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Single party dominance, democracy imperilled

Weeks hence, the nation is set to witness a series of elections to several State Assemblies. State elections normally do not attract too much attention, but as the nation moves inexorably towards single party dominance, the outcome of each and every Assembly Election becomes critical to the end objective. India, more accustomed to glacial changes in political behaviour and attitudes, is today confronting a new phenomenon, viz., that the winner seeks to take all at any cost, irrespective of a raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Shadows over elections

If anyone were to peruse the numerous newspapers, and listen to the different television channels in the country, one would get an impression that India is approaching a new ‘gilded’ era. Unfortunately, electoral politics in the country appears to be out of sync with this portrayal. Threats to the conduct of orderly elections are increasing, more so in some States than perhaps in others, and must not be underestimated. Pressing the stop button is not a viable option as of now, as it is a reflection of the pervasive decline in political attitudes and behaviour in the nation. Violence, money power, and communal attitudes tend to exercise a disproportionately greater influence on the outcome of elections as of now.

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A great deal of this is attributable to the prevailing belief that winning elections is the sine qua non of democratic politics, and the raison d’etre for any political party to exist. India’s leading political party, which currently holds power at the Centre and a majority of States, has converted this into a fine art, and makes no secret of its determination to pursue this path. Other parties are attempting to emulate this, but with far less success. Across India, meanwhile, we are witnessing a near daily ritual of individuals belonging to one political party or the other shifting their allegiance and, while doing so, indulging in a diatribe against the party they exited. Electoral majorities as a result, and the character of some State governments, have, hence, tended to change. The shifting patterns of party alignments are, in turn, converting democratic politics into a kind of charade which could damage the fabric of both electoral and democratic politics.

Questions do arise as to what kind of polity will emerge as a consequence of all this. Of serious concern is that elections could hereafter become an instrument to traduce democracy. With all political debate becoming highly polarised, elections could well degenerate into a ritualistic exercise, without truly reflecting the democratic will of the people. Attributing motives is no panacea for what could well lead to the demise of electoral democracy.

Power though proxy

Coming to the State-level elections scheduled to be held in the near future, which are confined to the eastern and southern regions of the country — Bengal and Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry, it is only to be anticipated that these elections will witness the finessing of a strategy employed successfully previously, including that of encouraging defections of key Opposition members, an incitement to violence, specially of the communal and sectarian kind, selective use of state agencies to build an atmosphere of fear, to gain an unfair advantage, etc. Such tactics have, no doubt, been employed in the past, but seldom on the scale anticipated in the prevailing scenario.

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In the southern States that will be going to the elections, there could be one significant variant, viz., the objective of achieving power would be through proxy means. In Tamil Nadu, the present State government has earned a not-so-healthy reputation for ‘kowtowing’ to the party in control of the Central government. This is already an issue of unstated and unspoken concern, but the greater fear is that in return for electoral support this time, many more demands would be made, resulting in an acceptance of subalternity, vis-à-vis, Delhi — effectively demolishing all pretence of regional exclusiveness and autonomy. Much the same concern applies to the Union Territory of Puducherry, where the ruling party at the Centre has less than a toehold in terms of influence. In both Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, the shadow of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would eclipse everything else in its wake.

From Kerala to the Northeast

The election scene in Kerala is markedly different. The principal objective of the ruling party at the Centre would be to reduce the Congress into insignificance while seeking to simultaneously reduce the influence exercised by the Left, even as the BJP can hardly hope to capture power here just yet. A Herculean effort is being made to use the electoral gambit to rope in prominent intellectuals into party ranks, for a future eventuality. Kerala has, however, not seen any communal violence as elections approach, and has also eschewed the ‘Aya Ram Gaya Ram’ syndrome, common to many other States.

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In the Northeast, Assam is already a BJP bailiwick, and the attempt here would be to strengthen Central authority in contrast to regional autonomy. This is particularly significant in the backdrop of controversial policies such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, which created quite a stir and dented the image and influence of the BJP to some extent. The full panoply of divisive politics would be on display here to achieve this objective.

Battleground West Bengal

Given the current stakes overall, it is West Bengal, however, that will be the main battleground in the coming elections. Almost all the tactics mentioned would be, or are already on display in the State. This is likely to intensify further as elections approach. Elections are certain to be a no-holds barred exercise, with the BJP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) battling it out for control of the State, reducing erstwhile ruling parties, such as the CPM and the Congress to irrelevance. Already, in a State where caste identity has seldom if ever been a factor in elections or otherwise, a manifest attempt is being made to whip up caste frenzy, and rallying slogans ‘Vande Mataram and Jai Sri Ram’ by rival groups are being projected as the battle cry of the Forward versus the Subaltern classes.

Meantime, in a State where communal tensions are manifestly evident, the State has been witnessing severe communal violence over many months, some of it as serious, as that seen during Partition. The BJP and the TMC are equally to be blamed for the aggravated communal violence, but the real ‘fall-guy’ has been democracy. With erstwhile dominant political parties having been reduced to bit players, both the BJP and the TMC are picking up more and more of the ‘lumpen elements’ that previously owed allegiance to the Left and the Congress. These are hardly committed supporters, yet exercise a disproportionate ability to vitiate polls.

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Again, in the case of West Bengal, the current elections are proving to be highly divisive, with battle cries being raised to vote for the ‘Daughter of Bengal’ against ‘Outsider Elements’, leading to the creation of fresh divisions between the Bengali and non-Bengali segments of the population. Rival groups have had no hesitation to use Durga, the deity, as a pawn — portraying her as the epitome of Bengali identity — with the other side rooting for lord Ram as symbolising national identity. Seldom have elections anywhere deteriorated to such depths. All this is giving fresh grist to communal elements, encouraging the creation of new communal parties such as the Indian Secular Front, muddying waters further.

The danger to democracy

What is of utmost concern, however, given the extant circumstances, is that pent-up anger against a distortion of electoral verdicts or confronted with unpredictable results should result in something more serious and dangerous as an open rebellion against participative democracy. Electorates are singularly ill-prepared for such eventualities. History is replete with instances of this kind. There is only a thin line which protects democracy from the ravages of its opponents. The 19th and 20th centuries provide enough examples of how wittingly, or unwittingly, democracy could become imperilled, leading to unforeseen situations. Ensuring that the current status quo is not challenged beyond a significant threshold is critically important for the future of democracy. It behoves all those who believe in progressive politics to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand, and that winning elections through any means can never be an objective.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 4:35:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/single-party-dominance-democracy-imperilled/article33935658.ece

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