Even Before May 23, Here Are Some Lessons from the 2019 Elections

The electoral system and process is broken, we need to fix it. The media are the lapdogs of power, we need to democratise them.

There are already learnings from these elections – and the past five years – regardless of their outcome.

One, the resilience of the Indian people. They’ve endured a full term of their nastiest government in 70 years. Two, we’ve seen the Indian media at its despicable worst in about 200 years.

Three: Indian elections have moved steadily in this millennium from being a gigantic political exercise of the people to a managerial exercise of math, money and plutocrats. The present Election Commission has morphed from public watchdog into a party-owned poodle. And the ‘electoral bonds’ tell you – even as names remain concealed – of the extent to which corporations and the super rich are ‘managing’ our elections.

Four: The money spent on poll campaigns and vote gathering since 2004 possibly outstrips such expenditures in all preceding Lok Sabha elections put together.

Five: Never has inequality been so entrenched in parliament. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) analysis of candidate affidavits show us that in 2004, around 30% of MPs elected to the Lok Sabha were crorepatis. That figure rose to over 50% in 2009, and touched 83% in 2014. Will May 23 see a crorepati clean sweep? The ‘dance of democracy’ seems more a waltz of the wealthy.

There are other learnings, too, regardless of whether the present government returns to power. The Bharatiya Janata Party and, independently, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah dyarchy, have notched up a couple of major political achievements. Modi-Shah have crippled the BJP as we knew it.

The BJP once had something approaching a collective leadership: an Atal Bihari Vajpayee, an L.K. Advani, a Murli Manohar Joshi and several others including low-profile people from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. That‘s gone. And those of the next generation seen as rivals were removed by late 2014 in a manner figuratively reminiscent of what you’ve seen on Animal Planet, when a new lion takes over an existing pride and deals with its ageing and infant felines.

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Consequently, some of the BJP’s high-profile ministers are those who wouldn’t win a panchayat poll. This makes them entirely dependent on Modi-Shah. On the other hand, the Rajnath Singhs and Nitin Gadkaris contest elections fearing their own leadership’s machinations more than those of their opponents. Vajpayee and Advani were never electoral giants, but went out and faced the polls with their party firmly behind them.

This is not to suggest that the Vajpayees and Advanis were more liberal than a Modi in their core beliefs, but perhaps they did their own party less damage. What makes this government unique in our history is that it is the only time an RSS pracharak has been prime minister with a majority in parliament.

In its turn, the BJP has gone along with the dyarchy in making every election, every issue, about the grandeur of Narendra Modi. The outcome of that is the rise of a serious anti-Modi vote, overlapping with but going beyond the anti-BJP vote. This is important regardless of what May 23 brings.

The BJP remains saddled with the consequences of an emerging anti-Modi polarisation. (Already so pronounced in the South, where the KCRs and Naidus who were comfortable with the BJP for years, have frenziedly disconnected with them as their own state elections drew near.)

This is further compounded by a prime minister who ends campaign speeches sometimes, without a word on his party’s candidates, but with: “Remember, a vote for the kamal (lotus) is a vote for Narendra Modi.” Everything is about him, not his party. RIP BJP (as we once knew it).

Quite a bit of the speculation over coming coalitions assumes that the KCRs and Jagan Reddys will make a beeline for the BJP in case of a hung parliament. This denies them any political thinking or sense. The regional parties, within or outside the United Progressive Alliance, will seek the best deals they can get. There is nothing in the South or East that ensures they will automatically head for the National Democratic Alliance. In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has to contend with the BJP replacing the Congress as his main opponent in that state.

Also read: CPI(M) Has Been a Major Force Behind BJP’s Mainstreaming in West Bengal

Besides, the regional parties have seen how the BJP treats its allies. It cheerfully split its own closest partner in Goa, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, to hold on to its chief ministership and government. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK was subjected to a shotgun wedding: CBI raids on cabinet ministers, on even the Director General of Police, showed that Dravidian party its place. The AIADMK appears set to pay the price of its liaison on May 23.

The way the ‘Modi factor’ has been built up by corporate media, the manner in which a ‘wave’ is detected and deciphered – any fall in the party’s existing number of seats will be an embarrassment. The greater the losses, the more agonising the embarrassment.

The ‘Modi magic’ and halo of invincibility would be ruptured. Modi himself has just begun to speak about how his party and he are best-suited to run coalition governments (having derided those for weeks before that). The managerial element of Indian elections is in full play.

For months, the media have been compelled to discuss ‘rural distress’ and farmer anger as factors in the elections. Sure, these were and are (and probably will remain) major electoral issues. But the distress and anger stands divided in important regions, into two or more camps. Managerial math drives the BJP’s efforts to keep those divisions alive. Their ‘ally’ in this endeavour is the arrogance of the Congress party.

The Congress seems to believe 2019 is merely a training exercise for a sure victory in 2024. There is no guarantee that party will be around in 2024, in its present shape and strength anyway. That has not stopped them from destroying alliance possibilities in these polls in state after state. Or from daily harassing allies like the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka. Or from betraying their own anti-BJP drive by having Rahul Gandhi contest from Wayanad in Kerala.

There was also a huge failure to take important steps in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh after the party’s victories in the state polls there. The idea that a loan waiver would in itself ensure similar triumphs in the Lok Sabha elections was a silly one.

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In the early decades, candidates who were not celebrities, millionaires or powerful industrialists could sometimes beat those who were. In 1971, a little-known Kailas Narain Narula Shivnarain beat a Naval Tata in Bombay South. The latter had the Tata mantle, the money, the media and more. Shivnarain, like many of his party of the time, was swept into power on a political platform of garibi hatao. Politics mattered. Such individual upsets can still happen in Indian elections – but are much less likely, when managerial-kleptocrat control is far greater.

Math always mattered, but rarely as much as it did in 2014 and again in 2019 where political parties, the BJP most of all, banked on it. The inane discussion of whether this is a ‘wave’ election, or a ‘historic mandate’ as in 2014, will continue beyond May 23. There was a decisive electoral victory in 2014, and no mandate. Try to find any other instance of a party winning a majority on 31% being credited with a ‘mandate,’ historic or otherwise.

In state after state, multiple fronts or parties contested each seat. This was begging for the first-past-the-post system to go berserk. It did. The Congress, polling an all-time low of 19.52% in 2014, got just 44 seats. The BJP won 282 with 31%. (Note that in 2009, the BJP had polled roughly what the Congress did in 2014 – around 19% – but got 116 seats.) But the media will read the exit poll entrails for ‘mandates’ and ‘waves’.

How the media have conducted themselves these past five years and through these elections, including those choreographed interviews, makes you wonder why Narendra Modi was ever worried about holding press conferences. No one from Big Media was ever going to trouble him.

The small burst of coverage of the prime minister’s radar, email and digital camera absurdities happened because the media could not totally avoid that in election time. It isn’t as if Modi grew more ignorant in the final weeks of his term. The media in 2014 did gently report his howlers on ‘genetic science’ being involved in the birth of Karna in the Mahabharata. And of plastic surgery being practised in India in the time of Lord Ganesha thousands of years ago.

But go back to that year and try finding editorials in the same newspapers calling out this rubbish for what it was. Even this time, you can find regime-friendly hacks trying to place a charitable construction on Modi’s radar ramblings.

The electoral system and process is broken, we need to fix it. The media are the lapdogs of power, we need to democratise them. How we do it is another conversation.

P. Sainath is the founder editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought.