections, but this year’s polling has seen unprecedented accusations of partisanship and discord within the body. Opposition parties have accused it of favouring the BJP. In an embarrassing disclosure, one of its three commissioners, Ashok Lavasa, was found to have excused himself from meetings related to violations of the body’s moral code of conduct. In a statement on May 16, he said his minority decisions among the trio “continue to be suppressed in a manner contrary to well-established conventions observed by multi-member statutory bodies”. Clearly the credibility of the commission has been jolted. This will be one of the less savoury takeaways of the 2019 election.
In another unprecedented development, Modi unexpectedly joined a press conference in Delhi on Friday with BJP president Amit Shah, but much to the disappointment of the media took no questions and only asserted that his party would come back to power with a majority.
The Modi refusal to engage with the press is in keeping with his attempts to set the rules of interaction. Unlike his predecessors, he does not attend periodic press conferences, and his few interviews with an empathetic cluster of journalists are visibly orchestrated.
Critics have accused Modi of nurturing a controlled democracy devoid of dialogue and dissent where all power resides with him as the prime minister and the small team he has empowered. This form of governance is more presidential than parliamentary, and in many ways the 2019 election was fought as Modi vs the rest. From preliminary poll reports, the majority of the Indian electorate want him back in the saddle as the “strong leader” who can protect the long neglected interests of “Hindu India”.
Modi retreated to a Himalayan cave to meditate a day before the election ended, and the images of him in solitude endeared him even more to this nationalist flock, often referred to on social media as bhakts.
Kolkata academic Dr Sinjini Mukherjee, who holds a PhD in socio-cultural anthropology, says: “I think there’s a lot at stake in this election which explains why there’s a somewhat shared sense of anxiety around it. It’s not just the legitimising of an everyday kind of bigotry and hate. It’s also that with the systematic dismantling of every independently functioning institution in this country and an absolute disregard for the constitution and due process of law ... a fear has set in that if one were to face some kind of injustice, there is just no recourse because all the places one could go to have been compromised. That’s what makes it scary for me.”
Professor A. Prasanna Kumar, former head of the political science department at Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, adds: “Having witnessed all the 17 Indian elections, the 2019 election campaign will go down in history as bizarre and confusing, mainly because of poor political leadership and moral bankruptcy. Not a single leader have the parties been able to throw up with a clean national image.”
The challenge for the next prime minister will be to allay these fears and reiterate the country’s fidelity to its democratic principles that have defined India since it adopted its progressive and liberal constitution in January 1950.

Source: South China Morning Post, 20 May 2019,