The battle against the far-right: Indian Elections 2019

Peoples Dispatch takes a look the 2019 Indian election process, who are the major actors, the position of the left parties and what is at stake.

May 20, 2019 by V. Arun Kumar
Image: NewsClick

Yesterday, the two-month long general elections in the South Asian country of India came to a close. In these elections around 900 million eligible voters had an  the future of the country. The election is happening in seven phases from April 11 to 19 May. The election is considered one of the most crucial in the history of the country as the survival of democracy itself is at stake. The last general elections held in 2014, witnessed the rise of Hindu far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power.

In 2014, BJP along with 40 odd center-right to far-right wing parties managed to secure a majority of 336 seats out of 545 in the lower house (Lok Sabha) of the parliament. Their rise was attributed to ultra-nationalist and Hindutva (far-right Hindu politics) policies and anti-incumbency sentiments against the centrist Indian National Congress (INC). Narendra Modi was made the Prime Minister. Modi is a controversial figure for his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim massacre in Western state of Gujarat. He was the chief minister of the state when anti-Muslim violence broke out in 2002, in which more than 1,500 people were massacred.

The rise of the right wing in India has led to weakening of country’s democratic institutions and also increasing state and fringe violence against activists, dissenting voices, women, dalits, tribal communities, minorities and academics. India has witnessed a new level of violence, with Muslim people being lynched and killed by right wing mob and members of Gau Rakshaks [cow protectors].

Apart from the violence, the economic policies in favor of privatization and corporate players have led to dilution of social welfare programs, weakening of public education and health infrastructure and attacks on the rights of workers and farmers. Government corruption especially the Rafale aircraft deal [Modi government favored billionaire Anil Ambani’s conglomerate Reliance for producing the aircraft in India] have strengthened the acquisition of crony capitalism. Despite the BJP’s promise of an economic boom, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, unemployment rate hit 7.6% in April, higher than 6.7% recorded in March.  This unemployment data excludes the vast number of people who are in the unorganized sector (accounting for some 90 per cent of total employment in India), where they are forced to work for pittance.

Amid the ongoing elections, Peoples Dispatch takes a deep look into the process, who are the major actors, what is at stake and where do left and progressive forces stand.

The process of elections

India has a federal structure (center and state governments) and a parliamentary system, where the parliament of India is the supreme legislative authority. In the ongoing Indian elections, the eligible voters will directly elect the members of lower house (Lok Sabha) of the parliament, and after, the party or alliance in majority will form the government. The 543 members of the Lok Sabha are elected for a term of five years, which is also the term for the government. The states are allotted a number of constituents proportional to its population per 2001 census figures. For example, north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh with the largest population has maximum number of Lok Sabha constituency- 80.  Each parliamentary constituency is equal one member of the Lok Sabha.

The general election process begins with Election Commission of India, the constitutional authority mandated with conducting elections in India, announcing the poll dates. The Model Code of Conduct (MCC), the dos and don’ts during elections, immediately comes into effect. In 2019 elections, to reach 900 millions of votes in 29 states and union territories, the election commission established 1.035 million polling booths across India.

In India, the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) have been used to register votes since 1999 in all national and state elections. Recently, the use of EVMs has come under criticism with the allegations of possible manipulations of these machines to vote for a special party in some places.

Though the election process took place over 7 weeks, no results were released during that process, the complete election results will be released on May 23, 2019.

Political actors in the elections

One of the dangerous features in elections is the role of corporate companies in the funding of major national political parties. Two major political parties in Indian political sphere, the far-right wing and the current ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the centrist and former ruling party Indian National Congress (INC) have been largest receivers of corporate funding. Both parties are proponents of the neoliberal economic model, and while in government, implemented policies that have accelerated privatization and weakened labor rights. According to Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), in 2018, BJP received as much as Rs 4 billion [ 56 million dollars] (92% of total corporate funding for all parties) of corporate donations while the Congress received Rs 190 million (2.7 million US).

The current PM Narendra Modi is the prime ministerial candidate for BJP, while Rahul Gandhi (son of former PM Rajiv Gandhi) is for INC. Apart from the two parties, other national parties are Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M). The dynamics among the regional parties, dominant in states also play a vital role in the national election.

In 2019 elections in India, as the major challenge is to defeat the right wing forces, many national, regional and other smaller political parties have agreed on formal and informal alliances against BJP.

BJP is banking on the ultra-nationalist narratives and the strong-man, militaristic image of Modi to win the election. The party is also pushing ahead the Hindutva agenda with a greater force in this election as an attempt to polarize the voters on lines of religion. The proposal of Pragya Thakur, who has been accused in a Hindu terrorism case, as a candidate is a visible sign of the polarization tactics. Also, at an election rally, BJP President Amit Shah in a overt anti-minority rhetoric, called for the implementation of controversial National Register of Citizens of India (NRC) across India and to “remove all infiltrators”.

The economic factors are a weak point for the Modi government, as there has been a visible slow down in the economy after the disastrous Demonetization move (banning of INR 1000 and INR 500 notes). The decision to scrap the notes, along with the implementation of a new Goods and Service Tax (GST) has had a negative long term impact on the livelihood of millions of people. The agrarian crisis, due to farm debt and decreasing support price for farm products, has led to suicide of many farmers is another major issue in the election. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2015, as many as 8,007 farmers and 4,595 agricultural laborers committed suicide.

The INC and other parties are cornering the BJP government on the rising rising right wing violence and failed promises of economic development, especially the rising unemployment rate, GST and demonetization. Another rallying point against BJP is their state led crackdown and witch-hunting against public educational institutes- on their funding and students. The state crackdowns in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad Central University, Film and Television Institute of India, Aligarh Muslim University, Punjab University and others has created anger among the student and youth across India.

The Left in India

During the last five years under the rule of Modi government, the left parties and their trade and agrarian unions have put forwarded massive resistance campaigns. On the workers’ front, these unions jointly organized the 2017 Mahapadav, in which more than 300,000 workers gathered in the capital New Delhi, and in 2019 there was a two-day General Strike against the anti-workers and privatization policies of the government. On the farmer’s front, tens of thousands of farmers embarked on long marches across India at the call of the CPI-M affiliated All Indian Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and other farmers’ unions to protest against the negligent attitude of government toward farmers’ issues.

Mahapadav, a workers mobilization in New Delhi

One of salient feature among the prominent left wing parties in India, Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) and Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation (CPI-ML) is their young faces. Former JNU student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar from CPI, Raju Yadav from CPI-ML, and Biraj Deka and VP Sanu from CPI-M.

Despite the electoral slide, the left in India has always been a credible force raising voices and uniting the people’s struggle against workers’ exploitation, agrarian crisis, upper caste violence, violence against minorities and rise of the far-right. The practical challenge for the left parties has been to convert the struggle bases into votes.

The CPI-M and CPI have strong presence in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where the two parties along with other smaller left parties are in government. The state of Kerala is historically is a strong left bastion with a rich history in anti-feudal struggles and later it formed the first elected communist government in the world.

The fight for India’s future

The ruling BJP government has expressed its intention to expedite its neoliberal and Hindu majoritarianism policies if comes back to power. There is a large disenchantment against the ruling far-right wing government in this election, but whether this sentiment can be converted into anti-BJP votes will only be known on May 23. The progressive forces in India are hoping to oust the far-right government, but at the same time are ready to resist the “regression into barbarism,” if the BJP comes back to power.

Thus, the election 2019 in India is a fight for India’s future and its democracy. The crucial question here is – will India can break away from steady rise of dangerous far-right populism across the world or will it again fall into it.