A general election is essentially meant to enable the citizens to decide whether or not to renew, if at all, the incumbent ruler’s lien and on what terms. This involves a kind of judgment about the ruler’s record, his accomplishments and failures, his flaws and foibles, strengths and weaknesses; in the same instance, the voter also gets to judge the ruler’s democratic rivals, their claims to provide us with a more agreeable regime that would secure a better future for the realm. To its credit, in 2019 the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) put in place a shrewd and sophisticated strategy that ensured that the voters only saw it as a vote for or against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The voters have spoken, clearly and firmly. We have an unambiguous verdict. Also, a frightening verdict.
Primacy to the leader
It becomes an ominous verdict because the choice before the voters was never as stark as in 2019. Mr. Modi offered himself at the head of a ‘ majboot sarkar ’ (a decisive and robust governing arrangement that will deliver). Not since 1980, when the Congress sought votes in Indira Gandhi’s name, had a political party given primacy to an individual leader and his presumed transformational leadership, over and above any other calculus.
Unlike 2014, there was no coyness on the BJP’s part in 2019. On offer was Narendra Modi, garnished and adorned with over-stated accomplishments and qualities; throughout the campaign, he remained unflinching in his malicious rudeness, and never once felt embarrassed at the inflated self-promotion. The country was told that he was a leader, omnipotent and omnipresent, wise and clever, strategist and tactician, a humble, honest, hard-working commoner, an uncompromising nationalist, a Hindu to the core, who would defend Mother India against enemies, external and internal. It was a complete marketing package. And it is frightening that the BJP strategy has paid off so handsomely.
It is important to reflect that behind the slogan of a ‘ majboot sarkar ’ were clearly delineated outlines of the prime ministerial authority. That office now stands redefined as a presidential arrangement. To the extent that the Prime Minister’s job is a political leadership role, Mr. Modi stands tall — and alone — at the apex. He need not share space or glory with any of his colleagues, in government or party. He will be able to commandeer the unquestioned allegiance and unreserved respect of the National Democratic Alliance parliamentarians — each one of them sought votes in Mr. Modi’s name. This is a heady moment and cannot possibly augur well for the health of our constitutional system.
Because at its core our constitutional democracy is nothing but an elaborate arrangement for how power will be shared and authority exercised in this vast land among regions, States, communities, and citizens. This finely chiselled equilibrium stands threatened because of the nature of the 2019 verdict.
More than the danger of an obvious constitutional imbalance, what should be frightening is that this ancient nation of ours, with more than two thousand years of civilisational rectitude and resilience behind it, and with seven decades of democratic robustness, can be made to feel so insecure and so vulnerable as to embrace, joyfully and wilfully, an authoritarian prophet.
The prophet, of course, got a lucky break when the jehadis made their move in Pulwama. It was an unholy but definite intervention in our democratic process. And, then, we struck at Balakot (that, too, on a cloudy night). The ensuing stand-off with Pakistan was brilliantly worked into a consummate election narrative; nationalism was exquisitely milked for party purposes.
The strong leader was recast as a defender of the realm; violence and aggression against the real and presumed enemies at home and abroad were promised and romanticised. Now, the leader with his ‘ danda’ stands consecrated with an electoral mandate. That cannot be a very comfortable prospect to all those who cherish the sanctity of democratic space and republican values.
Even more uncomfortable should be the idea that a manufactured ultra-nationalist hype can be made to sweep aside entrenched regional sentiments and identities. With the possible exception of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the resistance from the regional forces and leaders to this Hindi-Hindu-fied nationalism turned out to be so disappointingly feeble. Even West Bengal, that last bastion of democratic resistance, has flirted with a Hindu-fied politics. Regional leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu, Sharad Pawar and others would find themselves in the unhappy situation of having to take their cue from a Modi-led Centre.
The 2019 verdict is a triumph of unalloyed Hindutva. This was the culmination of careful crafting these last five years of a Hindu persona on Prime Minister Modi; till the very last day of the campaign we were witness to the very elaborate and very public rites of a pilgrim’s trek to Kedarnath. We know that as Prime Minister, Mr. Modi has never allowed himself to make any concession to the non-Hindus’ sensitivities, and he shall now see no reason to do things differently.
Message to minorities
The 2019 verdict has a chilling message. The minorities’ votes do not count, and therefore, they can be done out of their space under our collective sun. The Muslims have been told, once more, to remain stranded in their own islands of resentments and grievances. There can be only one implication: the minorities would have to reconcile themselves to a majoritarian polity, and to rely on the fair-mindedness embedded in our constitutional arrangement to live a life of safety and dignity.
The minorities may not be the only ones cowering in their corner. The 2019 verdict has also endorsed a danda sarkar; the citizen must yield to the demands of the state, especially its national security requirements. It also means that the armed forces would get a place of pride in the national scheme of things and would demand a voice in allocation of collective resources. Practised jingoism, against enemies at home and abroad, will produce further distortions in the nature of civilian control over the armed forces.
Mr. Modi has carved out a splendid mandate for himself. It was a one-man campaign. And he may feel he is entitled to unlimited power. This could also mean that the rigorous requirements of a polity based on the rule of law would be made to give way to a prime ministerial overlordship. This is an inevitable consequence of the strong leader syndrome, who feels he alone is in communion with the inner aspirations and hopes of a billion-strong India.
Case for democratic vigilance
The 2019 election has yielded an intoxicating result, with potentially deleterious effects for our constitutional polity. It would be tempting for the Modi crowd to try to jettison the so-called Nehruvian consensus with renewed vigour; but it would be a very different proposition to see the 2019 result as a licence to enfeeble the existing constitutional institutions of constraint and accountability. India has not voted for an experiment in ‘democratic’ Stalinism.
What is most frightening about 2019 is the collapse, once again, of the Congress as a pan-India party. The Congress did put up a spirited fight and yet it failed to slow down the Modi juggernaut. Its spectacular underachievement means a depletion of Opposition ranks and voices in the Lok Sabha. This can only be an unhappy augury. At a moment when India should be celebrating its democratic vigour and vibrancy, it also ought to gear itself up to safeguarding our republican virtues and constitutional values. The 2019 vote has produced coherence and stability in our governing arrangements, yet energetic democratic vigilance will be needed in defence of the Republic.
Harish Khare is a senior journalist; till recently he was editor-in-chief of