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India – Lessons from a Legislative Campaign

BLOG - 17 May 2019

The election campaign that is coming to an end has been proportionate in length to the number of voting phases (seven, spread over the same number of weeks), which themselves depend on the size of the electorate: more than 900 million people (a good tenth of the world population) were called to the polls, ballot boxes divided into one million polling stations guarded by 12 million "polling officers". To move these people, the electronic voting machines and the security forces around the polling stations, the state has chartered 700 trains, along with boats, planes, camels etc. None of this is really new; the figures simply increase a little more every five years - like the participation rate which reached 66% in 2014 and should at least be matched this year for the 17th general elections. 
 
However, this election campaign differed from the previous one in several ways. If the two main protagonists, Narendra Modi, the incumbent Prime Minister, leader of the BJP, the Hindu Nationalist Party, and Rahul Gandhi, the President of the Congress Party and main "challenger", are face-to-face as last time, they play new tunes. In 2014, Modi campaigned on the theme of economic development, building on the success of Gujarat, the state he was governing at the time. Five years later, as his promises in terms of job creation and investment have not been kept, he positioned himself in a different niche, that of security. This was facilitated by the heightened tensions with Pakistan following the Pulwama (Jammu and Kashmir) attack last February. This attack, which cost the lives of 41 Indian soldiers, was claimed by a jihadist group based in Pakistan - which Modi in turn attacked by the Air Force. Despite the very mixed results of these strikes (to which Islamabad replied by shooting down an Indian plane), Modi was able to establish himself as India's protector against the dangers that threatened it. As a result, never before has an election campaign in India been so dominated by a security rhetoric that Modi bragged about how he did not reserve nuclear weapons for festivals/military parades (and that former generals and admirals urged him not to politicize the military institution).

Like the participation rate which reached 66% in 2014 and should at least be matched this year for the 17th general elections. 

The strong man's repertoire that Modi focused on targeted Rahul Gandhi, whom he described as too inexperienced to defend India. In fact, Gandhi did not seek to compete with Modi on this ground, even though, in five years, he has gained confidence and is even more aggressive. Above all, Congress denounced Modi's economic and social failures and produced a much more comprehensive programme than any of those that have been read to Indian voters for at least a quarter of a century.

Even the fight against air pollution - a scourge whose reality the Modi government has simply denied - is on Congress’ agenda, alongside articles of faith that have been updated (such as the relaunch of anti-poverty programmes) or completely new ones such as the questioning of laws that allow the army to carry out repression with complete impunity in Kashmir. Alongside this emphasis on public policies - including economic reforms, in the wake of the liberalisation initiated by Congress in 1991 - Rahul Gandhi has embarked on the same battle horse as Modi in 2014: the denunciation of corruption, a matter in which the issue of the Rafale deal is high on the agenda.
 
Despite Congress' efforts to put a detailed program on the table, the campaign has hardly touched on economic and social issues, even though one of India's most respected economists, Rathin Roy, has just indicated that the country is on the verge of a "middle income trap". Modi, who had no interest in appearing accountable for his failures in this regard, managed to divert voters' attention by raising the spectre of external threats - whether from Pakistan or from Bangladeshi migrants whom the BJP has committed to deport when they are "irregular". This move worked especially well since Modi refused to participate in any contradictory debate or even a press conference. He simply gave interviews which, following certain leaks, proved to be prepared in advance - as the complacency of the mainstream media already suggested.

Another institution whose integrity was questioned during this campaign is the Election Commission of India, the body responsible for organizing the elections. The three men in charge of this pillar of Indian democracy have exonerated Modi six times from any accusation - or even sanctions, as they had the power to do – despite having violated the rules of the Code of Conduct laid down by the Commission itself, in particular by exploiting religion, as Hindu nationalists are inclined to do, or by involving the military in its political propaganda.

If politicians still hold meetings, nothing beats WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook etc. to saturate the public space.

During this campaign, the erosion of Indian democracy will also have suffered from the role played by money. It is already clear that these elections are the most expensive in Indian history, with parties already having spent about $7 billion according to Milan Vaishnav (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), an authority on the subject. Never before have so many small denominations been seized from the homes of candidates for Parliament or from political party’s headquarters, with the BJP beating all records in this area: we are already at half a billion dollars, more than two and a half times the total amount seized in 2014. All this money, that one can pay anonymously to the parties since 2016 (which the former head of the Election Commission Commission, S.Y. Qureshi, called the "officialization of crony capitalism"), is used to buy votes, but also to finance election propaganda.
 
On this matter, India has innovated by making social media the first vector of political communication: if politicians still hold meetings, nothing beats WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook etc. to saturate the public space. Hence, a massive investment in a multilingual workforce to spread the word in the form of disinformation and trolling.
 
In this context, many opponents considered that these elections could well seal the fate of Indian democracy. However, it did not prompt them to form an alliance in a more advanced way than in 2014, each wishing to defend their ideas/interests - following a logic that can be found elsewhere and that generally opens a boulevard for populists, or even neo-authoritarians. On May 23, we will know if Indian voters are more concerned about the future of Indian democracy than the progressives opposed to Modi.

Copyright : PUNIT PARANJPE / AFP

 

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