Reflections on the 2019 Election in India

Source: Wikimedia Commons

From April 11th to May 19th 2019, the national elections of India, the most populous democracy on Earth, took place to much fanfare and excitement both in the country and worldwide. Going into the voting, polls and pundits alike indicated that while Narendra Modi had a solid shot at maintaining his position as Prime Minister of India, his Bharatiya Janata political party (BJP) and its governing coalition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), were expected to face steep challenges to hold their seats in the Lok Sabha (India’s lower house of parliament) due to economic troubles plaguing the country. In fact, right before the election, unemployment was the highest in 45 years, farmers saw their incomes fall to their lowest point in 18 years (some even marched in Delhi carrying the skulls of their colleagues who had committed suicide due to crippling debt and drought), and the BJP was blamed for it all. However, once the polls closed and the dust cleared, Modi and the BJP not only retained their government, but also built on their Lok Sabha majority, winning 303 seats in 2019, up from 282 in 2014. Their opposition, the Indian National Congress Party (INC) won just 52 seats, less than 10 percent of the Lok Sabha. Even weeks after the election, questions are still being asked about how the BJP was able to absolutely crush its political opponents despite not delivering on its promises to ensure that “good days are coming” for the country’s economy. The answer could very well be found in not only the Hindu nationalist sentiments exuded by the party itself, but also the personal actions and attributes of many of the candidates that represented the BJP in the election.

At first glance of the roster of BJP members who ran for Lok Sabha office in April and May, one cannot help but recoil at some very disqualifying details. According to affidavits from the Indian Election Commission, 40 percent of BJP candidates had criminal charges pending against them at the time of the election; 19 percent of them had violent crimes charges including murder, kidnapping and rape. Sakshi Maharaj, an MP from the Unnao constituency, once had 34 charges against him, ranging from robbery to gang rape. Pragya Thakur, the newly elected MP from Bhopal, is currently on trial for planning a mosque bombing which killed six Muslims and injured many others in 2008. How on Earth were these people elected? They, like almost every BJP official, have found that making incendiary and outlandish statements can lead to political gold. Both Maharaj and Thakur have called Nathuram Godse, an avowed Hindu nationalist known for killing Mahatma Gandhi, a “patriot” and Maharaj has previously called for Muslims and other non-Hindus to be killed if it meant protecting cows (a sacred animal in Hinduism) from being slaughtered for beef. Overtly bigoted rhetoric like this has no doubt played a large role in the right-wing wave that helped elect such controversial figures. As for Modi himself, he was able to adroitly take the focus of his administration’s questionable economic performance through provocative endeavors such as launching airstrikes deeper into Pakistani territory than ever before as a response to the killing of 40 Indian paramilitary fighters by a Pakistani militant organization in Kashmir earlier this year. This counterattack was widely seen as a formidable show of power nationwide and Modi’s popularity surged as a result.

Clearly, the BJP was able to subvert expectations and decisively win an election many thought it would struggle with. Not only did it win, it did so with quite a few potential criminals in its ranks and an economy weaker than what the BJP had expected. Modi and his party accomplished this by campaigning directly to Hindus all over India and making a play for their religious sentiments and national pride, even if it meant marginalizing Muslims and other less advantaged social groups. With this election, India even more firmly joins the growing ranks of nations where staunchly right-wing movements have gained national power across the world, from Poland in Eastern Europe, to Brazil in South America. What this means for the country as a whole is not immediately clear as of now, but one can be sure that Modi and his party are bound to engage in more provocative endeavors and rhetoric in the future as these are the tools that gave them India.

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