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11 August, 2019  ▪  

Modi-fied 2.0

What way will India go after the parliamentary elections

By the end of May the dense ink mark on the finger of Indian voters, signifying that they had cast their votes and preventing them from doing so again or in plain language, preventing rigging, faded away. The largest democracy in the world saw the end of a chapter, end of the month long grand exercise, universal adult suffrage of its 900 million eligible voters.  Elections to Lok Sabha, the national parliament of India, held in seven phases from 11 April to 19 May 2019 ended. A new chapter begun, when, on May 30, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and 57 ministers took oath. Winning record number of 303 seats by a single party, Narendra Modi has led the Bharatiya Janata Party to a resounding victory on May 23. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won 353 of the 543 parliamentary seats. The main opposition alliance, led by the Indian National Congress, admitted defeat but, won 52 seats, and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance won 91. Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi, son of Rajiv and grandson of Indira Gandhi, lost his seat in Amethi, (a strong bastion for the Gandhi family) but won from Wayanad in Kerala. Other parties and their alliances won 98 seats. 

In 2014, when Modi won the elections after his rigorous campaign of bringing change and a turnaround for India, many paraphrased his victory as India being “Modi”fied. The 2019 victory won the same cliché with a “2.0” added to it, meaning Modi’s second term. But before we go into the depths and subtleties of a “Modi-fied India 2.0”, a quick look at the mammoth electoral mechanism shows why it is the largest democratic exercise on earth. And how, step by step, India has moved its electoral mechanism from a poorly funded, manually managed with human errors and rigging to a relatively transparent digital platform. 

Involving 900 million eligible voters casting their votes in 1 million 35 thousand and 918 polling stations, the final turnout stood at 67.11 per cent, the highest ever turnout, 600 million, recorded in any of the general elections till date as well as the highest participation by women voters. Approximately 270,000 paramilitary and 2 million state police personnel provided organizational support and security at various polling stations. The counting of votes took place on 23 May, and on the same day the results were declared. How was that achieved? 

Paperless voting

Outside India, it may still be a big news for many, that India does not use paper ballots any more. Developed by the state-owned Electronics Corporation of India and Bharat Electronics in the 1990s, electronic voting machines (EVMs) were introduced in Indian elections between 1998 and 2001, in a phased manner. Since 2004, India has fully opted for EVMs, which record the vote of each and at the closure of the polls, by pressing one button the total number of votes, with details of votes in favor of each candidate/party in that particular machine isimmediately available. This has eased the manual counting and other logistical issues. In 2010-2011, in order to prevent possible tampering with the EVMs, adevice called voter-verified paper audit trailunit (VVPAT) was approved. This VVPAT is like a small printer, which prints out the voter’s choice into a piece of paper.The voter watches how the paper gets printed and drops down to a small closed transparent basket after vote has been casted.VVPATs are used selectively in some constituencies. In 2019, a total of 3.96 million EVMs were deployedby the sole authority guiding the process, the Election Commission of India (ECI).  

However, after series of complaints of possible hacking and malfunctioning of EVMs, on 9 April 2019, theSupreme Courtordered the ECI to increase VVPAT slips vote count to five randomly selected EVMs per assembly constituency, which means ECI had to count VVPAT slips of 20,625 EVMs and check its full coincidencewith the EVM data,before it certifies the final election results. ECI deployed a total of 1.74 million VVPAT units. Even after that, there are complaints and the judiciary has to be involved to resolve disputes. Before the voting begins, the EVMs are tested in front of representatives of all candidates/parties in the respective constituencies. Thus, EVMs are said to be fairly tamper-proof. Not a bad idea for Ukraine to procure such machines from India!  

RELATED ARTICLE: Gandhi at checkpoint

Easy but controversial political funding 

India still battles poverty but the Indian parliamentary elections were one of the costliest in the world.  Budget allocations for ECI alone increased to 2.62 billion rupees, which would be used for transportation – use of elephants and helicopters for easily inaccessible areas and technical support to the elections. Most of the spending isn’t publicly disclosed. While candidates have a legal expenditure cap of around $100,000, parties can spend unrestricted amounts. Most of the jump in spending was for the political campaigning, such as use of social media, travel and advertising, surging to about 50 billion rupees from 2.5 billion rupees in 2014.Campaign funding was obtained through donations to parties. Data show that the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an election watchdog, in the financial year 2017–18 BJP received US$63 million, about 12 times more donations than Congress and five other national parties combined. 

A serious issue transpiring in this area is the anonymous funding of political parties from Indians abroad and subsidiaries of foreign companies in India. A key amendment to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, which in its previous version banned political parties from receiving foreign funding was adopted hurriedly by the parliament in March 2018, enabling them to get such funding in the future as well as not be investigated for past such funding. For example, India's two main political parties – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress Party – were found guilty of breaking the law by a Delhi court in 2014. In its ruling, the court had said that the two parties accepted funds from companies owned by London-listed mining group Vedanta Resources between 2004 and 2012. The latest amendment has ensured that funds received by political parties since 1976 cannot be investigated. Notably, there was general consensus among all political parties on this issue. Who doesn’t want easy money and not account for its sources?

The electoral bonds in denominations ranging from 1,000 rupees to 10 million rupees ($14 to $140,000) can be purchased and donated to a political party. The bonds don't carry the name of the donor and are exempt from tax. According to Factly – an India data journalism portal, which traced the electoral bond donations for 2018 under India's Right to Information Act, electoral bonds worth about US$150 million were purchased in 2018 accounted for 31.2 per cent of political donations from corporates. According to Bloomberg, 51.4 per cent of the total donated amount were each below US $ 290 and were from unknown donors. About 47 per cent of the donations to political parties were from known sources.Between 1 January and 31 March 2019, donors bought US $ 250 million worth of electoral bonds.

Activists are extremely worried about this development and they accuse the Modi government of harboring double standards, because during its first term, using the same law, the government suspended licenses of NGOs under the plea that they engaged in “anti-national activities” and did not disclose the details of foreign funding. Foreign donations to parties however will have to show their identities to the State Bank of India, but will not be subject to scrutiny by ECI, government or public. Defenders of this amendment say that the desire is to make election funding cashless, and this is a first step. However, bulk of the funding comes from petty cash and it is a long way to go.   

Overall, the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) in New Delhi estimated the election campaign to be $8.6 billion, exceeding the $7 billion spent during the 2016 US Presidential and Congressional elections. It marks a 40 percent jump from the $5 billion spent during India’s 2014 parliamentary elections. And paradoxically, it amounts to roughly $8 spent per voter in a country where about 60 percent of the population lives on around $3 a day. 

Suffice it to say, reaching out to the global non-Resident Indians’ pockets was easier through anonymous donations, than giving them real opportunities for exercising their political rights, including the author of this article. Almost 27 million Indian citizens (a negligible number considering 600 million voters in the country), ordinary civilians staying abroad cannot yet vote in their Embassies or via electronic or postal ballots. They have to be present in India to do that. Despite repeated communications, the government or the ECI failed to make adequate provisions.

Carnivalesque campaigning

With all the resources available, 8000 contestant candidates spent months on heated debate and campaigning, which, as often is the case, possess elements of carnival culture.Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, respectively leading the ruling party and the opposition, questioned more on the political economy of reforms, rather than ideology or strategic discussions. Debates centered around the major economic achievements of the NDA government: inflation rate less than 4 per cent, the General Services Tax reform, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, positive programs of Clean India, rural cooking gas and electricity for homes as well as the high GDP growth rate, expected to be reach up to 7.3 per cent during 2019–2021. Modi claimed that his government pursued demonetization in 2016 (taking out higher denomination banknotes out of circulation) in the national interest, his government has identified and de-registered 338,000 shell companies, identified and recovered US $ 19 billion in black money since 2014, and almost doubled India's tax base. The GDP growth data as well as all of the above has been disputed by the opposition, arguing that these did not translate into employment and well being for people. If, in 2014, the BJP campaign promised a well-functioning market economy free of red tape and corruption, plentiful employment opportunities for all, fair sharing of the fruits of speedy economic expansion, and ready availability of primary health care and school education. The 2019 campaign, could not boast of fulfilling the promises. The “Make in India” initiative was expected to give the manufacturing industry a boost through foreign direct investment, but the sector has witnessed a significant slowdown. Unemployment is very high, 18.6 million people – a 45-year peak, economic growth is jobless and uneven, having 393.7 million underemployed or not gainfully employed, elementary health care remains comprehensively neglected, and there has been no striking decrease of red tape and corruption. Agrarian distress and plight of the farmers were worsened. Even then, economic promises were in full swing from both sides. While the Congress program spoke of providing basic income to the poorest, and many other social issues, the BJP program also contained concrete targets with timeline. However, In February 2019, terrorist attacks in Pulwama, Kashmir, which caused death of almost 50 armed forces personnel and the following airstrikes by India in Balakot, Pakistan, turned the campaign towards national security and terrorism issues – this happened for the first time since the Indo-Pakistan war in 1971.     

In the age of post-truth, the carnivalesque nature of the campaign could not be without abuse of social media, dramatic spread of fake news, polarized content with occasional use of hate speech, to launching of NaMoTV via cable and satellite network (promoting Narendra Modi’s speeches and campaigns), attempts of release of Modi biopic (Фільм про біографію Моді) by BJP. The ECI did not allow the release of the biopic until the end of the elections. But it ruled prior approval of NaMoTV contents to its committee. Towards the end of the campaign, Modi’s solitary pilgrimage to the Kedarnath temple in the Himalayas and his meditation in the cave provided enough cinematic appeal, transcending the biopic. On April 12, 2019, during the time the elections were on-going, the news of President Putin awarding Modi the highest state decoration of Russia, Order of St. Andrew the Apostle, for exceptional services in promoting special and privileged strategic partnership between Russia and India, also acted as a personality booster.  To many, this signaled a departure from the support rendered to Gandhi family by Russia. Modi became the first representative of a democratic state to receive this award. Modi also got awards from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and South Korea. 

Unchallenged in charisma and oratory, Modi made the most judicious use of what could yield more votes, that is – appealing to the differences, appealing to the masses, not the elites, using people’s fear of terrorism, perpetrated by hostile elements within India. He did not send bland unifying messages. At the same time, he also did not encourage open hate speech against Gandhi. Pragya Thakur, a BJP activist’s praise of Gandhi’s assassin to be a patriot was condemned and the latter had to apologize. BJP’s “Political Hindutva” thus, was more of an electioneering tool, not a “battle of ideas”, as remarked by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Congress could not manage to win even after Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi, campaigned using their Gandhi family political and historical background. 

Dilemmas of Political Hindutva

Adherents of political Hindutva opine, that India’s power structure was constituted by Anglicizedor westernizedélitesand secularism has become a cultural symbol for contempt of Hinduism rather than a constitutional philosophy of toleration. Comfort of the élite with Congress’s “dynastic politics” as alleged by BJP, as well as the fact that other partiesalso are largely family fiefdoms whose intellectual legitimacy was sustained by élite intellectual culture. Hence BJP aims at cultural regeneration of Hindutva and an open assertion of cultural majoritarianismand anti-élitism, which will overstep caste differences. Opponents of Hindutva were certain that caste divisions will prevent from the shaping of a homogenous cultural Hindutva. Given the presence of upper caste people among non-Westernized elites as well as in current BJP leadership, the situation with Dalits, other religious minorities will be precarious. In most cases, In addition, there are risks that emerging leaders of BJP will be prone to interpret their winner’s mandate as an indulgence to impose their views and approaches on those who do not agree with them – with isolated instances of extremism like cow vigilantism and attacks on those consuming beef. To alleviate these fears, Modi has added two words “Sabka viswas” (Everybody’s trust) to his earlier inclusive slogan “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” (Together with Everybody, Development for everybody”). Time will say, how these inclusive attitude will permeate across the length and breadth and grassroots levels of BJP. 

RELATED ARTICLE: A tale of two Kashmirs: peace delayed or denied?

The Road Ahead

Issues that Modi has to deal with are many and all are of high priority. First – fragile relations with Pakistan. If there are more attacks from Pakistan-aided terrorists, that will cause hurdles on that road. Second, relations with China should stretch beyond trade and encompass strategic partnership, with no border disputes. Modi needs to create jobsat a rate of 10 million to 12 million a year—the number of Indians joining the workforce annually. Half the country’s population is under 27. Urban men between the ages of 20 and 24 make up 13.5 percent of the working-age population but an astounding 60 percent of the unemployed. The need to resolve trade disputes with US, related to India’s e-commerce policy of localizing all data, and US policy of suspending the generalized system of preferences status for India. 

Internally, Modi’s extraordinary charisma and abilities also show dangers of concentration of power and the deification and personification of one leader by the rank and file of BJP. Also, independent institutions, like the Supreme Court, Election Commission of India and the Armed Forces of India, should be kept away from the lures of political partisanship. Dissent and difference should not be silenced. The fundamental bases of a democracy cannot be compromised. For that, a viable opposition and a robust civil society, which will hold the government into account, is required. As Shashi Tharoor, winning member of Lok Sabha from Kerala writes, “Fights over symbolic aspects of identity need to be replaced by political competition over how to benefit all Indians. That will require an opposition in India far savvier and more in touch with the country’s poor than exists today.”

In his victory speech, Modi declared “this victory is for united India.” In Modi-fied India 2.0, minorities should not feel threatened, significant parts of the population economically empowered, and businesses grow, the ruling party in a democracy of 1.3 billion people should treat competitors as adversaries not as enemies.

By Mridula Ghosh

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