Why India’s Grand Old Party Lost: A Roundup
by Medha Singh
Amartya Sen is reasonable in saying that Narendra Modi, re-elected as Prime Minister of India last week, has simply won the vote share, but not the battle of ideas. However, this election’s last leg has been nothing but a feculent, cheap fight over whether Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse was a patriot or not. It embarrassed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) itself to such a degree that the person uttering this filth, Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, was finally made to apologize. The narrative of the banned Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the nationalist religious outfit, RSS) has found its space in mainstream debate. Make of that what you will, Dr. Sen. We want to believe you, but the majoritarians are here.
The National Democratic Alliance gained a landslide victory, with the BJP scoring a clear majority. The coalition won 352 out of the total 543 seats. It’s still unclear if it may be fair to say that the victory was earned. This was a technological war from the beginning and the mandate is still unreliable. There was enough fake news, and given that the conversation around EVM fraud is still happening at a national level, there is no point talking about a clear mandate.
If we are ever to have free and fair elections in this country again, the struggle has to be a collective one that takes back the story of our nation, and pushes its agenda in favour of the ballot. Democracy boils down to a material truth, and it is pitiable that we’re talking about a machine, a thing and not an idea, to think of the voter’s agency in the democratic process.
This may be an appropriate time to list where the only major opposition that could have defeated the BJP went horribly, terribly wrong. The Indian National Congress, that would have done well to oust the divisive and monstrous regime of the BJP, was completely ill-prepared for this election. It’s not enough to say that they are a dynastic party, and that the anti incumbency fuelled by this nepotism was a repeat of the defeat that the Congress faced in 2014. This was, of course, a major problem. However, the BJP is just as dynastic as the Congress party. So, what gives?
For one, the Indian National Congress (INC) failed to form enough strategic alliances and emerge as a threat to the Centre with a ‘Mahagathbandhan’, as was projected earlier. They lost popularity among the Sikhs this time in appointing Kamal Nath as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. It was a blunder in its own league, given his role in the 1984 riots. However, within Nath’s own state, the failure to deliver farm loan waivers, was the major factor in this embarrassing electoral thrashing.
Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan was clearly too busy campaigning for his son Vaibhav, who ran from Jodhpur. Now, Mr. Gehlot deservedly faces heat from his own party for the same. This is not unfounded. He was propped up by the central leadership of the party, and owed his foremost allegiance to his prime ministerial candidate, Rahul Gandhi. Somewhere along the way, he forgot about it.
Uttar Pradesh is another story. Do read this. The other major state that they lost was West Bengal, which was surprising to some, in a largely leftist state, notorious for their goondaism. To others it comes as no surprise that systematic patriarchal violence needs a buttress, not a party line to find its way into mainstream discourse.
Apart from the fact that the INC released their manifesto late, (well thought out, sensitive, researched and thorough as it may have been, with gender and mental health issues at the forefront for a first) on the 2nd of April, it appeared a week before the elections started. They also looked under-prepared in their communication tactics. No one was interested at that point in a large document. The Pulwama terror attacks in Kashmir had already happened on the 14th of February, and the INC was tactlessly busy in criticizing the government’s shifting story on the non militarized strike in Balakot. Only saying ‘we stand with the government’ at an AICC (All India Congress Committee) press briefing was not sufficient. They had to rethink their communications strategy in view of a national tragedy such as the death of 49 Indian soldiers at the hands of a terrorist group. The INC ought to have jumped on the bandwagon of a nationalist narrative, and try to pitch it as secular, make it play for them, rather than to undermine it and fall into the hands of the mindless rhetoric of Hindutva ‘anti-nationalist’ nonsense.
The NYAY scheme, or minimum basic income scheme, could have been used very well, were it not advertised to the inappropriate economic group. Their social media team spent an enormous time advertising it online to middle and upper class voters, who knew all too well their taxes were to go into funding this scheme (despite Rahul Gandhi saying they won’t), while the percentage of the total population of those living in poverty, for whom the scheme was intended, is 46%, and this class seemed to know little to nothing about the program. This economic strata are either unemployed or have working class jobs with demanding, labour intensive work and long hours, to ever have time for leisure left over at the end of the day for social media; and even if they do, one doubts they give two hoots about what the party handles are up to in their daily twitter wars. It’s simply banal.
Despite what Meghnad Desai said, the INCs unwillingness to defeat a nationalist, Hindutva, majoritarian narrative cost them. Priyanka Gandhi had no business frequenting temples to appease Pujaris (Hindu priests). If that was the idea, she ought to have gone into a mosque, a gurudwara, a Church, a synagogue and a Buddhist monastery all the same. Or completely thrown the idea of religion into the waste basket. Playing on the Hindutva advocated by the BJP, when they should have been pushing for an alternative secular narrative, was myopic of them – as this simply strengthened the BJP that was (and is) pushing Hindutva full force – giving this anti secular thinking the validation and rudder it needed. They had no chance at swinging the Hindu voters their way. The INC’s advocation of a ‘soft Hindutva’ was also a symbolic abdication of their own historical narrative.
Balakot. Balakot. Balakot. If India weren’t already mired in the foggy rhetoric of what we now sadly know as Hindutva nationalism, this would have been a good thing. To say that it looked like a deliberate security lapse, that both Indian and Pakistani fundamentalism stood to gain from this mess, and that Mr. Modi arrived hours late for the condolence meet for the martyrs (as he was busy with a vanity project) may well have been true, but entirely ineffective for their own agenda. If the INC were pushing the Rafale scam (that, frankly, did not have any legs until N. Ram brought out the papers), they needed to remain focused on it. On Jobs. On the Economy.
Electronic Voting Machines. Or EVMs as they are known, are a controversial topic, and happen to be each time the elections turn up. One would be be amazed to find that the the BJP has maintained a convenient silence around the fact that one of their own party members had authored a book casting suspicion on their validity and verifiability. However, here is everything you need to know about them, and what was not being spoken about.
At first, about 1900,000 machines went missing, without being accounted for by the ECIL. Then, on May 21st, a story surfaced about goons robbing 500 of these machines in Arunachal Pradesh. After that, several videos of these EVMs being carried off to unknown places surfaced on Twitter. Even in West Bengal, Mr. Sitaram Yechury alleges polling inconsistencies.The opposition is alleging foul play, certainly, but people also did vote in favour of the BJP.
Meanwhile, the Election Commission lost all credibility in the eyes of its own people, as former law minister Ashwini Kumar rightly said. The security breach of the strongrooms is a major factor contributing to this pervasive odium that the EC has garnered.
To quote an article in The Wire:
Nevertheless, the report asserts that, 479 randomly selected booths were enough to assert the fairness of EVMs at the 99.9936% confidence level. To understand this, it’s instructive to recall the renowned statistician George Box’s quote, “All models are wrong but some are useful.” Even the best statistical procedure is subject to chance and hence errors. Assuming there are no mismatches between EVM and VVPAT slips in the randomly sampled booths, confidence levels, as mentioned in the so-called “ISI Report”, describe the uncertainty of the procedure in the long run. In simple terms, the claims of the ISI report imply that if 479 EVMs are randomly sampled many times, then in 64 out of 10,000 times the system would be unfair and the mismatch might go undetected.
There are approximately 10.35 lakh EVMs used in this election and so even according to this model, the way the EC is conducting the so called “audit” runs the risk of many undetected errors. Correct counting of votes cannot be left to chance and so statistical estimation and random sampling in the context of counting of votes should not even be an option. The right to a secret verified ballot is the most fundamental right of a citizen, and the verified slip, and not the opaque EVM machine should be counted as that ballot, otherwise it is akin to the state surreptitiously stealing the most fundamental right of a citizen. Counting anything less than 100% of the VVPATs must ideally be deemed unconstitutional.
Looking back, the INC may benefit in the future by projecting Mayawati as an appropriate candidate, a BloombergQuint article does a good job of explaining this. The only way to defeat a fascist force is through the voices of the most disenfranchised: for India its her Dalits, her Adivasis/tribals, its women and Muslims. Maywati crosses two out of those four categories, and possesses the assiduousness that Rahul Gandhi lacks. She’s been a leader among leaders for far longer than most in the party.
Here is some hope: on the up side, India has not lost out on her ideas, she’s rich and brimming with them. Innumerable subcultures exist and so do both pockets of resistance, and entire movements that will continue their fight in their struggle towards national representation, as they always have. The very fabric of our independence and nationhood relies on protest and peaceful dissent. This is what Gandhi gave us. We come into the light with a renewed resolve.
An Open Letter to Liberal Idiocy
There is one last, major thing that needs to be addressed here. Liberals and their communication tactics. What was seen as a trend across social media platforms, was a strange, emergent cognitive bias. Liberals in the 18-35 age group—who usually happen to come from middle to upper middle class backgrounds—using authoritarian registers to put their points across. Patronizing leftists, telling them they don’t need to ‘feel attacked’ (especially if they are women, Muslims or Dalits, presuming a rage that isn’t there when met with legitimate arguments), and that they are on the ‘same side’, while smugly offering their own glib view of the ‘real world’ and ‘common sense’, or versions of these tendencies one way or another. When one employs the patronizing tactics of those on the right, it takes away from the substance of the argument, and betrays your subconscious subordination to authority.
One thing is clear, these kids have conveniently stayed away from politics their whole lives until now because they could not be bothered, because they could afford to, up until now when it really has started to matter. They need to learn that voting once in four years is not sufficient political action, free speech and free will don’t hold water when there is such a massive debate about whether your vote was counted at all.
Though I’ve publicly declared and extolled the virtues of being decent and maintaining your cool in argument in a polarizing world, I did find myself frustrated, at my wit’s end, dealing with some of these smug think tank, economist, lawyer types.
There is a personal responsibility of recognizing one’s role in India’s story, gaining and spreading awareness, being thorough and learning to stick to your guns in an argument, even if it means losing friends and lovers. There is no difference between the political and the personal. Stop stalling if you want to live and breathe in a free world. There is no time.
About the Author:
Medha Singh is a researcher for The Raza Foundation. She functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems and interviews have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She tweets at @LunchSoiled from within the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer.
Photograph by Nick Kenrick via Flickr (cc).