India’s illiberal election

Published May 13, 2024
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN

GENERAL elections are underway in India in a phased voting process that concludes on June 1. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is widely predicted to win a third term in office. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) goal is for its National Democratic Alliance to secure 400-plus seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha — a target encapsulated in the party slogan abki baar 400 paar. There are doubts this can be achieved, especially as voter turnout has been lower in the first three phases of the election compared to 2019. Election outcomes are never foregone conclusions.

In the 2019 election, the BJP won 303 seats. With its allies, its support in the Lower House swelled to 352 seats. This time, it hopes to win 370 seats on its own as it does not see the opposition as much of a challenge. Although the party secured comfortable parliamentary majorities in the previous two elections to enable it to rule unhindered in its decade in power, well over half the electorate did not vote for BJP. In 2019, BJP polled around 38 per cent of the popular national vote; in 2014 it was less than 31pc. This indicates its real support, even though the first-past-the-post electoral system gave it an outsized share of Lok Sabha seats.

The BJP has benefited from a weak, divided and regionally fragmented opposition. The Congress party looks jaded and bereft of new ideas. Leading an opposition alliance called ‘INDIA’ (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance), Congress has been unable to capture the public imagination or offer a credible alternative to the BJP’s narrative. It has struggled to counter Modi’s extravagant claims about his government’s achievements. Positive developments on India’s economic front have not all resulted from the Modi government’s policies but are entirely attributed to him by the BJP’s vigorous social media and propaganda campaign.

Modi’s carefully cultivated strongman image has yielded significant political dividends. This rests on claims of providing firm and incorruptible leadership, achieving economic development, benefiting India’s poor, and ‘connecting’ to ordinary people. More importantly, the Hindutva agenda is woven into his cult of personality, with the party portraying Modi as the champion and saviour of Hindu nationalism. His anti-Muslim actions and rhetoric have served to burnish those credentials.

The outlook for India-Pakistan relations is troubled if Modi returns to power.

Modi has sought to mobilise electoral support on his economic record, welfare and infrastructure projects, as well as his Hindu supremacist ideology. Even though rising unemployment and the soaring cost of living will weigh on voters’ minds, Modi is seen by many Indians to be a better bet on the economy than his opponents. He enjoys the backing of big business, for which the opposition accuses Modi of pandering to India’s super rich. In campaign speeches, Modi has repeatedly stated he has enhanced India’s international standing and helped to attract more foreign investment. He has even cast the election to be about making India “a major world power”.

The opposition’s attack on Modi has principally focused on his authoritarian conduct and policies. Certainly, democratic backsliding during his 10 years in power has been substantial and far reaching. This, his critics say, has turned India into an illiberal democracy. Judicial independence and media freedom have been undermined and civil liberties eroded. Modi’s government has muffled dissent, intimidated the media, harassed and incarcerated journalists and mounted extraordinary pressure on the opposition. Two state leaders allied with Congress, Arvind Kejriwal and Hemant Soren, have been jailed on dubious corruption charges. In March, the Congress party’s main bank accounts were frozen. Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was expelled from parliament last year on the charge of defamation for ridiculing Modi’s name. Later, his jail sentence was suspended by the supreme court.

Modi has pledged to push ahead with his Hindutva agenda, for which the party points to several actions taken by the government, including construction of the Ram temple, a citizenship law disadvantaging Muslims, and revocation of Article 370 of the constitution, which gave Jammu and Kashmir special status. Modi has used toxic anti-Muslim rhetoric throughout his election campaign. He has called Muslims “infiltrators” and said they “have too many children” in an effort to scare Hindu voters into believing Muslims will eventually outnumber them. He has repeatedly accused the Congress party of favouring Muslims and conspiring to transfer wealth “looted” from Hindus to Muslims. The BJP has also posted videos containing these allegations. This prompted the Congress party to petition the election commission to act against this violation of election laws.

But nothing has deterred Modi from using inflammatory, Islamophobic language to demonise Muslims. He has even said his target of winning 400 seats is to prevent Congress from reviving Article 370 and putting the “Babri lock” on the Ram temple. Declaring “India is at a crucial juncture in history”, he has said the choice is between ‘vote jihad’ or ‘Ram Rajya’. He went further to say, “In Pakistan, terrorists are threatening jihad against India, and here the Congress people have also declared to ‘vote jihad’ against Modi, asking people of a particular religion to unite and vote against Modi.”

Along with Muslim-bashing, Pakistan too has been targeted by Modi’s incendiary rhetoric. He has contrasted his muscular approach in dealing with terrorism allegedly emanating from Pakistan with the infirm response of his predecessors. “Earlier, weak governments used to send dossiers to Pakistan after terror attacks, but we hit terrorists in their homes” — a reference to India’s air strikes on Balakot in 2019. Describing his government’s “new India policy of looking an adversary in the eye and speaking the truth rather than resorting to stealth,” he has warned of launching cross-border strikes in response to terror attacks on India. He has also ridiculed Pakistan by saying “a supplier of terrorism is now struggling for flour”.

This makes the outlook for Pakistan-India relations a troubled one if Modi returns to power. Some may dismiss Modi’s Pakistan-bashing as election politics, but words have consequences. Moreover, anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim themes are a part of his and the BJP’s deeply held beliefs. This may not preclude some form of post-election India-Pakistan re-engagement, but it is unlikely in the near term to lead to any significant movement toward normalisation of ties.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2024

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