Indian election is massive, in all its manner. It is a massive practice in democracy, a massive logistical undertaking, a massive proposition of faith in election commission officials, a massive opportunity of power, and a massive gamble about the fate of a billion people. With all its massiveness either you are at awe at it, or you become absolutely distrustful of such large scale “democracy of the masses”.
Just look at the numbers at play here. In this election more than 900 million voters registered to vote in 1 million polling stations around the country. Among them, more than 80 thousand polling stations lack mobile connectivity, and nearly 20 thousand are in forest or semi-forest areas. The Indian Election Commission takes up the task of creating this election universe and ensuring that every voter gets to vote. It mobilized 5 million workers this year for the election. Some of them would have to walk for eight days to reach their polling center, such can be the remoteness of the electoral constituencies.
Such numbers ought to raise a tingling in the corner of the mind regarding the faith of the population of the electoral process as well as democracy in general. According to the Pew Research Center study in 2018, 64% Indian adults think that most politicians are corrupt, and 33% think that elected officials care about what ordinary people think. In terms of elections, 58% think that no matter who wins, things do not change very much.Yet 54% people think that they are satisfied with the state of democracy in India. With so many corrupt politicians who don’t care about thoughts of the people, how can one explain the faith of the people about democracy? Perhaps all is well, or perhaps there is a point missing in this understanding. Nonetheless, here was an election five weeks long, deciding much of the lives of 1.3 billion people in India, and quite some more in the region.
With the election being over and now that we have results, lots of analysis by lots of very learned and unlearned people and pundits will come to the fore, whether we want it or not. Indian TV channels will dedicate additional screen space for flickering news flashes, tickers, scrolls, emergencies, and pop ups. Catchy terms and slogans will cover the airwaves for days to come. Perhaps one that already seems to take most of the space is TsuNaMo, as the Indian election coverage map is painted in the Saffron colors of BJP. But beyond what the results will bring, perhaps we should also take into consideration what the election process has already done.
Elections are not just about the results. It has its own life, own characteristics, whims and demands. Beyond the mind boggling logistical statistics, the mega high bill charged to the Indian tax payers, there are lots of others things that go around an election. Some are seen, some are unseen, and some can only been felt deep within the gut.
Elections in South Asia unleash passions unlike anything. Memories stir up, as well as the long-lasting feuds. Elections are national events, yet they are more so local – much more so. This is a time for the turf war in the grassroots. No wonder it has the power to affect our lives, whether we want it or not. Local rivalries, domination for power and influence, control over resources – local and central, and authority to exploit the state mechanism are all up for grabs in this winner takes it all game. The stakes are always high in the society of eternal competition. No wonder it becomes a matter of life and death very quickly.
This Indian election roused up nationalistic passion unlike any other. By doing so it attacked the very foundational idea of India – its pluralism. While now the conversation is around Hindu religion, soon this will manifest into various other exclusionary norms. It will not be enough to just be Hindu, one must also speak Hindi, one must perform this ritual over that etc. etc. Unchecked nationalism that discards the premise of a pluralist society easily slides into a nightmarish form of control.
Will this bandwagon of nationalism come under some sort of sensible control in the post-election period? Or have we entered into a territory where this becomes the new norm? By crossing the threshold of what can be said and not, what can be accepted and not, have we permanently altered the mainstream and created a new one? Only time will tell, but history is not so kind to the hopeful.
If previous elections give us any hint then it would only point to the very high possibility of post-election violence by the victor over the vanquished. The days of the kings are gone, but the instincts of their royal revenge are very much around us. Minority groups, especially Muslims in India, who have been singularly targeted in this election campaign that focused around the narrative of religion, are scared for their future. Some are worried about the immediate aftermath since mob violence and vigilante justice are visibly a part of the current political culture. Others think about the long term future of them and their children.
Has this election seen more of the divide and exclude, the “us and them” tactic than many others in the past? Possibly so. Once the genie of who is a citizen and who is not (in Assam) is out of the bottle, do the mighty rulers think that they can put it back so easily by invoking the chants of Judicial review and so on? Will this attempt to put a lid on the problem actually stop the now victorious people to be a true patriot and take matters into their own hands?
The pre-election narrative, slogans and plans by candidates and their supporters included lots of vitriol and hate. Now as they are empowered and emboldened by the mandate of the majority people, would they really not act on their words, even a little bit?
A similar narrative exists around the Kashmiris. Why, they could be the most cursed ones in these plethora of narratives. Since fruits closely resemble bombs, it is a duty upon a patriotic person to oust these troublemakers from the society by invoking the chants of patriotism. As the TsuNaMo flows where will the voices of the Kashmiris go in the coming years?
But perhaps above all, the single most powerful factor in this election is the internet. Call it the digital space, the WhatsApp wave, or the virtual realm, there is no doubt that platforms, messenger services and communicators are now an integral part of how politicking is done. Not to mention that the expert utilization of the imagery plays a much powerful role over rhetoric. As we looked, liked and shared the photo of a meditating pilgrim in saffron robes in Kedarnath among the peaks of the Himalayan mountains, soon it becomes blurry if we are looking at a man or a God, the imagery of which we are so used to in South Asia. And Gods are to be worshipped.
But let’s not forget about the millions of people who are not inside India, but will be affected by this election nonetheless. Not only the results, but the process of this election will have an impact on how elections are perceived and conducted in the region. Like it or not Indian elections will set the standards in the neighboring area. After all, with all the media attention to this being world’s largest democratic process, much will become norm just by the sheer size, numbers and repetitions. For, everyone will say, “Look at India.”
When Indian contestants are finding ways and methods to subvert the election commission rules , why would a contestant in a smaller country care to follow the rules? “Look at India.”
When majoritarian narratives with the touch of nationalism is used in the other countries, why will anything think that is not right? “Look at India.”
When division and exclusion in the society and the populace be advised and turned into hot election slogans, who will revive the ideas of pluralism, multiculturalism, and tolerance? “Look at India.”
When ruling regimes will take up the entire space for narrative and imagery projection to the populace, and thus choke out the opposition, who will stop them? “Look at India.”
Countries have been called great powers throughout history for many reasons. India with its immensely rich history, and with its star-like political leaders of the past can choose the path of leading by example. While we are quick to dismiss the moral compass these days, in the end that is what ensures a lasting influence and leadership over others.
Asheque Haque researches politics and security in South Asia. He can be reached on Twitter @ashequeh