Campaign 2019 is in full swing and politicians are hurling accusations at each other. Elections in India have always been bruisingly rough combat but this election shows an altogether new trend. This time ruling party leaders and supporters are attempting to paint 2019 as a fight between those claiming a monopoly over Indian nationhood and those being dubbed as various versions of “Pakistan loyalists”, celebrators of Pakistan National Day, “terror apologists”, or Pak-friendly “anti-nationals”.
When Congress adviser Sam Pitroda recently remarked that incidents like Pulwama happen “all the time”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi countered that the “opposition is the natural habitat of terror apologists and questioners of our armed forces”. Pitroda’s remarks may have lacked political wisdom but is he an enemy of India? BJP general secretary Ram Madhav said over the weekend that Congress leaders will win if they contest from Pakistan. Recently minted BJP candidate for the prestigious Bangalore South constituency, Tejasvi Surya is on record saying, “if you’re with Modi you are with India, if you’re not with Modi you are anti-India”.
This demonisation of rivals bears some similarity to Indira Gandhi dubbing her enemies the “foreign hand” or “CIA agents”. Today’s BJP too is claiming victimhood at the hand of external enemies, a claim which not only allows governments to evade accountability and responsibility, but becomes the rationale for an even harsher attack against these so-called enemies who are designated as the perpetual ‘other’. Election 2019 claims to have many firsts, such as 100% use of VVPAT machines. Here’s another talking point: 2019 is India’s most polarised election ever.
2019 has been seen as Modi vs the rest, just as 1977 was a clash between Indira vs the rest. Yet there’s an important difference: however illegitimate Indira considered the opposition and however determinedly she practised the politics of untouchability with the right wing, she still did not go to the extent of describing her stalwart challenger Jayaprakash Narayan as a traitor, working to advance Pakistan’s agenda, as the opposition is being accused of today. By demonising the adversary and claiming victimhood, the need for introspection is done away with.
In attempting to paint its political adversaries as national enemies, the ruling BJP is imitating Congress of the 70s and 80s, which similarly tried to annihilate the political opposition with disastrous outcomes particularly in Punjab and J&K. When political dissent is crushed, violent anti-democratic entities tend to step into the vacuum as challengers.
Other elections have been polarised too but hardly to the maximalist extent of 2019. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi said his opposition was a “scorpion”. In 2014, then PM candidate Narendra Modi directed a trenchant critique against the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, perhaps his way of hitting back at the way he had been ostracised by Congress leaders.
Yet 2019 has brought in a new fault line, being drawn between so called “desh bhakts” and the “tukde tukde gang”. The ruling party is pitching that there is an apparent indistinguishability between government, party, armed forces and the top ruling political leadership, thus claiming the entire India space, in a bid to virtually squeeze out any opposition whatsoever.
In 1977, the government tried the same monopoly, but the opposition claimed the dominant narrative despite the ruling party stranglehold. In 2019, the official narrative is the dominant narrative and anyone opposing it is liable to being cast into the arms of the “enemy” nation. This sort of extreme polarisation could have an adverse effect on democracy because it is deployed through the use of violent language which as Gandhi was so prescient to realise, inevitably degenerates into physical violence on the streets.
The Vajpayee government, which like today’s regime also claimed Hindutva nationalism as its ideological mission, had little truck with violent rhetoric. Under his watch, outstanding academics and rights activists were not jailed nor threatened with imprisonment. Certain universities were not treated as dens of sedition. In fact none other than socialist trade unionist leader George Fernandes found place as NDA convener. With his commitment to the cause of Burmese students, tribals and wage labourers he would perhaps be labelled anti-national today.
When election dates were announced the PM tweeted, “the festival of democracy, elections, are here”. But can there be any real festival of democracy if there is an atmosphere of fear, muzzling of opposing ideologies or criticism, and if the entire range of the opposition is called “urban naxals”, “award wapsi gang”, “Pakistan premis”, “desh drohis”?
During the Vajpayee years, LK Advani was the Hindutva ideologue who dubbed his enemies as pseudo seculars. Yet even Advani, who challenged Nehruvian definitions of secularism and socialism from a right wing viewpoint, looked to defeat his opponents politically and intellectually, not to intimidate them into submission. The attempt to delegitimise any contending ideology is the very opposite of what democratic debate means.
If rival debators are simply shut up through bludgeoning use of state power or the multiplicity of ideas is shut down as a sort of national mobilisation against the alien enemy, then there’s no festival of democracy. Recently, on the anniversary of the Dandi March, Mahatma Gandhi was invoked by every political party. In the midst of a scorchingly bitter poll battle we need to reacquaint ourselves with Gandhi’s greatest legacy: the ability to dialogue with the adversary. Gandhi kept reaching out to rivals, thus forcing both sides to gaze inwards. After all, politics leads to progress and can be considered the art of the possible, only when it reconciles differences. This can only be done by lowering mutual enmities not inflaming or exaggerating them.
Patriot games at election time: Why 2019 could be India’s most polarised polls – Times of India