Exit polls have a patchy record in India. But if you believe in them, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP is likely to lead a coalition government again. Zillions of words have already been used to analyse the themes that dominated the intensely polarising discourse this time. One theme that leapt out was of “strong India”. In the personality-driven campaign we have seen over the multi-phased polls, Mr Modi’s positioning of himself as a larger-than-life persona, as a “strongman” who can be trusted with national security, undoubtedly captivated millions. To what extent the “strongman” appeal truly worked will be known only when all the votes have been counted.
But one thing is sure. In India, as elsewhere worldwide, “strongman” politics is on the rise. Strongmen are not all alike, nor are the reasons for their rise identical. But what they have in common is an astute sense of how to play the politics of grievance.
A strongman lives in the White House. In Turkey, there is Recep Tayyip Erdogan and in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte cherishes his image as a killer-saviour and has publicly boasted of having personally killed criminal suspects when he was mayor of Davao City.
The strongman is also staging a comeback in the heart of Europe. In Hungary, there is Viktor Orban, who pushed the immigration hot button and has just won another term as Prime Minister while embracing illiberal democracy — a political system with free elections but scant regard for civil liberties.
This week, as India gets ready for Verdict 2019, citizens in the 28 nations that make up the European Union will cast their ballots for 753 members of the European Parliament, the bloc’s only directly-elected body. The campaign has been as intense, acrimonious and polarising as the kind we have seen in India.
The European election debates have taken place in an atmosphere of uncertainty, with Brexit perpetually looming in the horizon and a nationalist, Eurosceptic movement that denounces the loss of national sovereignty to the alleged bureaucratic abuses of Brussels. If opinion polls can be trusted, this scepticism is drawing significant voter support.
India, with a dominantly young population, can’t be compared to ageing Europe. But the debates in Europe about social cohesion, identity, outsiders and insiders hold lessons for us. There is still a high level of support for EU membership across the European continent, but Europe’s far-right strongmen politicians are banding together. It is worth paying attention to what many Europe-watchers are pointing out.
In a recent article in London’s Guardian, political columnist Natalie Nougayrede made some very important points. “These European elections, the first since the refugee crisis, since Brexit and since Trump, will in many ways define what we can or can’t be — the story we want to tell ourselves and the rest of the world… Is there still time, before we shrink further into our silos of domestic grievance, to remind ourselves of the cards we do hold? Europe’s democratic and welfare state model may be flawed, but to this day it delivers the lowest levels of inequality in the world (only Canada does as well). The EU is no military superpower, but it is the only entity in the world ‘able to do something about digital sovereignty’… The EU can regulate while preserving essential freedoms. It has the tools and a scale that others lack. On climate breakdown, member states aren’t flawless, but the EU as a bloc is the only vehicle through which we stand a chance of weighing in on a global, vital issue.”
Which brings me back to India and some fundamental questions as we wait for a new government to take over. What is the story we want to tell ourselves and the rest of the world? What is a “strong India”? Is strong India a nation where everyone, irrespective of religion, caste, gender, ethnicity or resources, feels safe and secure, or is it an India where the majority, the already-strong, feel stronger, while the minorities feel more scared?
Whoever forms the next government needs to realise that is why political leadership is critical. It is because ultimately what makes countries rich, powerful and strong are their institutions and human capital.
Does India wish to remain a liberal, democratic country which is proud of its secular and pluralistic ethos? Or does it wish the India story to be one of a muscularly majoritarian country that stigmatises anyone who views the world with a different lens? An equally important element of the India story — can a country of India’s size and diversity afford to not be pluralistic? What is the story that aspirational India will tell the world if entire groups and communities are made to feel unwanted unless they adapt to majority mores? What is the story that India will tell itself if this trend becomes deeper and social cohesion collapses?
It can’t be anybody’s case that no positive developments have taken place in the last five years. In my recent travels in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, I met people who gained from the various welfare schemes rolled out. But these were partial gains. The reality on the ground did not match the hype of the slogans. Still, those who had gained something tangible — such as a cooking gas cylinder — were willing to give Mr Modi a second chance to consolidate those gains.
At the same time, there were very real and grave concerns and anxiety about rising unemployment, the craving for “security” through a government job, no matter how lowly, agrarian distress, the drought and perceived degradation of key institutions. I met voters from minority communities who had not been affected directly but were scared by the rhetoric of ruling party politicians. One asked plaintively what had happened to the promise of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”, and why it had given way to increasingly more divisive words. You have to be living under a rock to not recognise that lynchings, in the name of cow protection, and dog-whistle politics targeting minority communities have spread fear and a sense of being second-class citizens.
We shall know very soon if the gains or the anxieties affected the preference of most voters. But whatever the result, the problems are real and are not going away.
Whoever comes to power needs to remember that only a healing touch and a genuinely pluralistic ethos where everyone feels they belong and are safe will make the India story truly inspiring.