The Indian Electoral System’s Victims

First published on TeleSUR english

Narendra Modi, at the head of the right-wing BJP, leading an alliance of parties of the right, won a crushing victory in the April-May 2014 elections in India, with 336 seats (282 of them to Modi’s own BJP party) compared to the incumbent, the Congress Party, whose alliance ended up with 60 seats (44 of them belonging to Congress). Leading the largest majority government in 30 years, Modi’s victory could be viewed as a mandate for big changes in India.

But is it such a mandate? A close analysis of the election, as was done by Nirmalangshu Mukherji in his essay, “A Stolen Verdict”, for Kafila.org, (http://kafila.org/2014/05/23/a-stolen-verdict-nirmalangshu-mukherji/), suggests the outcome had as much to do with the careful, strategic, methodical use of electoral violence in key areas than it did with a massive change in opinion in the country. Modi’s alliance won 51.9% of all seats, with 31.0% of the votes. A massive victory indeed, in terms of seats. In terms of the popular vote? Not spectacular – according to Mukherji, considering that many seats, judging by past elections of majority governments in India, even with the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, the BJP should have had about 45% of the vote, not the 31% it got.

How did the BJP-led alliance win such an extraordinary seat-to-vote ratio? There were two states in which the BJP made its greatest gains: Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar. In these states, in the year leading up to the 2014 election, the Hindu-right street organizations affiliated with the BJP, especially the RSS, instigated and led dozens of communal incidents, violent individual acts against people of other religions and even riots in which hundreds of people (mostly Muslims) were killed. The electoral beneficiaries of this violence were the BJP. In Mukherji’s words:

“The connection between incitement of riots and subsequent electoral gains is well-known. In a familiar move, the victims, namely the Muslims, were portrayed as the real culprits: Amit Shah declared openly that it was a matter of honour that needs to be avenged through the ballot. After the pogroms in Gujarat in which thousands of Muslims were butchered and lakhs rendered homeless, 286 persons were arrested under the draconian POTA: 285 were Muslims, 1 was a Sikh (no Hindus). Subsequently in Gujarat, the BJP enjoyed overwhelming electoral success that established the authority of Narandra Modi in the Sangh Parivar.”

So, Modi’s government might be a majority in terms of seats, but it is, to quote Mukherji one last time, “the most unpopular and unrepresentative in the history of the republic of India.” India is by no means the only place where electoral strategy by the winner involves the violation of the spirit of democratic elections. There are several other disconnections between the electoral system and democracy – also not unique to India – that will combine to make the future Modi years disastrous.

The disconnection between India as a country governed by officials elected by the people, and India as a country governed for private profit, is fundamental. Modi’s real mandate comes less from the 31% of the population that voted for him than it does from the massive money power that backed him. A whole fictional backstory has been created of Modi being a developmental genius who brought wealth to Gujarat, where he had been Chief Minister. His Chief Ministership began with a genocidal pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, but the developmental tale claims that he transformed Gujarat through private business, and that he promises to do the same for India. In fact, economist Jean Dreze showed that Gujarat’s developmental achievements “are moderate, largely predate Narendra Modi, and have as much to do with public action as with economic growth.” (See Jean Dreze’s “The Gujarat Muddle,” and “The Gujarat Middle”) For solid development indicators, the states to look to would have been Kerala or Tamil Nadu. But for a handover of public wealth to private corporations, Gujarat is hard to beat. It is that trend, and the dismantling of the public welfare provisions that were won from previous governments, that Modi’s corporate backers are targeting, and have found their tool.

The Congress-led government that Modi is replacing also used communalism, it also gave public goods away for private profit, it also upheld a system based on exclusion. But Modi is going to do more, of all of this.

To do so, he will be taking advantage of another disconnection between the electoral system and democratic values: the relatively small electoral weight of India’s indigenous populations (adivasis). In central India’s forests, where many of India’s indigenous people live, are resources – mainly minerals – that are coveted by private interests. The adivasis have constitutional protection and their forest resources and villages are governed by laws that mandate local self-governance. For corporations to access these resources, these legal protections must be overcome. The method chosen by previous Indian governments has been to declare an emergency in the adivasi territories, militarize the region, and call the situation a war against terror. Modi’s big strategic contribution, here as elsewhere, will be to continue to do this, but more. Scholar Nandini Sundar presented these continuities in a recent article in the Hindustan Times.

[Note: There is an armed resistance in central India, and there are debates in India about the efficacy and problems of strategy of such a resistance – see for example Mukherji’s book “Maoists in India: Tribals Under Siege”. But, as Arundhati Roy said on Democracy Now! during the 2014 elections: “Anybody who’s speaking against this kind of economic totalitarianism is a Maoist, whether you are a Maoist or not.”].

As part of the militarization of their territories, India’s indigenous people also face totally frivolous legal persecution on a massive scale. The legal system that refuses to protect their rights is able to jail them for long periods of time without trial. Some figures from the past decade: from 2005-2012, there were about 200 cases of indigenous people awaiting trial at one court in Central India (Dantewada Sessions Court) that were “disposed of” each year. In each of these cases, the average number of accused was about 7 people per case – bizarre for criminal cases, but consonant with a pattern of armed forces entering villages and arresting people at random. In these cases, indigenous people are being charged under laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, with things like “unlawful assembly” and “breach of public tranquility”. The acquittal rates for these cases over this period was between 91-98%, but people languish in jail for years before the case is finally disposed of. This is data from one court, in one part of India. Extrapolated, it would scale to a massive pattern of political (or perhaps economic) persecution of indigenous people.

[Modi could also have expected to set his sights on Kashmir, already demoralized by the crushing of its dreams of Azadi, but recent floods have done tremendous damage to the Kashmir Valley, with most of the capital city ruined, hundreds killed, the extent of the disaster still emerging. The media are full of stories of how Modi is showing leadership in the crisis, but disasters like these often give the powerful more opportunities to reshape the future to their liking (see Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine”)].

There are still people trying to bring Modi to justice for his role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom that killed thousands of Muslims under his Chief Ministership. Modi’s supporters have made the preposterous claim that these attempts are a part of a plot by Pakistani intelligence, who can presumably seamlessly switch between organizing the Taliban, local military coups, and bringing well-documented cases of human rights violations in India to international fora. But Modi’s electoral victory has freed him somewhat from the threat of prosecution under the law – yet another disconnection between the spirit of democracy and these manipulable elections.

The same debates and the same problems that are occurring everywhere – extractivism, exclusion, the displacement of indigenous people – are occurring sharply within India.

Modi came to power by gaming an electoral system, not through democracy. Those who resist will have to have an equally sophisticated understanding of the system, but will also have to be genuine democrats. The BJP uses communalism to destroy solidarity, but solidarity is the answer to surviving in this context: solidarity of the people who reject the exclusionary, violent vision of the country, and perhaps international solidarity as well.

Justin Podur is a writer based in Toronto. His blog is podur.org.

Author: Justin Podur

Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.