2024: A leap year for Indian democracy?

Given the global shift towards the Right, the 2024 election has significance beyond party rivalries. Opposition must ask for a vote against Hindutva.

Published : Mar 21, 2024 11:00 IST - 16 MINS READ

Some members of INDIA bloc in New Delhi in 2023, (from left) Uddhav Thackeray, T.R. Baalu, M.K. Stalin, Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Mallikarjun Kharge, Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury, and Arvind Kejriwal. 

Some members of INDIA bloc in New Delhi in 2023, (from left) Uddhav Thackeray, T.R. Baalu, M.K. Stalin, Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Mallikarjun Kharge, Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury, and Arvind Kejriwal.  | Photo Credit: PTI

Even before it began, 2024 was anointed the Orwellian year of our time. During its 366 days, more than half of the world’s population will participate in elections to select governments in more than 60 countries spanning all continents. But more than just elections, it is the changing character of the influential polities of the world that makes 2024 a political leap year. In recent elections, Brazil and Chile have managed to avert a rightward slide, while the US, the EU, and Mexico seem poised to lurch further right later this year. The UK continues in its current phase of right-uncertainty following its pronounced rightward swing in the past decade. Türkiye and Hungary have ratified the mandate for extreme right-wing populists already in power, and the cosmetic elections due in Russia are expected to yield yet another term for Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, Israel’s elections have been successfully sidelined by the genocidal war on Gaza, providing an indefinite lease of life to the far-right coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, Gaza marks the undeniable end of what used to be called “Western liberalism”, and barring islands of resistance, most of the world is moving from right to farther right.

LISTEN: More than just elections, it is the changing character of the influential polities of the world that makes 2024 a political leap year.

These changes in the world’s political climate go beyond elections and parties, and beyond the traditional ideological spectrum of right-centre-left to the very essence of democracy. The core issue is the rise of “authoritarian populism”: popular movements that idolise “strong” leaders and endorse an authoritarian style of governance. These movements are driven less by specific political ideologies and more by a diffuse demand for the public affirmation of what were earlier called prejudices. Across the world, leaders who openly advocate racist and chauvinist programmes founded on hatred are gaining popularity.

The remarkable thing about this new popularity is that it persists despite—or rather in defiance of—the suffering that such leaders inflict on their own followers. In country after country that until yesterday was confidently described as democratic, a sizeable plurality of voters is willing to make sacrifices to support more-or-less fascist leaders and governments.

Also Read | Power to the people: India’s democracy needs a subaltern revival

When placed within this larger global context, our own soon-to-happen Lok Sabha election is clearly much more than a contest between rival party coalitions. Any attempt to evaluate “the opposition” and its electoral prospects in this election is to focus on the trees while missing the forest. Just as the 1977 Lok Sabha election was a referendum on the 18-month declared Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, the 2024 Lok Sabha election is, effectively, a referendum on the 10-year undeclared emergency of the Modi regime.

Opposing the idea of democracy

In a referendum-like situation, it is a mistake to think in terms of a contest between an incumbent ruling coalition and an opposition coalition. In fact, given the extent to which the Modi regime has corroded the democratic norms of our polity, the very nomenclature of “treasury” or government versus “shadow” or “opposition”—derived from British parliamentary custom—must be rejected. Because, over the past decade, it is the government that has been opposing the core values of our Constitution and our nation. Both directly and indirectly, Modi raj has opposed the idea that the nation belongs to all citizens equally regardless of caste, religion, or class; it has opposed the separation of powers between the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary; it has opposed the distinction between a public office and its individual incumbent; and, most of all, it has opposed the core idea of democracy as a system of governance where a plurality of opinions and ideologies can engage in legitimate political contestation within the boundaries set by constitutional law.

It may seem that treating the Lok Sabha election as a referendum on the BJP-RSS agenda is a concession to that very agenda. Such a stance appears to surrender the commanding heights of the political battlefield to the enemy and traps “the opposition” in reactive mode. But this appearance is an illusion.

Members of All Assam Students’ Union at a torch rally as they protest against the implementation of the CAA, in Guwahati in March 2024

Members of All Assam Students’ Union at a torch rally as they protest against the implementation of the CAA, in Guwahati in March 2024 | Photo Credit: AFP

The past decade has clearly established the Sangh Parivar as the overwhelmingly dominant political formation today and installed Narendra Modi as the unchallenged mahanayak, or Great Leader.

At this juncture, entering the electoral fray with a conventional strategy would require the juxtaposition of a rival Great Leader and, more importantly, the conjuring up of a comparable larger-than-life media halo around him or her. In addition, it would require a coherent alternative Agenda with a capital A to rival that of the ruling regime. None of these are possible today.

Nor are they necessary. This is not the time for a Bollywood-style dishum-dishum slugfest finale; it is the time for jiu-jitsu, for leveraging the opponent’s own strength and bulk. Above all, it is the time to refuse the label of “opposition” and the time to insist that it is the Modi sarkar that has been fundamentally opposed to the idea of India as we have known it. The much-trumpeted shift from India to Bharat is pure bluster; it changes nothing about the visceral antipathy of the Sangh Parivar towards every pillar of our flawed-but-functioning democracy.

Immense surveillance

The ruling regime’s strategy has been to pour scorn on the INDIA bloc at every available opportunity and to present it as a discredited, quarrelling, and aimless collection of lost causes. It is easy to find fault with the bloc, and this is a pastime that many commentators critical of the BJP have also indulged in. At this stage, it is too late and self-defeating to pin our hopes on a miraculous outbreak of unity in, or a sudden rise in the public stature of, the INDIA bloc. It is far better to turn necessity into virtue by embracing the referendum framework and asking for a negative vote against the corrosive agenda of Hindutva. The main slogan can then be a variant of “Just Say NO!” Although a positive agenda must also be offered, it need not bear much weight because it does not need to. The BJP-RSS and the NaMo phenomenon have done such a great job of pursuing an unambiguous, comprehensive, and transformative political agenda that asking for a “NO!” vote is an electorally viable option.

However, even a “NO!” campaign requires hard work. And it must be admitted that the 2024 campaign faces formidable difficulties that the 1977 post-Emergency campaign was spared. Foremost among these is the deep division of our society on communal lines. Compared with the last decade, Indira Gandhi’s short-lived Emergency seems almost innocent. It had no communal agenda, despite both Sanjay Gandhi and his mother flirting occasionally with a Hindu-chauvinist idiom. The Congress(I) of that time had nothing equivalent to the RSS to offer solid, unwavering grassroots support, independent of the electoral cycle. But the decisive difference is that the 1970s belonged to the pre-digital “analogue” and “offline” era. As a product of the digital age, the Modi regime has had the massive advantages of a media monopoly on “above-ground” electronic media; a viciously efficient “underground” network of IT cells; and the ability to shamelessly harness the immense surveillance and coercion capabilities of the digitised state.

Even as these obstacles begin to look insurmountable, we must hasten to remember that the Modi regime also offers an unprecedented array of evidence to justify a “NO!” vote. A misleading aspect of this evidence—weaponised by the warriors of whataboutery—is that much of it has a prior history and is not unique to the Modi regime. But the Modi sarkar is unique in that it has far overtaken its ancestors in extending, intensifying, and normalising these prior tendencies to the point where the quantitative difference turns into a qualitative difference-of-kind.

Perhaps the broadest and most consequential justification for voting “NO!” is the systematic undermining of public institutions. In this respect, Prime Minister Modi has left all his predecessors far behind. Take for example the apex institution of any democracy, its Parliament. The 17th Lok Sabha, coterminous with Modi’s second term in office, has set new lows on several fronts. As Ankita Dinkar, policy and legal researcher, notes: “It was the first to not appoint a Deputy Speaker, it recorded the lowest number of sittings, it passed significant legislation such as criminal reform Bills when more than 70 per cent of the opposition MPs were suspended, and the Prime Minister did not answer any question orally and only one in writing.” The 17th Lok Sabha allowed only one half-hour discussion, 13 short discussions, one calling attention motion, and zero adjournment motions compared with the post-1990 averages of 11, 39, 40, and 3 respectively. Attempts to muzzle oppositional voices include the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi (later revoked) and the expulsion of Mahua Moitra.

The bulldozer symbol

Beginning with Parliament, every major public institution has been hollowed out and weakened, or distorted and repurposed for partisan ends. Whether it is courts, the bureaucracy, the law enforcement machinery (especially institutions such as the Enforcement Directorate, the National Investigation Agency, or the CBI), economic and social data-gathering institutions, the Election Commission, or public universities—all have suffered significant damage.

Democratic debate and dissent—the lifeblood of any living democracy—has been constricted and increasingly silenced for so long that the process is being normalised. The government’s stranglehold on the media is a public-private partnership, achieved through the systematic buyout, intimidation, and coercion of media organisations. It is now amplified by the willing and often eager complicity of mediapersons vying to ingratiate themselves with the ruling regime. Other sites of public debate such as universities, student groups, and civil society organisations are under heavy pressure, including private institutions supposedly outside the direct control of the government.

A bulldozer demolishes the home of Javed Ahmed, a local leader, in Prayagraj in 2022. The bulldozer has emerged as a triumphant symbol of majoritarian oppression, confident of impunity. 

A bulldozer demolishes the home of Javed Ahmed, a local leader, in Prayagraj in 2022. The bulldozer has emerged as a triumphant symbol of majoritarian oppression, confident of impunity.  | Photo Credit: PTI

India’s federal architecture has been yet another casualty. The Centre has traditionally dominated the States, but departures from established norms have taken extreme forms in recent times. States with non-BJP governments have had to contend with confrontational Governors, leading to constant friction over what should be routine matters of policy and governance.

Last but far from least is the planned poisoning of inter-community relationships, in particular the incitement to majoritarian domination for Hindus accompanied by the relentless demonisation and attacks on Muslims. With the framing of rules for the amended citizenship law and the implementation of the National Register of Citizens, roughly 15 per cent of Indians face a potentially endless struggle to prove their nationality. A lynch culture is emerging all over northern India (and parts of the south) nourished by the direct and indirect encouragement of those in power. The bulldozer has emerged as a triumphant symbol of majoritarian oppression, confident of impunity.

All these changes for the worse are wrapped in the special packaging of the Modi cult. No Indian leader—not even the ubiquitous Mahatma Gandhi, who features on every currency note—has exercised this level of visual domination. Modi images saturate our public spaces, both physical and digital. (I recall an exasperating argument with an immigration official in the Paris airport who insisted that my COVID-19 vaccination certificate was fake because it did not have Modi’s picture on it; he finally relented, but only because I was leaving his country.) The distinction between individuals and the office they hold; between an office of state and an office within a political party; and between a political party and the state are almost erased when it comes to Narendra Modi and the BJP. The conversion of the state into private property is starkly visible in various well-known instances involving industrial houses closely allied with the regime. Despite Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s hailing of Indira Gandhi as an avatar of Durga (after the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971) or Dev Kant Barooah’s infamous “India is Indira, Indira is India” remark of 1974, the concentration of power in the person of the Prime Minister today is far, far greater than it was half a century ago.

A “NO!” campaign

These are features that need to be appropriately curated for inclusion in a campaign for a “NO!” vote. Do you want more of this, is the question to ask. For those who answer “NO!”, the obvious imperative is to vote for any party other than the BJP that stands a reasonable chance of winning in that constituency. This was roughly the strategy followed by civil society groups when campaigning for the 2023 Assembly election in Karnataka. Incidentally, this election saw a record voter turnout (73.8 per cent) and resulted in a convincing win for the Congress (135 out of 224 seats, with a 42.9 per cent vote share, compared with the BJP’s 66 seats and 36 per cent vote share).

Two topics are prominently (and deliberately) missing from this discussion: first, the whole issue of the “performance” of the Modi government and its record on service delivery and fulfilment of promises; and, second, the question of favourable and unfavourable constituencies in the sense of social groups inclined to support or oppose the regime.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Jaisalmer, where the firepower capability of indigenous weapons was on display. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Jaisalmer, where the firepower capability of indigenous weapons was on display.  | Photo Credit: ANI

The obvious topics for discussion here are the groups broadly labelled “farmers” and “lower castes” and the government’s abject failure to create jobs (relative to its tall claims). While these are clearly important, they are matters for a locally grounded, context-specific analysis not central to a referendum framework, where only one party is being evaluated. By contrast, the list of issues discussed above ought to be relevant regardless of voters’ perceptions about the performance of the government. The reason to vote “NO!” is not because the government is inefficient but because it is dismantling the democratic architecture of our polity. Of course, a “NO!” campaign gains if the government has reneged on its promises, but that is not its focus.

Before I conclude, a sobering reminder and an inspirational memory. We cannot forget—especially since we are reminded everyday by the media—that there are people who want more of what this government wants, and they are many. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, the proportion of Indians who preferred an autocratic system of governance increased from 55 per cent in 2017 to 67 per cent in 2023. Incidentally, among the 24 countries surveyed, support for autocracy was the highest in India in both years!

On the other hand, despite its landslide victory in the 2019 general election, the BJP vote share was only 37.7 per cent; in other words, 62 per cent of voters did not vote for it. While we must not flinch from acknowledging the popularity of the Modi regime and of Hindutva, we need to remember that the first-past-the-post electoral system is prone to huge swings in seats (and hence electoral majorities) in response to relatively small swings in vote shares. And the volatility of the seats-to-votes relationship works both ways: a relatively small shift in voter preferences can swing the needle of victory the other way.

History with a capital H

And now the inspirational anecdote from a half century ago: the historic 1977 election.

It was the final year of my undergraduate degree in Delhi University and our exams were due in late March. But the Emergency (imposed just before I began my second year) was relaxed in early January, and some 25-30 of us volunteered to campaign for the Janata Party—or rather, against Indira Gandhi’s Congress. The Emergency had not been lifted, and the fear and tension it had generated were still thick in the air. Our teachers offered well-meaning advice about avoiding politics so as to not damage our career prospects. But the Emergency had energised us to do whatever we could. Along with some college-mates, I was assigned the New Delhi constituency where Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was the candidate. My political leanings went strongly against the Jana Sangh, but this did not matter because the election was essentially a referendum on the Emergency. As we said at that time, we would campaign for a lamp post if it was anti-Congress.

I doubt we made any difference, but it felt exhilarating to campaign in the government housing colonies in central Delhi, even if many refused to open their doors. The moral of this story is that significant numbers of ordinary people were willing to take risks and work hard without any expectation of victory. The important thing was to stand up and be counted. That is why the night of March 22 and 23, when election results were declared, stands out in my memory. At around 10 pm, a small group of us were walking from the Delhi University campus towards Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, where the newspaper offices used to be (The Hindu, The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Patriot).

There were one or two transistor radios (this was before mobile phones and the Internet), and as we listened, All India Radio broadcast the incredible news of victory after victory for the hastily assembled Janata Party. Somewhere between Kashmiri Gate and Daryaganj, we heard that Sanjay Gandhi had lost in Amethi and a little later that Indira Gandhi had lost in Raebareli. As we joined the large crowd in front of the newspaper offices where the results were being displayed on billboards, we felt part of History with a capital H.

Also Read | Editor’s Note: Is India heading towards an autocracy?

I remember that then too there were anxieties about the lack of “opposition unity” and about the sharp ideological differences among the constituents of the Janata Party; there was concern about the lack of leaders as charismatic as Indira Gandhi; we worried about the huge disparity in resources between the Congress and the Janata Party. The Congress had complete control over radio and television, not to speak of its influence on the print media. Hovering above all of this was the distinct possibility of the Emergency being reimposed. But the election results were what they were.

It is true that politics in India reflects global trends. It is true that globally there is widespread dissatisfaction with democracy and a yearning for strong leaders. It is true that the prejudices that the ruling regime promotes run deep in our society. But it is also true that change has come despite heavy odds in the past, and that it may do so in the future as well. We must stop worrying about the asymmetries between the ruling regime and its rivals and treat the coming election as a referendum.

If you believe that democracy is more than just a word, then you must vote “NO!”. Because the only believable guarantee of the Modi sarkar is that it will destroy our democracy. And because you want 2024 to be a leap year for Indian democracy.

Satish Deshpande is a retired teacher based in Bengaluru.

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