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How Representative Were India’s Elections?

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The Pulse

How Representative Were India’s Elections?

India’s 2014 elections are being regarded as a success but were they representative?

How Representative Were India’s Elections?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

India’s 2014 elections have been touted as a symbol of hope for the country. A closer analysis, however, reveals the ominous undertones of the result.

It is true that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the first party since 1984 to get a majority on its own. The Hindu right-wing party has turned a new leaf in the history of Indian democracy by securing 282 of 545 seats in the Lok Sabha. The BJP’s best performance in the past had been 182 seats in 1998 elections. Significantly, for the first time a non-Congress party has secured a majority on its own. All the previous non-Congress governments were coalition arrangements; they cobbled together majorities by sewing up alliances.

However, despite this unassailable majority of the BJP in the parliament and despite the overwhelming victory in the elections, one question remains: is the verdict really representative? Does the BJP’s overwhelming majority encompass the voices of all sections of Indian society?

For starters, not a single parliamentarian out of 282 seats won by the BJP is a Muslim. This is something unique in India’s parliamentary history — a ruling party has failed to elect even a single member from the minority community which comprises over 13 percent of India’s population.

In addition, Muslim representation in parliament is at its lowest level in the past six decades. Only 20 Muslim members were elected, as opposed to 30 in the last elections. As a result, Muslim representation dropped to a mere 4.5 percent, a decline from 6 percent in the 2009 elections.

Most interestingly, the largest state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to the Lower House, did not elect a single Muslim member despite the minority making up around 19 percent of the population. The state has historically been the largest contributor of minority seats in the parliament. The BJP won 71 seats in this electorally crucial state.

These figures suggest a complete polarization of Hindu votes in favor of the BJP.

In the 1970s, when the Congress lost badly for the first time, the election results threw up a coalition of parties representing all religious groups. Muslims and other minorities were very much a part of the movement to dislodge the ruling party.

The situation was similar in 1989 when the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government lost the elections in a strong anti-incumbency wave and brought a V.P. Singh-led coalition to power. The popular mood against the incumbent was inclusive; it was not an exclusive anger.

One reading of the 2014 verdict will clearly point out the exclusive character of the mandate. This is a matter of concern.

“If there is one obvious feature of this election, it is the BJP’s successful consolidation of the Hindu vote in a whole range of constituencies…. republican democracy is about fraternity and an election which sees the BJP hugely expand its footprint in India geographically while remaining, in its personnel and its voters, a near-exclusively Hindu party, should be a cause for real concern, not least for the party,” writes the historian Mukul Kesavan in the English daily The Telegraph.

Out of the 428 members the BJP fielded in the elections, it gave tickets to only seven Muslims. The Congress meanwhile fielded 27 out of the 462 seats it contested, three of whom won their races. Interestingly the BJP’s sole sitting Muslim parliamentarian, Shahnawaz Hussain, lost the elections in an area where Muslims constitute a sizable population.

This demonstrates the overwhelming mistrust that India’s largest minority has for the party led by Narendra Modi. One estimate says that only 9 percent of Muslims and 8 percent of Christians voted for the BJP.

Therefore, the new government has a majoritarian character and does not enjoy the support of large sections of the minorities in India. The 2014 elections have led to the complete political marginalizations of Muslim and Christian communities.

What does this mean for the country? Is India under Modi going to be a majoritarian state?

Kesavan says that the initial signs are foreboding. He questions the inclusion in the council of ministers of Sanjeev Baliyan, a man accused in the recent Muzaffarnagar religious clashes that saw the death of over 60 Muslims and the displacement of hundreds of families in the minority community. What kind of message does Modi wants to send by selecting the parliamentarian from Muzaffarnagar for his ministry? Is it a reward for polarizing the voters in western Uttar Pradesh (UP), which gave the BJP the largest number of seats in the parliament? Even hardcore BJP supporters would concede that the communal riots in the electorally crucial state played a great role in consolidating Hindu votes in favor of the BJP.

Kesavan also says that by raising the issue of Article 370 in the constitution, which gives the Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir regions a special status, the Hindu right-wing party is trying to consolidate the majoritarian agenda.

Despite Prime Minister’s Modi’s conciliatory speeches and statesmanlike approach after assuming office, the Hindu right-wing cadres are on a different mission. The killing of a Muslim techie in Pune for posting some altered pictures of a radical Hindu leader indicates how emboldened such divisive forces feel after Modi’s electoral victory.

Reports coming from the western Indian state of Maharashtra, where elections are due in few months’ time, suggest palpable communal tensions gripping several districts in the state.

Meanwhile,  U. R. Ananthamurthy, a renowned litterateur from the southern Indian state of Karnataka, has been given police protection. Before the election, Ananthamurthy said that he would leave India if a divisive figure like Modi became the PM. Some right-wing Hindu groups have threatened him and want him to leave the country.

No doubt Narendra Modi has taken on a new, more inclusive, persona ever since he has become the PM, but that does not address the larger concern that India’s 2014 electoral verdict has thrown up.

The experiences of our neighboring countries suggest the ill effects of  having a majoritarian state. Today, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh are suffering because they have pushed their minorities into the political margins and the system has failed to raise and address their voices. Majoritarianism is their misery.

India has been an oasis of plural democracy in South Asia. The mandate of 2014 signals to us that the oasis needs to be protected more firmly than before.