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Lok Sabha 2019: An election that is not about one 

For the Opposition parties, this is the time to enlarge democracy’s base, not necessarily any one party’s

In the extremes of our tropical climate, every summer seems the worst ever. But the Tamil ‘kathiri’ — literally ‘scissors’, and metaphorically the merciless sun of May-June — is truly upon us in the peninsula this year. And it is only March.

Likewise, in the multi-polarities of our democracy every election seems to be about the most crucial we have ever had. And though the candidates for the April-May elections are yet to be formally announced, the election’s ‘kathiri’ is already in motion — sharp, cutting. And it is only March.

Continuation vs. change

The elections this time are unusual, even unprecedentedly so, for they are not about how India chooses but about what India is about. For those many who want the present government back, the coming elections are a national referendum for an India that is rearing to be a Super Power under a leader who wants India to be exactly that with himself at the helm. One might say, and why not? True, why ever not, except that when that happens, everyone else becomes inferior, minimal, subordinate to the Supremo. Including the Constitution and the laws. And that is not what India has become a democratic republic for.

Those many — and it must be acknowledged they are many — regard the coming elections as presidential with but one candidate, Narendra Modi. And an occasion to re-affirm belief in his helming a strong Centre for nothing less than 15 more years, a golden era, when we will have Sanskrit proclaimed our Rashtra Bhasha, Veer Savarkar a Rashtra Guru, Saffron a Rashtra Ranga, we will have the Constitution amended to provide for national emergencies under new circumstances, an executive presidentship, with the Rajya Sabha abolished, appointments to the higher judiciary tempered by considerations of ‘loyalty to national security’, compulsory military service for one year with the liberal option of ‘drill Yoga’, the media self-disciplined into self-censorship, the bureaucratic and diplomatic echelons made colourless and comfortable rather than fearless and uncomfortable, the citizenry one merry choir well-practised in patriotic tunes and collective chants.

None of this is or will be in any Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or National Democratic Alliance (NDA) manifesto. And Mr. Modi will never ever, I think, subscribe to any of these ‘goals’. In fact, he may be expected to deny that these reflect his views by a long shot. But these cameos do represent, broadly, the thinking of a kind of Modi-supporter, Modi-devotee who is to be encountered among many Indians, mostly from the educated urban and suburban middle-classes.

For the many others who want the present government dislodged, the coming elections are about the exact opposite. They are a non-presidential election where the many are against One Supremacy, and are in favour of an order in which every region, language and faith tradition is the equal of every other, where political opposition is valued for its own sake, dissent cherished as long as it remains non-violent, where the judiciary is respected for its stubborn independence, bureaucratic and diplomatic cadres for their professional integrity, technocrats for their rigorous professionalism, where the nation’s natural resources, particularly those that lie within and beneath forests, mines and on the seafloor, are not looted, where prisoners do not live in sub-human conditions and where, above all else, the Constitution is seen as the dynamic, living guardian of the citizens’ human rights pertaining to life, liberty, privacy and judicial remedy.

That being the reality or hard truth about the elections ahead, they are indeed the most important ever held in free India.

Rhetoric and reality

And that being the case, when one hears Aradhana Mishra, a Congress MLA in Uttar Pradesh say, “Priyanka-ji has reiterated that the INC (Indian National Congress) will contest all 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh,” or the Congress’s doughty veteran and chief of the Delhi Congress, Sheila Dikshit say about the seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi, “It has been unanimously decided that the Congress will not go for an alliance with AAP (Aam Aadmi Party)”, the election’s results seem foregone.

The Congress, five years ago, contested not “all 80” seats but 67 seats in U.P. in those elections, winning only two, United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s seat in Rae Bareli and Rahul Gandhi’s in Amethi. And in Delhi, it was number three, after the AAP at number two, in terms of vote share.

 

“All 80 seats” in U.P. and “no alliance with AAP” in Delhi are great news for the BJP, whose vote-share in U.P. for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was lower than that of the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) combined (the combined vote share of the other three being 49.30%, a clear 7 percentage points above the BJP’s 42.30%). In Delhi, too, the BJP was ahead of the AAP and INC when those two stood divided but was clearly behind them, in all but one (New Delhi) of the seven seats, if the vote-share percentages of those two were to be seen together.

Weighing on the record so far

The jury is out on whether the nation’s outrage over the killing of 40 Indian brave-hearts in Pulwama and its pride in the gutsy riposte by the Indian Air Force has changed the electoral math. Perhaps it has and the nation will leave livelihood, drought, dismay over the Goods and Services Tax, Rafale to rest and vote solidly for another term for Narendra Modi. Perhaps it has not, and given that Winston Churchill lost the elections after winning the war in 1945 and, nearer home, the NDA government lost the elections after Kargil, it will vote for change. But the Opposition has to accept the fact that an unmeasured percentage of vote-share has slipped from its anticipated scores into the BJP’s.

The Congress showed statesmanship in Bengaluru last year. If reports are to be believed, not just Rahul Gandhi but Priyanka Gandhi had something to do with the Congress’s decision to propose and then actively put in place a coalition government led by H.D. Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular). That was highly realistic, prudent, sagacious. As is the Congress-DMK-Left alliance in Tamil Nadu.

That spirit needs to be shown now in U.P., Delhi and elsewhere if those who believe in India being meant to be democratic and a republic are not to be betrayed.

Is it too late? Late, yes, but not too late yet. Pride bolts the door to accommodation, prudence opens it.

Contesting Indias

This is the time to enlarge democracy’s, not one party’s base. Getting even with the AAP in Delhi, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in U.P. and the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha can be a temptation for the Congress in ordinary times, not for this election summer when the ‘kathiri’ is out. Every party which believes in democracy is a natural ally of every other party believing in the same. Smaller confrontations must step aside in the face of the biggest contradiction that there can be, namely, of two contesting Indias — that of Gandhi-Nehru-Ghaffar Khan-Bhagat Singh-Ambedkar on the one hand and of a Hindu Rashtra on the other.

And this should be done in grim awareness of the fact that the 21st century autocrat is now to be seen not just in India but in countries as different and distant from one another as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Venezuela, Egypt, the Philippines, Hungary, using traditional ‘resources’ as well as new, softer and deadlier technologies, to spot and immobilise dissent, create a sense of a perpetual ‘other’, an eternal ‘enemy’, all in the name of a hyper nationalism.

But if there is gloom, there is also hope, as in the instance of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who, from the white heat of trauma spoke of the Christchurch victims of terror as “us” and of New Zealand being “ home” to them.

Jayaprakash Narayan brought the democratic coalition together in 1977. There is no Jayaprakash today. But his spirit beckons the conflicted soul of India’s democracy.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 2:32:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/an-election-that-is-not-about-one/article26561747.ece

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