The greatest show on Earth, India’s Lok Sabha elections, ended on May 23, with the declaration of results and the astounding success of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, under Narendra Modi’s leadership. This election was unique in several ways. India is a parliamentary democracy but this election was fought as a presidential election, in which it made no difference who the candidate was in any constituency.
What mattered was whether he was a candidate of the BJP and its allies. During the days of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the Congress Party had a large following due to its prominent role in the freedom struggle. While the leadership of Nehru and Indira Gandhi counted, it was not everything. But, this time it was solely Modi’s leadership, oratory skills and mass appeal which brought unbelievable success to the BJP.
No other election in living memory has been as polarising. But this must be understood in the proper perspective. The opposition parties were fragmented, lacked credibility, and their single-point agenda was to defeat Modi. They could not project any leader as their prime ministerial candidate. Several political commentators suddenly found virtue in coalition governments and how they boosted federalism, but past experiences of such coalitions have been disastrous.
It was thus a contest between Modi, – with his larger than life image, on one side – and possibly 22 prime ministers waiting in the wings on the opposition side. It is not surprising that, in such a situation, a large number of voters, who had no ideological sympathy with the BJP, opted for political stability, and voted for Modi.
The soft subversion of secular values by all parties
This has led to a significant change in the perception of India, not just domestically but more so abroad. It is said that India is now a Hindu nation. This Hinduisation of India is in no small measure due to the changed colours of the Congress Party – the inheritor of the Mahatma Gandhi-Nehru legacy – and the other so-called secular political parties such as the Trinamul Congress, Socialist Party, Janata Dal and so on.
Mandir-hopping, performance of poojas and aaratis, Rahul Gandhi proudly declaring that he is a sacred-thread wearing Brahmin, and prominent leaders like Digvijaya Singh – the most rabid secular face of the Congress Party – indulging in Hindu rituals, homes and havans along with Sadhus – have brought home the new public image of the Hinduised Indian polity. This wholesale religious conversion of politics in India would have been unthinkable, unimaginable a few years ago.
In the press conference on the evening of May 23 2019, Rahul Gandhi, who had projected himself as the prime minister-in-waiting and behaved like one during the last few months, conceded defeat. For the first time, Rahul said that this election was a fight not between two individuals but between two ideologies and it would continue in the future.
At no time during the previous several months of bitter and acrimonious electioneering, had he or the Congress party or, for that matter, any other secular political parties emphasised this point. If they had, the election results might not have been so one-sided.
With the massive mandate received by the ruling dispensation and the demoralised and fragmented opposition, India is in a cul-de-sac. The BJP must realise that the mandate of 2019 elections is not for Hindutva. It is a mandate for Modi’s continued leadership. Therefore, a great deal will now depend upon how mature, statesman-like and balanced the responses of the leadership of the BJP itself are going to be, particularly where issues pertaining to communal harmony, amity, and understanding are concerned.
Secularism under Modi 2.0
I was perturbed to hear Prime Minister Modi’s victory speech on May 23, 2019, evening when he derided secularism in the strongest terms. It was as if he had an aversion for the concept. In the new situation in which he has emerged as the sole voice and conscience of India, such pronouncements are bound to set a very bad tone for public discourse in the country.
After the BJP came to power in 2014, the senior leadership of the BJP, including Prime Minister Modi, have preferred to remain silent on instances of cow vigilantism, communal violence, lynchings, or inflammatory communal comments and actions by its cadres. There are apprehensions that these attitudes will be further strengthened in the future, increasing fear amongst minorities.
A great deal is no doubt wrong with the way secularism has been practised in the country. At the same time, deliberate efforts have been made by the RSS, BJP and their affiliate organisations to create a misunderstanding regarding the concept of secularism. I have discussed these aspects comprehensively in my book, Secularism: India at a Crossroads and have suggested a series of actions which are necessary to operationalise secularism, in the true sense.
I am convinced that with nearly 20% of its population consisting of religious minorities, India has no option but to be a secular society. Against this background, Modi ridiculing secularism is a disturbing development and has dangerous portents.
In the midst of all the jubilation for the BJP and its allies emerging victorious, some worrying indications should not be lost sight of. The representation of Muslims in the Parliament has come down to just 4.5% in 2014 and 5% in 2019. While it was never in keeping with the percentage of the Muslim population, it was much higher in some earlier years – 9.2% in 1980; 8.3% in 1984 and 6.69%t in 2004.
In some states, there is not a single Muslim MP. All political parties are responsible for this deplorable state of affairs. Prime Minister Modi has made sabka saath, sabka vikas (together we shall progress) his credo. Are Muslims and other minorities not to be part of these endeavours?
Asaddudin Owaisi and Imtiaz Jalil of AIMIM Party have been elected to the Lok Sabha from Hyderabad and Aurangabad (Maharashtra), respectively. Muslims have also formed a political party in Assam which has been active in electoral politics. Muslims forming separate political parties, rather than getting adequate representation and voice in the national and regional parties, is a serious cause for concern.
Madhav Godbole is a former Union home secretary and secretary, justice, government of India.