Inside Story

One election, two dramas

India’s election is about much more than which party will govern

Robin Jeffrey 10 May 2024 1411 words

Prime minister Narendra Modi at the Sri Venkateswara Swamy Temple in Andhra Pradesh last November. Prime Minister’s Office

Two dramas are playing out in India during its six-week, seven-stage elections, the second-longest voting period in its electoral history. Polling began on 19 April; the third round was on 7 May; the results will be known on 4 June.

The immediate drama is the election. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has been heavily favoured to win a third five-year term.

The other drama is bigger: what is the essence of India? Is it a union of diverse groups bound by cultural affinities and a seventy-four-year-old constitution? Or is it a Hindu nation cleaved apart over ten centuries by callous foreign invaders and only now being reborn in its natural Hindu unity?

The election campaign began with Mr Modi calling on his cadres and millions of loyalists to give him and his party an additional seventy seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. That would take the BJP total to 370 seats in a house of 543, a handy two-thirds majority for carrying through constitutional amendments. With allied parties, BJP enthusiasts spoke of winning more than 400 seats to surpass the majority achieved by the Congress party in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

The BJP is awash with funds; it has cowed most newspapers and television channels into obsequiousness; and it commands armies of IT specialists and eager trolls. It also has a solid economic story from which to cherry-pick for a campaign based on development and prosperity.

The campaign began with a confident parade of achievements. After the first two rounds of voting, however, turnout was down from the 2019 elections. (It fell again by 2 per cent in the third round). The likely impact on the results led some bold analysts even to suggest the BJP might be hard-pressed to equal their 300 seats of the 2019 elections.

Mr Modi’s tone changed. His “economic growth and prosperity” campaign line was replaced by “internal threats and external grandeur.” He turned on the sly anti-Muslim rhetoric that he was noted for during his long tenure as chief minister of the state of Gujarat.

On 21 April, the Indian Express front-paged one of his speeches: PM ON MUSLIMS: CONG[RESS] WILL GIVE YOUR WEALTH TO “THOSE WITH MORE CHILDREN.” “Those with more children” is code for Muslims, and plays on the false fear that Muslim birth-rates will one day make Hindus a minority. (Muslims represent no more than 15 per cent of India’s 1.4 billion people.)

Mr Modi followed up the next day with a speech in which he declared that the Congress party, if elected, would give away to Muslims the gold ornament worn by millions of married Hindu women. By 7 May, national cricket teams were under threat from the Congress party’s love of Muslims: if Congress came to power, the prime minister told a rally, it “will now decide who will be in and out of the cricket team on the basis of religion.”

Here, the election campaign intersects with questions about India’s new global greatness and about the essence of India itself. The recent acrimony between India and Canada, and between India and the United States, over the murder and planned murders of Sikh Canadians and Sikh Americans, has played well with many BJP supporters. For them, it shows that India has become a great power, capable of doing the ruthless things other great powers do.

The alleged targets of the murder conspiracies were provocative advocates for the creation a sovereign Sikh state in India to be called Khalistan. Mr Modi considers them terrorists, harboured by the Canadians and Americans; he celebrated the murders of such people in a speech summed up by an Indian Express page one headline: PM: TERROR SPREADS IN WEAK GOVTS, MODI GOVT ENTERS HOMES OF TERRORISTS & KILLS.

India’s twenty-five million Sikhs constitute less than 2 per cent of the national population, but another two million live overseas, primarily in Canada, Britain and the United States, with more than 150,000 in Australia. Their faith originated in the fifteenth century in the Punjab, the rich lands around five rivers in the northwest of “the subcontinent.”

Punjab had a Sikh ruler for nearly forty years at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But when Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in 1839, the British took advantage of succession struggles, gobbled up Punjab and happily enlisted Sikh soldiers into their colonial armies. At independence, the region was divided between India and Pakistan, and most Sikhs fled to India during the brutal transfer of populations in 1947.

The origins of today’s rhetoric about Khalistan, a Sikh homeland, go back forty-five years to a time when Indira Gandhi, defeated in elections in 1977, was searching for allies in her struggle to return to power. In Punjab, her supporters lent support to a talented singer of Sikh religious songs named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Bhindranwale was intended to be a puppet whose influence could be turned to the advantage of Mrs Gandhi’s allies. Instead, he became a power in his own right, reviving dreams of an independent Sikh state.

This chapter ended bloodily in 1984–85. The Indian army, instructed to evict Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, found itself fighting a two-day battle in Sikhism’s most important shrine; four months later, Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards. Horrific rioting and murders of Sikhs followed, and in June 1985 an Air India plane was blown up off the coast of Ireland with a bomb that originated in Canada.

An insurgency in Punjab, which found backing in Pakistan and overseas, bled into the early 1990s. The idea of a Sikh state survived, especially among some Sikhs overseas.

This history is one of the ghosts haunting the current elections. Today, Punjab state is governed by the Aam Admi (or common man’s) party, a new political force whose chief minister is of course a Sikh. The national leader of the party, Arvind Kejriwal, fifty-five, is the chief minister of the union territory of Delhi, winner of two elections and one of a few younger politicians in India who generate enthusiasm.

The BJP’s view of Aam Admi is evident in the fact that Kejriwal has been in jail since the end of March on the decree of the Enforcement Directorate, a central government agency whose brief is to pursue corruption. If the Aam Admi party can be humbled wherever it runs candidates, particularly in the nation’s capital and in Punjab, it will be a point of pride for Mr Modi and his colleagues.

The Punjab story illustrates the awesome complexity of India. This election is not simply about the BJP winning a third term; it is an election about the essence of India.

The BJP and its ideologues see only one way of being true to the nation. To validate that vision and be able to say that it is the view of the people, the party needs endorsement from regions where it has not yet been dominant — the south, the east, northeast and the northwest. The states on these fringes return 214 members to parliament; the BJP won about a third of them in 2019.

The BJP envisages India as a single unit from time immemorial, united by the wisdom of ancient Hindu texts and practices. That unity, however, has been torn and attacked for a thousand years by foreign invaders, Muslims and the British. The BJP project is to retrieve and enhance that natural, all-embracing, Hindu-dominant unity. The doctrine is called Hindutva, the creation of a Hindu-supremacist state.

The contrary view, and the one that has largely prevailed since 1947, is that India is a mini-miracle: a democratic federation, more than twice the population of the European Union and more diverse, that has grown relatively peacefully for more than seventy years. The Indian union, in this view, draws on India’s cultural commonalities, accepts its local variations and allows its states to deal with local issues while willingly embracing the political union.

For many of the BJP’s members and followers, expressing such views puts a person in the tukde tukde gang — those leftists, liberals and foes of the true India who aim to break up the country “bit by bit.”

If Narendra Modi and his party win the thundering victory they hope for, they will have all the powers they need to drive towards the tightly bound, homogenised India that Hindutva envisions. A central government will enjoy even more powers than it currently exercises, and Christians, Muslims and members of the tukde tukde gang can expect short shrift. •