The country is in the midst of the poll season. This time, we seem to have come to a point where security during polling seems to have become a paramount issue.
Hence, elections have had to be staggered into seven phases from April 11 to May 19, 2019 to constitute the 17th Lok Sabha. Already, we are seeing unprecedented violence in West Bengal and Tripura. In the latter, there was violence even during the Assembly elections last year.
Violence used to be the hallmark of the Left-ruled states. Now, all have jumped on the bandwagon. It is ironic that the BJP and the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which are allies in the government, are today also the most violent. The IPFT attacked the Congress candidate from Tripura East, Pragya Deb Barman, during her election campaign. This has necessitated the shifting of the next polling date to April 23, after bringing in additional security reinforcements.
The first phase of polling in Tripura saw large-scale booth capturing. One would imagine that the Electoral Photo Identity Card (EPIC) would see a reduction in the number of imposters entering the polling booths or that the security bandobast would deter the imposters from indulging in such adventurism, but winning elections at any and all cost seems to be the sole intent of political parties across the board.
What has become a challenge for the Election Commission of India is also the number of complaints from rival parties about political contenders who stoop to any lengths to convince voters that they are the best bet. They are using caste and religion as baits despite clear instructions from the ECI that stern action would be taken against violators. In this fast and furious race, the notables are Mayawati, Maneka Gandhi, Yogi Aditya Nath and Azam Khan, amongst others.
Thankfully, the Election Commission has stepped up its vigil and is taking necessary action against these political deviants who have no respect for the diversity and constitutional values that this country professes and has professed for over 70 years. It is, of course, pointless to expect politicians who have not transcended their petty political aspirations to understand the democratic ethos of this country. For them it’s all or nothing. It’s only about grabbing power; governance has always taken a backseat.
The soft underbelly of democracy is being exposed every time politicians with no respect for democratic principles take the elevated podium of addressing voters with the purpose and intent of making them feel they are an exclusive category needing special privileges which the political leader alone is able to deliver. Such political messaging is divisive and exclusive and exposes the fact that India’s political class have always tried to find that vulnerable thread of caste and religion to goad people to vote on those lines.
The idea of India as a country of one people whose religious affiliations are varied have not been imbibed by the political class, because, for them it’s more important to win votes than to think of the larger goal and purpose of nation building. It is instructive that after 69 years, we have only degenerated as a democracy. Elections have succeeded in polarising the polity to a point where civil conversations on social networking sites is no longer possible. People take stiff position they are unwilling to jettison even when logic and reason speak otherwise.
Never before has politics divided the country as it has today. In fact, politicians now are busy coining words to hit at their rivals below the belt. The other day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while speaking to Times Now in an exclusive interview where he was allowed free rein of the time given without any tough questions fielded to him, introduced a word “hitting touch” which he says is the opposite of healing touch.
The PM was referring to his government’s policy on dealing with the convoluted mess in Kashmir. So the ‘healing touch’ is his government’s policy of dealing with victims of terror while the ‘hitting touch’ is reserved for the militants who inflict terror on unsuspecting victims. Perhaps the post Pulwama, assault by the Indian Air Force in Balakot inside Pakistani territory is Mr Modi’s idea of the ‘hitting touch.’
What makes this election quite critical is that the Supreme Court has had to step in and coerce the Election Commission of India to be more vigilant in curbing electoral excesses especially by way of remarks that clearly violate democratic principles of a country that has given to itself a Constitution that is ‘secular.’ Ironically, today, the numbers of Indians, who believe that India should be a ‘Hindu’ country because it was partitioned along religious lines, are on the rise.
Such bleeding heart radicals have imbibed an illogical ideology that the minorities in this country have been pampered by past governments and become vote banks of parties such as the Congress. This is a dangerous fault-line which if not addressed in the right spirit could result in religious extremism and a religious polarisation that will be impossible to bridge.
India, as many historians have held forth is a mature democracy. Yet we are we at a juncture when the institutions that are to uphold democracy – the executive, legislature, judiciary and the press as an outlier have failed to live up to the ideals that the framers of the Constitution aspired to. This is a time when we need to explore our prejudices and examine our long term goals.
Why is the BJP, a party that has been in the driving seat for five years, unable to give an account of its achievements without resorting to cheap rhetoric and getting personal with its rivals? Granted that five years is too short a time to unbundle the mess and corruption of decades but that could have been pointed out without the acrimony that marks the political discourse today.
Why is the Congress party as an opposition stooping to calling the Prime Minister of the country a ‘thief?’ The Prime Minister does not represent himself; he represents the country. If he is a thief, then every Indian is by extension a thief too. To counter the Congress, the BJP and all who believe in the party’s ideology are today calling themselves ‘chowkidars’ (watchmen) guarding the resources of the country which they believed have been pilfered in the past by governments that have been derelict in their duties.
Yes, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, has lowered the electoral discourse with his coinage of the demeaning phrase “Chowkidar chor hai,” (the watchman as thief) in a lewd reference to Modi. The Congress president accuses Prime Minister Modi of stealing from the Rafael deal to bail out Anil Ambani, the failed businessman. All was fine with this blame game narrative until Rahul Gandhi dragged in the Supreme Court to buttress his own allegations of corruption against Modi.
Now, the Congress president has landed himself with a contempt of court notice on a petition from a BJP MP, Meenakshi Lekhi. The Supreme Court has warned politicians not to attribute any meaning to court orders while addressing election rallies or while speaking to the media unless such views, observations or findings are recorded by the court. This is in the fairness of things. Politicians cannot drag every institution, the judiciary included, to their level of political bickering.
Another assault on the secular fabric of the country was launched by the BJP when it fielded a terror accused Sadhvi Pragya Thakur to fight the Congress’ loudmouth politician, Digvijay Singh, from Madhya Pradesh. Pragya Thakur is out on bail after she was arrested for the Malegaon blasts in 2008. She only joined the BJP very recently. And her first public statement antagonised the police force of the country when she said that Hemant Karkare, chief of the Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), who was killed in the terror attack of 2008 in Mumbai, died because she had cursed him.
The Sadhvi later retracted her outrageous statement but not before right thinking people of the country balked at her audacity. Pragya Thakur is supposed to counter the term ‘Hindu terror’ coined by Digvijay Singh and to redeem ‘Hindu pride’ by defeating him.
There is very little talk of governance beyond the semantics loaded in the manifestos of political parties which we all know are bereft of seriousness. The public is aware that many of the promises made are meant to be broken. Few would of course be misled by the promise of largesse, only to be disappointed.
India today is at a juncture when its democratic values are under threat. It is futile to expect politicians to mend the fissures they have created. It is for the people of India to reclaim those attributes of our democratic traditions that have held us together as a nation.
In India’s Northeast, there is an uneasy calm as states head for the third phase of polling. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the electorate which fears a large-scale Hindu immigration from Bangladesh to occupy the already scarce economic space of the region. There are indeed tentative times.
(Patricia Mukhim is a social activist, writer, journalist and the editor of The Shillong Times. Recipient of various honours of national and international repute, she was also bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2000 by the government of India. She tweets at @meipat. Views expressed above are her own)