A case of distorted democracy?
The outcome came as a shock for people who admire India's secular political traditions. On May 16, the results were announced for the elections to India's parliament, the Lok Sabha. Held in 9 rounds over a period of many weeks, India's national elections are described as the largest, most massive exercise in vote casting worldwide. Yet this year's outcome even at first sight is worrisome, to say the least.
Riding on a wave of aspirations of India's thriving urban middle classes, and lavishly supported by the corporate sector, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which champions a Hindu-nationalist agenda gained an absolute majority of parliamentary seats. More ominous still, the electoral coalition headed by the BJP, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), succeeded in bagging over three-fifth of all seats in the new Lok Sabha. On the other hand, the Congress Party which has been ruling India during the last two consecutive terms was virtually decimated. Its share of parliamentary seats has been reduced to roughly a fifth its former size, to just 44 seats today. What are the implications of this upheaval in Indian politics? Is India heading for long-term consolidation of extreme right-wing rule, as some observers fear? Or is the picture less bleak?
First, there is little doubt that the outcome of India's recent elections reflects further communalisation of the country's politics. Whereas the minority of Muslims constitute some 17% of the country's total population, they are poorly represented in the new parliament, with only 20 in 543 seats. Being afraid in view of the BJP's past record of instigating Hindu-Muslim religious tensions, most Muslims refrained from giving their vote to the BJP or any of its allies. This is true in particular for Muslims in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), which holds 80 seats in the Lok Sabha. Here, the BJP's electoral strategy had banked on both communalism and caste politics. In the state's Northern region around Bahraich, for instance, the party sought to reach out to dalit (outcaste) and low-caste Hindus by reviving the memory of an 11th century Hindu king -- at the expense of the martyred Muslim saint whom the king had defeated in combat. This saint, Salar Masood, is venerated by Muslims and Hindus alike. Keeping in mind the gruesome communal riots that have rocked Muzaffarnagar in the western part of Uttar Pradesh in August/September of last year -- which had resulted in scores of deaths and in over 40 thousand people displaced -- the state's Muslims largely refused to vote for BJP or NDA candidates.
Will the election outcome lead to a further deterioration in the interreligious atmosphere? How will it affect the Hindu-Muslim divide? It is middle class aspirations in favour of maximum growth and 'development' that have primarily driven these elections. Hence, the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who gained notoriety for having failed to prevent and who abetted the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujrat, may well opt to spend his government's energies cautiously. And there are other factors that may put him on guard.
For one, monopolisation of power is complicated by the fact that the BJP did not score well in (most) Southern states. In Tamil Nadu for instance, the Tamil regional party led by Jayalalitha, the AIADMK, won a landslide victory: it won 37 of this state's 39 seats, while the BJP gained just one. In Kerala and in the two states of bifurcated Andhra Pradesh, the party's show was relatively poor too. Karnataka is the one state in the South where the BJP has made significant inroads. Here the Hindutva party rose to prominence in the 1990s thanks partly to a nasty communal campaign aimed at undermining the syncretic, Hindu-Muslim worship around a famous shrine, i.e. the thousand year old cave-shrine of Sufi saint Dada Hayat. In Karnataka, the BJP managed to bag 17 of 28 seats.
Another factor emerges when the number of BJP's seats (282 in 543 seats) is compared with the party's share of votes. India's electoral system is not based on proportional representation. Instead, candidates are elected on the basis of electoral districts. In consequence, there can arise a discrepancy between a party's results as measured by number of seats gained and the actual number of people who voted for its candidates. In India's latest Lok Sabha elections, this discrepancy is large. Thus, whereas the BJP gained a majority of seats, its voter share was a mere 31%, implying a discrepancy of more than 20 %! Figures for discrepancies in individual states are even more startling. Thus, according to Indian newspaper reports there are at least 6 states where the Hindutva party won a number of seats that in percentage terms was double or nearly double the vote share it obtained. In UP, the BJP's vote-share was 42.3%, whereas it got 71 in 80 seats. In Rajasthan, only 54.9% of voters chose the party, yet it could pocket all the state's seats. In New Delhi, its voter share was 46.4%; here again the party pocketed all seats. Similar discrepancies were registered for Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh.
These data, however, do not just illustrate that India's formal electoral system -- like that of many Western states -- tends to offer distorted results. The comparison between data on voters' and seats' shares brings this out with indisputable clarity. Yet the lesson to be drawn on the Lok Sabha elections stretches well beyond this obvious point. Campaign funding by corporate capital towards India's latest national elections was overwhelmingly biased in favour of the BJP. This party alone could muster huge advertisements in the country's newspapers, could undertake prolonged advertising via internet/the social media, and in addition had a huge edge over all other parties, including the Congress, in terms of access to TV broadcasting stations. In spite of this, there was no groundswell of overwhelming popular sympathy for the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Modi, and a safe majority of voters and the electorate voted for parties opposed to the BJP's Hindutva politics.
Clearly, these facts constitute a source of encouragement for Jayalalitha's AIADMK and other regional parties likely to form a joint opposition bloc in India's new parliament. Narendra Modi is likely to focus one-sidedly on infrastructural projects and investment oriented growth so as to ensure double-digit growth, as is desired by India's restless IT professionals and educated urban youngsters. He will probably ignore progressive demands for more egalitarianism, for protection of India's natural wealth and for planned disposal of waste. Yet in case his government overtly opts to exploit and enhance religious divisions, this is likely to arouse widespread indignation -- including by sections of the country's aspiring middle classes.
The writer is International Correspondent of The Daily Star.