BJP’s subversion of the electoral process and Modi’s communal rhetoric undermine credentials of democracy in India

It is time to use the only democratic weapon people have, the vote, responsibly.

Published : May 15, 2024 19:13 IST - 15 MINS READ

Posing after voting in the third phase of the election, in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, on May 7.

Posing after voting in the third phase of the election, in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, on May 7. | Photo Credit: PTI

India has completed three phases—at the time of writing—of an incredibly complex seven-phase polling that began on April 19 and will end on June 1.

In India, elections are celebrated with great gusto, as veritable carnivals that applaud popular sovereignty. The importance of elections as the keystone of democracy is apparent and needs no justification.

There is, however, much more to democracy; it is the form of government best suited to realise the basic values of a good society, namely, freedom, equality, and justice. The rights of citizens are secured by the institutionalisation of the rule of law, a constitutional charter of fundamental rights, establishment of checks and balances on power, an independent judiciary and media, and a vibrant civil society.

Central to democracy are institutions and conventions that limit power. It is not surprising that liberal philosophers considered majoritarianism and demagogues as the two greatest threats to liberty.

In the Constituent Assembly, the erudite and wise B.R. Ambedkar struck a warning note on precisely these hazards. On November 25, 1948, he reminded the Assembly of the words of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, who had scripted a magnificent work on liberty. People, Mill had written, should not “lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long service to the country but there are limits to gratefulness.”

Ambedkar further quoted the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, who had memorably remarked that “no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour… and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty”.

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This warning, Ambedkar said, was even more necessary in India, “for in India, bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to salvation of the soul. But in politics, bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

Ambedkar was prescient. In 2014, a sizeable number of Indians placed their liberties at the feet of a charismatic leader named Narendra Modi, who seemed to have all the answers to the malaise of the human condition. But charisma in excessive doses can be hazardous for democracy’s health. This is the lesson that can be drawn from India’s recent history.

Suppression of civil society

Over the past decade, Indians have helplessly borne witness to the imprisonment of civil society activists, journalists, university students, and dissidents; institutional capture; dissemination of hate speech and violence against Muslim and Christian minorities; and suppression of a civil society that has been wonderfully chaotic and messy but creative. The visual and print media have been brought to their knees. And universities have been stripped of their primary function: to inculcate the spirit of critical reasoning in students.

Some have already exercised their franchise, and others will do so, in a society where democratic institutions and practices have hollowed out. The vote will be cast against the backdrop of diminished democracy.

India is not the only country that presents the spectacle of democratic backsliding. There was a time when democracies in significant parts of the world were murdered by ceremonially decorated army generals in midnight coups. Authoritarian leaders have learnt their lesson. The takeover of governments by the use of violence propels simmering discontent at the least, if not outrage and uprising. The price countries have paid for army coups has been heavy.

The wrestler Vinesh Phogat and others were detained during a protest against Brij Bhushan Singh, then Wrestling Federation of India chief, over allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation, in New Delhi on May 28, 2023.

The wrestler Vinesh Phogat and others were detained during a protest against Brij Bhushan Singh, then Wrestling Federation of India chief, over allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation, in New Delhi on May 28, 2023. | Photo Credit: ARUN THAKUR/AFP

Recollect the memorable films of the gifted director and script writer Konstantinos Costa-Gavras. His political thrillers, for example Z, which revolved around the grisly murder of a courageous dissident in Greece, is unparalleled. In 1982, he made Missing, a film on the 1973 coup in Chile against the socialist President Salvador Allende’s government by General Augusto Pinochet, the head of the armed forces. After murdering democracy, Pinochet took control of the country as its President. Thousands of people were rounded up and put in jail, and many were executed without trial.

Among the missing was Charlie Horman (played by John Shea), an idealistic young American journalist and filmmaker who was in the country when the coup happened. He disappeared. His father Ed (played by Jack Lemmon) tries to locate Charlie along with Charlie’s wife Beth (played by Sissy Spacek). He comes to know that his son has been murdered. Ed’s search for the body of his missing son leads him to a morgue. He is appalled when he sees huge numbers of shattered and bloodied bodies all over the floor. His shock at the grisly sight is magnified as his eyes travel upward, as does the camera. The partially transparent roof is packed with the dead casting their shadows on the floor below. Reportedly some 20,000 people died or disappeared in the coup. Democracy died in Chile at the hands of the army. It was restored only in 1990.

Today aspirant autocrats do not commit mass murder or carry out the proverbial midnight coup. These carry the risk of provoking mass uprisings. Instead, they slowly but surely whittle away at democratic institutions and practices, until the point when only elections are left as a symbol of their democratic credentials. This process is called autocratisation.

“The BJP leadership does not even bother to conceal its ambitions to establish a Hindu state under the cloak of hyper-nationalism, as it did in 2019.”

Less than 25 years after the political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s declaration, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the future belonged to liberal democracy, significant parts of the world have seen waves of autocratisation. Notably, the gradual erosion of democracy is carried out under the guise of legalism. Constitutions are not dispensed with, institutions remain in place, and rituals of democracy are observed. But they have become hollow shells.

Chipping away at institutions

The hollowing out of institutions that restrain power, the gradual chipping away at civil society activism and a free media, the weakening of the opposition through intimidation and the use of financial regulatory institutions, the attempts to control the judiciary, and the relentless concentration of power in the executive—all these mark the process of autocratisation.

The key element of autocratisation is the concentration of power in the chief executive at the expense of other institutions, and certainly at the expense of the system of checks and balances. This has been observed in India, particularly in the case of the Election Commission of India (ECI), or the use of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to threaten leaders of the opposition.

A Muslim woman arrives to cast her vote at a polling booth in Guwahati during the third phase of the election, on May 7.

A Muslim woman arrives to cast her vote at a polling booth in Guwahati during the third phase of the election, on May 7. | Photo Credit: Anupam Nath/AP

Autocratisation is a process, not an end. It is a process that is designed to lead to the establishment of authoritarianism. But it is impossible to predict the end, for politics is chancy, contingent, and unpredictable. What is important is the gradual withering away of democracy to a point where the vote is the only weapon available to citizens. The vote gives them hope. Perhaps the competition between different party agendas may enable them to, once again, become what they are meant to be—Aristotle’s Zoon Politikon, the political animal.

Yet, hope is accompanied by great unease at the way the ruling party conducts elections—our very own carnivals of popular sovereignty. Recollect that the electoral process is divided into three segments: the run-up to the election involving the period of campaigning, the act of casting a vote, and the result. The people have no control over the third phase, which is the outcome, and they should not. If one’s candidate loses, one can only hope that they will win in the next election, provided the process is free and fair.

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The second segment of the election, voting, in the searing heat of May, is surrounded by at least two debates, if not controversies. One centres around the reliability of electronic voting machines (EVMs). A number of experts have found them defective because they do not seem to be safe. They can be tampered with. Two, the processes that surround the act of voting—for example the way EVMs are safeguarded against tampering before the election and their placement in a safe place until the day of counting— have been found wanting despite elaborate instructions detailed in the manual.

IPMIE, a citizens’ initiative

Even more concern has been expressed, and will continue to be expressed, about the first phase, campaigning. As for citizens’ initiatives in monitoring elections, a panel of five scholars, called the Independent Panel for Monitoring Indian Elections–2024 (IPMIE), was set up in March 2024 to monitor the 18th Lok Sabha election. The panel is part of a larger group and a research team that focusses on possible violations of the Model Code of Conduct. It investigates the tilting of what is expected to be a level playing field for all political parties, and voters from different communities, in favour of the ruling party.

The establishment of the panel, which is the result of a civil society initiative, was motivated by the belief that political campaigning that unfairly targets a community or that misrepresents the manifesto of another political party, the use of money, the coercion of voters, institutional corruption, and the way the ECI conducts or does not conduct the process, compromises free and fair elections.

If elections are the cornerstone of a democracy, citizens need to be alert. This is in keeping with the famous remark of the Irish judge John Philpot Curran (1750-1817): “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”

“The state is not expected to owe loyalty to any one religion, it is neither religious nor irreligious because it gives equal freedom to all citizens.”

The first and paramount concern expressed by the panel is the persistent refusal of the ECI to address seriously allegations that EVMs are flawed, and its indifference to the demand for 100 per cent counting of voter verifiable paper audit trial after voting. On April 26, the Supreme Court rejected proposals to return to the paper ballot. This has added to the fear that the process of registering votes might be compromised.

The concern is legitimate. The right to universal adult franchise is central to democracy because it is based upon two principles: the principle of anonymity and political equality. Who the people vote for is confidential, and each vote carries the same weight as any other vote. If the process of registering and counting votes impartially is under suspicion, the sanctity of the process is compromised.

Two, the weekly bulletins and interim reports of the IPMIE concentrate on the phase of campaigning. It is expected that political party candidates will observe constitutional proprieties, address issues of common concern, and engage civilly with other parties. Above all, no party leader or candidate should give a speech that can be called communal or casteist.

In its April 18-24 interim bulletin addressed to the ECI (fifth weekly bulletin), the panel pointed out that senior BJP leaders have been appealing for votes in the name of Hinduism and the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. This constitutes serious violations of our secular Constitution. It also tilts the so-called level playing field in favour of the majority.

Among the issues that have repeatedly been touched upon by the IPMIE and similar organisations are communal statements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that target the Muslim minority in objectionable language, and his misrepresentation of the manifesto of the Congress party.

On April 21, Modi alleged that the Congress, if elected to power, would take away the wealth of the people and give it to people whom he termed “infiltrators” and “those who have more children”. This statement violates provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Representation of the People Act. The Prime Minister’s speech evoked outrage, and thousands of citizens and organisations wrote to the ECI demanding that he be held accountable for his statement and other speeches. The ECI, oddly enough, has called BJP president J.P. Nadda to account.

Road to authoritarianism

The identification of voters with Hinduism, and blatant disregard for the sentiments of the Muslim minority, the Model Code of Conduct, and the Representation of the People Act is a worrying development because it charts out a straight path to full-blown authoritarianism. This violates not only the Constitution and provisions of the Representation of the People Act but also decisions of the Supreme Court.

On October 27, 2016, amid an acrimonious legal debate on curbing the role of religion in electioneering, the Supreme Court rhetorically asked whether secularism meant complete separation of religion from politics. The then Chief Justice, T.S. Thakur, and Justices Madan B. Lokur, S.A. Bobde, Adarsh K. Goel, U.U. Lalit, D.Y. Chandrachud, and L.N. Rao concluded that secularism does not mean that the state should stay aloof from religion but that it should give equal treatment to every religion. Religion and caste are vital aspects of our polity, and it is not possible to completely separate them from politics.

A polling booth in Imphal that was damaged in violence during the first phase of the election, in which one civilian was injured, on April 19.

A polling booth in Imphal that was damaged in violence during the first phase of the election, in which one civilian was injured, on April 19. | Photo Credit: ANI

The Supreme Court reiterated what a court had ruled in S.R. Bommai v. Union of Indiain 1993. Within general considerations of the federal principles, and the right of the Central government to dismiss State governments vide Article 356 of the Constitution, the court ruled that secularism was part of the basic structure of the Constitution. The Supreme Court proceeded to define secularism in overlapping judgments delivered by the justices.

One, secularism is part of the basic structure of the Constitution and therefore the principle cannot be amended. Two, secularism is derived from the Hindu principle of tolerance, or “sarva dharma sama bhava”. It, therefore, thereby ensures the equality of religions. The state is enjoined to accord equal treatment to all religions and religious sects and denominations.

Three, the court stated that no religion will be at risk in a secular India because the government will not be aligned to religion.

Four, the judges ruled, there is an essential connection between secularism and democracy. The concept of the secular state is, therefore, essential for the working of democracy and the realisation of social and economic needs that are essential for material and moral prosperity and political justice.

The state is not expected to owe loyalty to any one religion, it is neither religious nor irreligious because it gives equal freedom to all citizens. Communal rhetoric violates the basic assumption of a democracy and secularism that extends Article 14, or the right to equality, to equality of religion.

The fifth weekly bulletin of the IPMIE strongly urged the ECI to prohibit the use of communal language and religious images intended to spark off the consolidation of the Hindu vote. However, the ECI has not implemented its own dictum that religion and caste should not be used to ask for votes.

The fifth weekly bulletin also cited allegations made by the opposition that officials of some constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, including Rampur, Moradabad, Nagina, and Muzzafarnagar, were preventing some voters from casting their votes, or intentionally delaying the process. The opposition parties also claimed that booths were captured.

“In politics, bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”B.R. Ambedkar

The bulletin also expressed concern over the situation in conflict-torn Manipur, over issues such as proxy voting, vandalism, firing, armed groups that prevented people from voting, and damaging of EVMs.

And finally in Surat in Gujarat, the BJP candidate was declared elected unopposed because the nomination papers of the Congress candidate were rejected and other candidates withdrew their nomination. These issues subvert the creation of a level playing field in the election process, cast serious doubts on the sanctity of the process, and knock the bottom out of the essential precondition of democracy—that elections should be free and fair. Reservations expressed by citizen groups cast doubt about the credentials of India’s electoral democracy.

Democracies, as opposed to other forms of government, enable citizens to choose between different parties and their agendas in a competitive electoral system. Citizens above 18 years of age have the political competence to choose their rulers. If institutions and parties undermine fair elections, they deny the political competence of citizens, add another plank to the agenda of autocratisation, and take another step towards the establishment of authoritarianism/majoritarianism.

Although the element of religion has been a part of competitive election rhetoric in India since the late 1960s, never has the use of communal slurs and the use of Hindu symbols been as stark as it has been in the campaign speeches of the ruling party in this election.

Ambitions for a Hindu rashtra

The BJP leadership does not even bother to conceal its ambitions to establish a Hindu state under the cloak of hyper-nationalism, as it did in 2019. Today it openly speaks of Hindus versus Muslims in a country where the two communities have learnt to live together in a culture shaped by a shared inheritance. Today that culture is being torn to shreds.

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The people have voted, and will vote, not only for democracy but also against the looming dark clouds of a full-blown authoritarian state that will rule on the basis of the language, symbols, and imaginaries of the majority religion, and which is bound to systematically discriminate against the minority. We have been moving in that direction for the last 10 years, but at least the leadership claimed to be democratic. Today the velvet gloves are off, and people only see an iron fist raised against fellow citizens.

It is time to use the only democratic weapon people have, the vote, responsibly, and hope that EVMs will not malfunction and that candidates, howsoever powerful they may be, will not use election platforms to attack fellow citizens.

Neera Chandhoke is a former professor of political science at Delhi University.

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