Elections: Have the people had enough yet?

Once in a while, the poor, unwashed masses of India have voted with their feet, throwing out leaders and parties that took them for granted

More than the people, elections in India are often about parties and leaders (photo: PTI)
More than the people, elections in India are often about parties and leaders (photo: PTI)

Herald View

More than the people whom they represent in a democracy, in whose name they supposedly serve, elections in India have often been about leaders and political parties. Narendra Modi is not the first leader with an outsized reputation, but never before has an Indian leader’s reputation been so utterly devoid of substance.

Never before has the full might of the State — with all its legal, institutional, financial, propagandist and intimidatory muscle — been pressed into service to prop up a leader in this fashion. The onslaught is so overwhelming that it’s hard to look beyond its scope.

But leaders with feet of clay should know that nemesis strikes in unexpected ways. Once in a while, the poor, unwashed masses of India too have voted with their feet, throwing out leaders and parties that took them for granted. As India goes to vote, in a marathon exercise spanning 44 days in seven phases, we wonder if this is perhaps one of those turnaround moments.

Narendra Modi knows a thing or two about the power of illusion, the power of hope and aspiration. He knows a dream goes a long way — and so, in his 10 years in the saddle, he has gone ahead and promised Indians the moon. What he hasn’t bargained for is that at some point, people will see they have been taken for a ride.

They asked for jobs — and got promised loans to set up pakoda carts; they were told demonetisation would rid the country of black money and that he’d bring back all the wealth smuggled out of the country; back in 2014, they were told that Rs 15 lakh would be deposited in all bank accounts if the BJP came to power; in the face of runaway food inflation, they have been asked to feed off India’s self-proclaimed ‘Vishwaguru’ status.

With vikas (development) synonymised with more highway kilometres, with the 100 smart cities and bullet trains (which nobody actually ever asked for) nowhere in sight, we are now being exhorted to look beyond our lifetimes to await the dawn of a Viksit Bharat in 2047. Nobody missed the symbolism of a hundred years after 1947, but who wants or cares to ponder the prospect of that imagined greatness?

As one wag pointed out, rather than being a government of, by, for the people, the Modi government has been a regime of, by, for contractors. It’s as if the entire focus of his government were to promote symbiotic relationships with big business, and to tighten the party’s stranglehold on power, so as to push the larger cultural project of the Sangh to re-engineer India’s secular Constitution and make India a Hindu Rashtra.

Even as we still play at being a democracy, Sweden’s V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy Institute), which labelled India an ‘elected autocracy’ back in 2018, documents the worsening breakdown in its latest edition, the ‘Democracy Report 2024’.

To quote the report, released on 7 March: "Over the years, India’s autocratisation process has been well documented, including gradual but substantial deterioration of freedom of expression, compromising independence of the media, crackdowns on social media, harassment of journalists critical of the government, as well as attacks on civil society and intimidation of the opposition.

"The ruling anti-pluralist, Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with Prime Minister Modi at the helm has, for example, used laws on sedition, defamation and counterterrorism to silence critics. The BJP government undermined the Constitution’s commitment to secularism by amending the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in 2019." India has the dubious distinction of being named, in the 2024 V-Dem report, among the "worst autocratisers" in the world in recent years.

Meanwhile, the charade of running an elected democracy continues. The BJP campaign in the run-up to these elections and indeed its election manifesto have been economical in referring to the Modi government’s track of governance over the past 10 years. Not without reason — there isn’t much to crow about there.

Its mishandling of the MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises) sector, which used to be the second-largest employer in the country after agriculture, has meant that joblessness stands at its highest in the past 45 years. Whereas among the many promises Modi made when he came to power in 2014 was to create a hundred million jobs in five years.

Given the sorry state of affairs, the manifesto has fallen upon puffing up The Great Leader some more — the 76-page ‘Modi’s Guarantee’ document has 50-odd photographs of the prime minister. Promises, we should know by now, come cheap, but are the people done yet? We’ll find out on 4 June when the votes are counted.

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