The Election Commission has not yet announced dates for the elections falling due in five States—Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan in the Hindi belt; Mizoram in the north-eastern region; and Telangana in the south. Yet, unsurprisingly, all five States are abuzz with campaigning and sloganeering. Even in an India that has become an extended election campaign for 12 months a year, courtesy Narendra Modi, the early hubbub indicates how much these elections are being seen as a bellwether for 2024.
And not just for the political parties. As a nation, there are signals emanating from the campaigning that hold up a mirror to who we have become. Distressingly but unsurprisingly, it is the cow-belt States who once again lead the race downwards. In both Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress is deplorably peddling soft Hindutva layered with welfare doles which, in turn, has pushed the BJP’s sitting Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan towards hard Hindutva as evidenced by the toxicity of some of his recent speeches. The real pity, however, is the ease with which we have begun to normalise Hindutva and comfortably grade it like a breakfast egg into soft, hard, or medium. Rahul Gandhi’s pretty speeches notwithstanding, if the Congress in these two States is happy to push cows and temples while playing footsie with destructive development moguls, it well deserves its reputation of being an ideologically vacuous party.
And where does that leave the average voter? In a mockery of a democracy. Being forced to pick the lesser of two evils is to not have a choice at all. One might argue that a visible demonstration of one’s Hindu identity does not necessarily translate into communalism but let us not forget that it is exactly this Trojan horse that the BJP soft-pedalled to victory in 2014. And when that plays out its course, then comes the full-blooded othering. In 2023, in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, a Gujarati housing society refused to rent space to a Marathi woman. In 2023, in New Delhi, a mentally unstable Muslim man who wandered into a temple for food was beaten to death. An obsession with identity, whether of religion or caste, can never remain innocent; it always draws blood.
“If the leaders of the Congress are serious about their mohabbat ki dukan, they must show the moral courage to remove religion from their politics regardless of the perceived electoral risks of such a move. Only that makes them a real alternative. ”
If the leaders of the Congress are serious about their mohabbat ki dukan, they must show the moral courage to remove religion from their politics regardless of the perceived electoral risks of such a move. Only that makes them a real alternative.
In Mizoram, religion appears to play out rather differently. Here, two entities influence voters strongly—the church and the church-sponsored election watchdog, the Mizoram People’s Forum. Together, they have kept elections free of money and malpractice to a large extent, especially in the north. The church has also spoken against politicising issues, and Mizoram under Zoramthanga has, despite the Centre’s diktat, given refuge to Chin people fleeing the junta in neighbouring Myanmar. Last week, Zoramthanga rejected the Centre’s demand to collect biometric data from such refugees, saying it amounted to discrimination. This is one reason why Zoramthanga’s Mizo National Front might come back to power, writes Dr Suwa Lal Jangu, professor of Political Science in Aizawl’s Mizoram University, who has analysed the State’s politics for us this time.
All organised religions carry the seeds of divisiveness but using their power over people to sow peace or political ethicality seems a reasonable compromise. One might imagine that there is a model here for political parties that believe they must foreground Hinduism to win, but it would not be able to account for the deep-seated discriminations that underpin and actualise its Brahminical espousal.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that however flawed the campaigning, the 679 seats coming up in the fray are vital cogs in the federal structure. These elections are ultimately about preserving that structure. And thereby the idea of we the people.