New Internationalist

India in the grip of election fever

BJP candidate Narendra Modi [Related Image]
Backed by the corporate world: Narendra Modi of the BJP. Narendra Modi under a Creative Commons Licence

Here in India, we are in the middle of election mania. The entire country gets gripped by some sort of madness. It is a riveting, electrifying scene. Voters are polarized as never before. For most folks, elections have always been much of a muchness, the average attitude being that one party is mostly very much like the other.

This election, however, is different. It has been described, quite rightly, as India’s most historic election ever. There are claims from parties and politicians of every hue about fighting corruption, the price rise, poverty and inflation.  

The Aam Admi (AAP or common people’s) party definitely brought new hope to people, as this blog pointed out recently. However, most people felt completely let down and disillusioned when AAP won local Delhi elections only to abdicate power shortly after. They claim they resigned on principle. But this was not explained to their voters adequately, if at all. A furious public felt fooled and cheated. AAP leader Arjun Kejriwal was publicly slapped twice on the campaign trail, and a few others physically attacked. A reprehensible and criminal reaction, no doubt. But indicative of the depth of public anger and the bitter disappointment the voters felt. When results are out on 16 May, we will know beyond doubt whether Delhi voters have forgiven AAP and  Kejriwal.

The party, however, still has the cleanest politicians ever seen in an Indian election. Academics, writers, intellectuals, social workers and celebrities – women and men who have always shunned politics as ‘dirty’ – have flocked to stand for election; most, for the first time. The party’s supporters, too, are largely citizens who rallied to the anti-corruption movement that recently took India by storm. Opinion polls suggest they can’t really win, but everyone gives them marks for trying. It is pretty much a David vs Goliath battle. Little people fighting mammoth money power. But AAP remains the party of hope for people with real values, for the poor and against corruption.

The corporate world almost unanimously backs Narendra Modi. Note the emphasis on the man, not not his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These people, to me, are morally bankrupt. They envision an India which will gallop forward economically. They dismiss the 2002 genocide as an aberration which won’t happen again. British politicians, too, are guilty of welcoming Modi, even though they know the truth behind the pogrom. The fact that adivasis are desperately poor in Gujarat, or that minimum wages beyond city peripheries remain as low as Bihar or Madhya Pradesh rates, does not bother our corporate money-makers. These privileged urban voters are mostly concerned with India’s image. They want us to move away from the shameful ‘Third world’ label and equal Singapore, Japan or rich Western countries. They fail to realize that if there is social unrest, or hatred between communities, India will be torn apart. Communal tensions have been part of the Indian scenario because of our history. But cultivating hatred cannot ever be a solution to India’s ills. The Hindutva brigade, or politically allies which espouse turning India into a Hindu country (the Indian Constitution declares India a secular country), cannot forever subdue minorities, even if they succeeded in killing a few thousand and terrorizing Muslims in Gujarat. Political pundits predict that Modi and his party will sweep the polls. It is a recipe for disaster. Secularists weep at the thought.

The Congress Party, which fought for India’s freedom, is currently facing its biggest electoral battle ever. For all its faults, it brought in more anti-poverty programmes than any other party in India’s history. And it was rights based. It gave us the Right to Education; the historic Forest Rights Bill, acknowledging adivasi peoples’ right to their ancestral forest lands; the National Rural  Employment Guarantee Act, a landmark act providing every rural family a guarantee of 100 days of employment per year; and the Food Security Law, providing 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban poor with subsidized food through a fairly decent public distribution system for several decades now. The National Rural Health Mission has made an impact on infant and maternal mortality in the last decade. Unlike former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a shrewd strategist, the Congress Party failed to shout this progress from the rooftops. Unfortunately, corruption and scams hogged the headlines, weakening the government considerably. Angry secularists and even BJP seniors have accused it of ‘handing India to the BJP on a plate’.

Madhusudan Mistry

I am proceeding to Vadodara, Gujarat, for a few days, in solidarity with old friend Madhusudan Mistry (right), who is personally fighting Modi. Mistry has worked with adivasis and Gujarat’s rural poor for decades before becoming a politician. He is known as a decent, good man. Most NGOs and social workers will be batting for Mistry. As individuals. Not much we can do but cheer for him and express our solidarity. It is spectacularly gutsy of Mistry to fight Modi. All power to him. And may the good guys win.

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  1. #1 john dsouza 17 Apr 14

    Even if AAP get about 30 odd seats, it has an important role to play.. ie bringing up all the issues, through questions, adjournment motions, cut discussion etc.

    A major forgotten issue is labour..chweck out our latest issue of Critical Concerns, which talks about the on going struggle of the workers at Maruti's `fastest car producing facility in the world at Manesar for their right to organise and strive for human working conditions and just wages'.

    Remembering Manesar: Notes on work, workers and workers organisations

  2. #2 david cohen 17 Apr 14

    As a veteran election campaigner for over 60 years in the United States, the idea of so many people in India participating in your national elections is awe inspiring. It inspired me as a teenager in
    the early 1950s and as an adult.

    Some years ago I had the pleasure of being in Delhi on election day and went with my colleagues to observe the voting and talk with voters. IIt's a story I often recounted in the US.

    In 2001, while in India, I urged the Indian Election Commission to give the US advice on how to count votes as our 2000 election elected the person who really lost, George Bush and not the one who won, Albert Gore.

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's blog and essay has a knowing understanding and feel for election dynamics coupled with historic memeory. It is common for political parties to disappoint, those first elected with little governing experience, as your anti-corruption party did, or those with long experience, and at times get frozen and ossified, as your Congress party does.

    There is also the danger of historical amnesia as I notice with Modi and his violent enabling murderous actions in Gujerat in 2002. As an admirer of M D Mistry, as a politician and civil rights leader, whose work with adivasis reminds me of American of civil rights organizers, he has stood up to oppose Modi and make that opposition credible.
    That is leadership and he can best be respected by people showing the solidarity that Mari Marcel Thekaekara discusses.

    I hope that Indians vote in strategic ways: how best to stop Modi and the BJP. That may mean voting Congress, the Anti-Corruption party or even a regional party depending on the situation. Voting is strategic and tactical. Voting is both.

    After the election there must be room for reflection and analysis on what can be built and further strengthened and what has to be changed. Democratic processes have to stay vibrant and democratic actions have to continue.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC

  3. #4 Chandrika Sen Sharma 17 Apr 14

    Mari - Thanks for your clear and concise view of ’election fever’. I was one of those who were disappointed and confused/angry when Kejriwal stepped down, believing him to be an incorruptible politician!?!

  4. #5 Anita Christy 17 Apr 14

    Thanks Mari for that very informative article. Being in the US and hearing all sorts of rumors about the various candidates up for elections - it was good to read about them from a reliable source.

  5. #6 Aloke Surin 17 Apr 14

    Well written and brave of you to come out publicly with regard to Modi's past and to show solidarity with Mistry's battle.
    Even though voter turnout in India has traditionally been above that of other democratic countries like the USA, many votes are cast in an en masse voter mindset due to ethnic or religious reasons or due to the persuasions of demagogues in pursuit of personal power or other selfish, narrow goals.
    I would also be interested to know what percentage of the vast educated middle and upper classes will vote in the elections. This demographic has traditionally stayed away from the electoral booths, quoting reasons like - ’It is like choosing between two bandits!’ Has this changed recently or does the perception continue? The apathy was quite widespread about twenty years ago when I lived in India. I remember an instance where a family treated the day of elections as an extra bonus to tag on to their mini vacation and took off for Sikkim on holiday!

  6. #7 Marie from France 20 Apr 14

    Hi Mari
    Thanks for this very good article. I just also read an article in french paper called ’Courrier International’; It says that young people in India will make the difference....Next century will not be chinese but indian! Hope all the best to you, your family and this country!
    Marie from Shanghai

  7. #8 Ludwig Pesch 21 Apr 14

    Mari, I have read so many other articles and analyses on the issues raised by you, both in the Indian and international press. Without exaggeration, yours is the best summary of what's going on, what is at stake here. I hope it will be widely circulated by all readers of this piece.
    Moreover, your piece leaves no doubt that simplification won't be helpful for anyone - not even the self-serving investors who might find their assets melting away like snow in the tropical sun if they merely ’gamble’ without being in touch with social realities, thereby pouring oil (= their cash) into fires that need being extinguished urgently (= implementing existing laws that protect the vulnerable and bring perpetuators of crimes to justice).
    You have captured the nuances and sentiments that matter to a lot of people as only a concerned citizen can.
    My/our compliments and carry on, we all look forward to more insights like these!

  8. #9 priya 22 Apr 14

    ’2002 was an aberration-what about togadia's and giriraj singh's remarks-we people in the city are fine-but what about the defenceless people in the villages and towns who will bear the brunt of the insane behavior of these fanatics - the nda talks of economic development but statistics show farmer suicide was highest while the nda was in power at the centre. mari your blog is a reflection of the angst of the indian voter-and for the minorities indeed more so’

  9. #10 Dilip 23 Apr 14

    This election is choosing between the devil and the deep sea. For many people, the vote is more about 'who do I dislike less' rather than a positive vote for a party. And the PM in waiting has managed to convince a large number of people, that issues are not important, it's only ME.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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