The dust has settled on India’s most massive, noisy, expensive and bitterly fought election. This was no ordinary election. What was waged was no less than a battle for India’s soul.
No election in the country’s history has left the moral, social and political landscape of India so profoundly divided. Never has the triumphalism and euphoria of the supporters of the winning side contrasted so starkly with such despair and desolation of the people, who feel that it is they — and not merely the parties they support — who have been vanquished.
In the puzzling arithmetic of India’s first-past-the-post election system, only one in three voters backed the winning side, whereas two voted against it. Who are the winners of the 2014 elections, who voted for the ascendant political formation and who celebrate its conquest as their own? They include not just large numbers of India’s urban middle and upper classes — its influential cheerleaders — but also people Narendra Modi describes as the ‘neo-middle class’ or the aspirational class: Those who have not yet entered the middle class, but are hopeful, impatient and ambitious to benefit from India’s growth story, dreaming of well-paid jobs, plastic cards, bulging shopping-bags and mounting EMIs. Many among these are first-time voters, between 18 and 22 years. The third and most decisive support has been of a unified Hindu votebank, with a blurring of most caste-lines and significant recruitment even from the subaltern castes.
Who then are the losers of this election, the two in three voters who opposed the victorious political formation? There is first the secular Indian; an anguished friend wrote to me that she hoped history would forgive us for what we have become. I do not mean just the numerically small upper-class liberal elite, but millions of ordinary Indians in the small towns and villages of the country who — in the ways they live their lives — oppose ideologies of difference and divisiveness and uphold an unequal but intensely pluralist civilisation.
The second set of losers are India’s minorities, especially Muslims but also Christians, who are stunned and frightened by the scale of majoritarian consolidation, unmatched even by the aftermath of Partition and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the two lowest points in communal relations in independent India. Muslim friends confessed to have wept when they heard the results. In a low-income Muslim settlement in Delhi, there was an unusual air of uneasy quietude the evening of the results. ‘Mussalman khauf kha gaya hai’ (Muslims are in fear), a resident explained. Also in dread of a renewed homophobic backlash are India’s sexual minorities.
The third set of losers are India’s very poor people — footloose migrant workers, landless farm labourers, forest dwellers displaced from their depleting forests, farmers driven to despair and suicide, weavers and artisans threatened to extinction, and women in unpaid or under-paid work, over 200 million people who still sleep hungry, over 100 million people condemned to the squalor of slums, young people who never had the chance to go to school, and people for whom each health emergency is a catastrophe which pushes them further into penury. These forgotten exiles from hope are also exiles from the triumphs and promises of this election.
The emphatic rejection by significant sections of the voters of the out-going Congress-led government is interpreted by the winners as the decisive rejection of – maybe even the deathblow to – ideas of both secularism and the welfare State. I believe that this is a grave misreading of the message of the voters. It is the performance of the government on these two yardsticks of secularism and welfare which have been rightly rejected by the electorate. But the ideas themselves remain critical for the survival and well-being of a country of such immense diversity of belief-systems and ways of life, and of so many million residents who still live in abject and hopeless poverty and want.
I grieve not at the blow to the opportunistic secularism of all the political parties which lay claim to this ideology, but to the secularism of Gandhi and the freedom movement, and the pluralism in the lived reality of the majority of ordinary Indians, their instinctive respect for all cultures and religions (including even the rejection of religion). It was an article of faith for many of us that the BJP could never secure a majority on its own because the majority of Indians — Hindu, Muslim and of other faiths — are opposed to divisive ideologies. But in this election, not still a majority but sufficient numbers voted for the aggressive majoritarianism of the BJP to give it a mandate to rule on its own.
Many also interpret the election mandate as the death-knell of the idea of welfare and social protection. In the development model on offer, the State will encourage private investment and pull back on direct State interventions for good-quality universal government schools and health centres, direct job creation and nutrition. But India’s high-growth years threw up few jobs. The experience of no country in the world demonstrates that the health and educational needs of poor households can be met adequately by private profit-led enterprises instead of the State.
Many people who regard themselves as the losers of this election are bracing for a long and dark winter, of majoritarian State and social domination, of active State discrimination against religious, sexual and other minorities, and of the rigours caused by the dismantling of the architecture of welfare and social protection. I believe instead that this is a time for critical reflection and regrouping, for reclaiming and re-energising the ideas and practice of pluralism and social democracy, and for new social and political movements for social solidarities between people of diverse faiths, cultures, castes, classes and social mores.
Ideologies centered on majoritarian domination and the individualist material progress may have won this round of battle. But the larger battle for the hearts and minds of our young people must and will be won in the end by the ideas of justice, solidarity, public compassion and reason. I am convinced that today’s masses of losers are ultimately — in the battle for the soul of India — on the right side of history.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal