To break down the process for foreign diplomats posted in India, the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), in association with PVR Cinemas, held an exclusive pre-election conclave in New Delhi on April 2, 2019 to explain, interpret and analyse the upcoming elections that will be one of the most aggressively contested electoral battles in India's democratic history.
The 17th Indian general elections - to be held from April 11 to May 23 - will be one of the biggest democratic exercises that the world has seen in terms of its sheer size and scale. With 900 million voters, of them 15 million new voters, a million polling booths, hundreds of political parties, a mix of electronic and mechanical polling devices, and the very future of India at stake, the elections can be a mind-boggling organisational exercise for any country. So, to break down the process for foreign diplomats posted in India, the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), in association with PVR Cinemas, held an exclusive pre-election conclave in New Delhi on April 2, 2019 to explain, interpret and analyse the upcoming elections that will be one of the most aggressively contested electoral battles in India's democratic history.
Former Chief Election Commission V S Sampath, who had successfully supervised the 2014 general elections which was the biggest that the country had seen to date, demystified the electoral process. He pointed out that thought the Election Commission is not called an independent commission by the constitution, in reality the Commission is given enormous powers to ensure free and fair polls that is seldom seen in other countries. He drew attention to the fact that there is a Chief Election Commissioner and two Election Commissioners with all three being given equal powers by the Constitution and all decisions taken being arrived at by consensus.
Sampath said there are a staggering 11 million government employees deployed to conduct the elections. This includes more than 2000 election observers posted in the 543 constituencies that will go to the polls to ensure a free and fair election.
Recalling the time of another Election Commissioner T.N.Seshan when path breaking reforms were ushered in to curb the electoral malpractices which until then was dominated by muscle power, he said now with economic development money power has come to play in a big way. To curb this, expenditure officers are appointed to ensure that a candidate does not spend more than the Rs 70 lakh (about 100,000 USD) on his/her campaign. However, he pointed to a loophole in the law which has not set any limit for the parties to spend on the campaigns to state that money power will continue to a menace till stringent measures are put in place. He also expressed concerns on whether the introduction of Verifiable Voter Paper Audit Trial (VVPAT) which will be added to every Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) in the coming election will work smoothly in the scorching summer heat without technical glitches.
Neerja Chowdhury , veteran journalist and well-known political commentator, said the importance of Indian elections lie in the fact that “we are a democracy and remain one even after seven decades." There has always been a peaceful transfer of power after every election in the last 70 years have also seen the aspiration evolve with regional and Dalit leaders like Mayawati being able to make a mark in Indian politics. On the flip side, she pointed out, that huge vested interests have taken over and skepticism among people have grown.
She saidagrarian distress and unemployment will be the biggest deciding factors in the coming elections and the result will depend on how the opposition parties led by Congress will be able to put focus on these core issues as opposed to the nationalist agenda of the ruling party.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta , veteran journalist and former editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, noted that the 2014 elections had converted India’s elections into a two-person contest just like the American elections. Together the Congress and BJP polled 50 per cent of the votes and 90 per cent of all the votes that BJP got was concentrated in 60 per cent of the constituencies. Terming this as the “black swam moment”, he said under the given circumstances it seems doubtful that the BJP will be able to repeat such a victory and the party might gain only in three states – West Bengal, Odisha and Assam.
Sandeep Bamzai, editor-in-chief, IANS news agency, drew attention to the “verbal shell game” that is being played out by the two major parties and said the “debasement of political discourse in the country is a brand new phenomenon” and has happened never before. He stated that the nationalism narrative has taken root only in the last four years and argued that the minority politics practiced by the Congress party had created the base for rise of Hindu nationalism as an issue in the elections.
Giving the example of how the state of Uttar Pradesh - which with 80 seats is the most consequential state electorally - voted in the 2014 elections, he said the Hindu votes have consolidated behind Narendra Modi and the fact that he does not belong to the upper caste has helped in the aggregation of votes. The fact that India has the second largest Muslim population in the world did not make any dent in the politics of Hindutva practiced by the BJP, he said.
C Uday Bhaskar, Director, SPS and well known security analyst drew attention to the security aspect. He said Prime Minister Modi has become the face of the election for the BJP and national security has become the main plank on which elections are being fought especially after the Balakot airstrike by the Indian Air Force. There is an attempt to prove that national security is endangered under the Congress.
Bhaskar pointed to the references to "Hindu terror" and how Modi castigates the Congress for coining the term to argue that there is a conscious attempt to stoke majoritarianism in India. He also pointed to the phenomenon of “othering the Muslim citizens in India.” With over 180 million Muslims in the country, he rued that perhaps India is the only nation that would refer to such a huge section of population as a minority and said it is the beginning of disaggregated citizenship. To explain the situation better, he drew parallels to US President Donald Trump and how he pitched the Mexican threat to America and how the wall is being build.
The SPS-PVR conclave was organized at PVR Cinemas, Sangam Courtyard.