Neera Chandhoke

The principles that inform a lived life of dignity must dictate choices in the great Indian election of 2019

The schedule for the 2019 general election has been announced, and the political arena has once again been transformed into a gigantic market place. In this space political parties proceed to outbid and undercut each other, often in shocking ways, as they desperately buy a commodity called state power. Every political party pursues state power as frantically as the Knights of King Arthur searched for the Holy Grail in medieval England. This is their project and their rationale for existence. Power saturates every site of social interaction, from the household to the workplace, but state power is unique because it is a condensate of all power. The state decides whether our lives are led in good, bad or ugly ways. The holders of state power resolve what sort of opportunities are offered by society and the economy, and whether we can participate in multiple social transactions as equals.

All that’s at stake

Understandably, politicians yearn to take over the state. Some of them might even agree to sell their souls, drive a Faustian bargain so that they can acquire, possess and relish power. We are a democracy, but citizens are unable to control the possession, exercise and implementation of power by their representatives.

A disturbing question haunts the corridors of our democracy. Are representatives responsive to their constituencies, to their wants, needs and aspirations? Or do they tend to subordinate the well-being of citizens to their own lust for office? The latter is painfully evident.

Democratically elected governments can and have divided society, kept people in penury, imprisoned and tortured civil liberty activists, destroyed civil societies, and threatened war against neighbours. Overt and covert violence stalks our heels. Violence may have become the new normal in India, but there is little that is noble about violence. “Each new morn” says Macduff of war in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows Strike heaven in the face, that it resounds.”

Today, new sorrows follow us around like Mary’s little lamb because the government refuses to respect our need for a decent life, lived with dignity and in peace. Consider the way the Indian government has responded to serious economic distress in the country. Refusing to address the grim crisis in the agrarian sector which has destroyed livelihoods and driven farmers to suicide, the government decides to offer petty pocket money to the agriculturalist. Instead of transforming educational institutions, or taking on the onerous task of creating jobs with some determination, the Modi government offers pitiful reservations to graduates and postgraduates who have been forced to compete for positions below their capabilities. Worse, our government refuses to count how many Indian citizens are unemployed. It just does not acknowledge that poverty created through job losses does not only breed distress, it produces and reproduces discontent and anger, resentment and violence. Our representatives have failed us.

For when we vote, we expect that our representative government will provide the basic preconditions of a good life. We do not expect it to tap petty passions and irrational emotions through incendiary rhetoric that targets communities, regions and other countries in the name of the nation. Cynics might wonder whether elections bring about change at all, or whether the outcome results in more of the same.

Freedom from fear

Nevertheless, elections are significant. The opportunity to vote offers us choices, we can vote for the same violence that has left us with bloodied hands and torn feet. Or we can vote for a party that offers us freedom. At stake in the 2019 election are four kinds of freedoms. The first is freedom from fear, from the haunting feeling that someone, somewhere is watching how we behave, and that someone is ready to penalise us through words and deeds if we dare question the mockery that democracy gives power to the religious majority. Our own people who belong to the minority community need to be reassured that they are citizens of this country by right, and no one has the right to make them feel that they are here on sufferance. All of us have to be free from the nagging worry that our neighbourhoods will be overrun by lumpens on their monstrous motorcycles baying for blood at the drop of a hat, that citizens of India will be lynched and left to die painfully on the mud tracks of our cities and villages. Above all, we have the right to vent criticism of representatives without being assaulted by crude, sexist abuse on social media that relentlessly intrudes into our everyday lives.

The second sort of freedom we should reinstall is freedom from want. Our farmers live in precarious conditions, our working class ekes out a bare existence steeped in misery and deprivation, our children are offered insecure and low paid jobs, and our minorities live under the constant threat that their livelihoods will be snatched from them. Seventy-one years after Independence, the government should be concerned about the quality of employment it offers our people, about suitable remuneration, about lives lived with dignity, and about the self-worth that people develop when they love what they do for a living.

It is not enough that the working classes are handed out a mere pittance instead of a living wage. It is not sufficient that our people work for a mess of porridge, or that they should merely have enough to eat. It is the task of a democratic government to provide for basic preconditions — health, education, employment and a sustainable wage — that enable people to stand up and speak back to a history not of their making. This is what democracy means, not a handout here and a handout there. For this, we need to ask why should people remain poor.

The third freedom that we have to re-capture is freedom from discrimination. Ironically, upper castes have mobilised against protections provided to one of the most vulnerable groups in human history, Dalits. It is paradoxical that reservations, which are meant to secure respect for those who are doubly disadvantaged by reasons of caste and class, are offered to the upper castes, which are already over-represented in the public sphere. Reservations have become a mockery, a charade, used as a deliberate ploy to delegitimise the project of social justice.

The fourth freedom is freedom from sexual violence, for women, for men, for transgenders, and for children. India must never witness with horror and pain another child mauled, raped and mutilated as in Kathua. We must never bear witness to the ignoble spectacle of lawyers demonstrating in favour of rapists. We must never again register the horrific phenomenon of women being beaten up merely because they wish to visit their god in a temple. If India cannot secure equality, which is the reason for democracy, let us at least opt for non-discrimination, a lesser form of equality.

A constitutional right

At stake in the elections that loom large on our collective imaginations is not delegation of power to representatives, so that they can live out their sick fantasies of controlling minds and bodies. We vote to recapture and protect the freedom that earlier generations fought for so strenuously. We vote because freedom is our constitutional right and we will reclaim it.

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University

Defeat of saffron party in 2019 may not ensure failure of BJP project

suhas palsikar indian express

The last elections brought about the discourse of “New India”. It brought to the forefront a wound caused (to some political groups) by the imagery of India that originated in India’s national movement. suhas palsikar indian express

The 2014 elections produced a government which subsequently expanded its limited mandate. They also considerably complicated Indian democracy. It is worthwhile to ask if the 2019 elections are likely to strengthen democracy.Advertising

Five years ago, the BJP rode to power on the twin advantage of leadership and anti-incumbency. Both these issues tapped into the aspirations of young voters and sections that imagined a middle class location for themselves. Today, the BJP goes to the voters not as a challenger but as a defender. In all probability, it can hide behind the argument that there is no alternative and that an “unprincipled” coalition is only interested in removing the ruling party.

So, the elections might involve a competitiveness that was absent last time. But if we were to think beyond winners and losers, the relevance of the 17th Lok Sabha elections may be measured by contextualising them in 2014.

The 2014 elections need not be remembered only for the defeat of the Congress-led UPA government. They stand out in India’s electoral history as one of the few critical elections that had the potential to change both the nature of competition and the nature of politics. This happened in at least five ways.

he elections of 2014 brought back the leadership cult to national politics almost after three decades. Two, both during the campaign and through the entire term, those elections ensured that politics was reduced to optics. Three, resulting from what the elections produced, there has been a capture and erosion of institutions that in some respects even surpasses the dark period of 1975-77. Four, the last elections brought to the forefront a shrill public opinion impatient with nuance. For a large number of voters who chose the BJP over other options, these were arguably not the things they had bargained for.

But, above all, the last elections brought about the discourse of “New India”. This New India would probably have all the four elements mentioned above. But, more specifically, it nurses and encourages a sense of injury. It brought to the forefront a wound caused (to some political groups) by the imagery of India that originated in India’s national movement. It is indeed true that what remains today of the so-called idea of India is only a set of platitudes. This degeneration is the result of neglect of that idea during the Seventies and Eighties. Yet, the Modi-Shah led BJP has been uncomfortable with even the vestige of that ideological component of the national movement, so much so that the last five years have witnessed a constant ridiculing of that idea in the name of New India.

In the New India being imagined, the defining feature has been a majoritarian idea of political culture. Like the contested idea of India, this idea, too, is not confined to formal governmental power; going beyond that, it presupposes a redefinition of the social relations and restating of the relation between citizen and nation-state. While the rhetoric about New India has thus been inaugurated, 2014 was not about this transformation. Neither the BJP campaign nor the support it received hinged on the ideological battle that the BJP subsequently crafted.

As we enter the campaign for the next elections, it is important to remember this historical context. In a sense, the last elections brought about what the voters did not demand, expect or imagine. We may expect three ironies during and from the 2019 elections.

With the perceptible change in public opinion that the last five years have brought about, voters would now be expecting a certain type of democracy. This expectation would encourage the BJP at the grassroots level to take recourse to a more acerbic, exclusionary and sectarian argument as its key offering. While this may please the hard-core Hindutva elements within the BJP, the real irony would be that this voter expectation would discourage the Opposition from joining the debate with the BJP on the issue of an exclusionary and majoritarian idea of our collective self. The Opposition would be tactically focusing on the “economy” — where it may have valid arguments against the ruling party — but the Opposition would not be a real Opposition in the sense that it would not challenge the BJP on the most critical change it has brought about. They would not seek a mandate on fundamentals.

A corollary would be that while among the BJP’s voters this time around many would be explicitly driven by the attraction for the majoritarian logic and the exclusionary turn, votes against the BJP would be least driven by any steadfast association with the inclusionary logic. This suggests that while the elections would be competitive in terms of party competition and vote shares, they might actually be one-sided in terms of ideas propounded and arguments joined. The Opposition, instead of contesting the BJP’s imagination, may choose to squeeze itself into the same ideological space that the BJP operates in. While this could help the non-BJP parties to win seats, they would be losing the real battle. One is not sure if they really want to fight that battle.

This leads to the third and more serious irony. If the BJP retains power, whether with a reduced strength or otherwise, that will entrench the idea of New India. Already, public opinion has perceptibly changed and the proponents of exclusionary majoritarianism have become self-confident. The bursts of vigilantism are not merely manifestations of lawless enthusiasts, they represent an assertion of majoritarian claims.

With another victory for the BJP, the India of 2024 would be unrecognisable from the India of, say, 2004. Pre-2004 India did have its majoritarian moments, of 1992 and 2002, but India of 2024 would have made such majoritarian assertions “normal” parts of India’s democracy. This normalisation of sub-democratic politics would be the logical outcome of another term for the BJP.

The Hindu