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The roads to India’s redemocratisation, the challenges

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The 18th Indian general election probably marks the end of a cycle, in spite of the fact that it has not resulted in an alternation in power, a dimension usually needed for characterising an election as “critical”.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s loss of its majority seems to be sufficient. It might well be — but under certain conditions — for a re-democratisation process to reach its logical conclusion.

For 10 years, India has followed a trajectory of de-democratisation that has found expression in the concentration of political and economic power in a few hands: at the top of the state apparatus, a handful of men decided for the rest, at the expense of Parliament and federalism, as well as many other institutions. In the business world, a limited number of cronies could get access to the country’s resources and dominate the economy. In this regime, inequalities increased but the poor continued to support a pro-rich government in the name of religion among other things: identity politics and communal polarisation at the expense of the minorities tended to prevail over social issues.

Substantial changes are expected in all these domains today because of the new balance of power and because of some narrative shift. But will they materialise?

No shift but a tilt

The balance of power has not shifted, but tilted because the BJP remains the dominant party. But, for the first time in his political career, Narendra Modi will have to play the coalition game. The weakening of his authority should allow institutions to regain some of their spine. Bureaucrats, including those of the Election Commission of India, should appreciate that today’s masters are not as strong as they were — and may not be the same tomorrow. Whether they will rise to the occasion remains to be seen. The same prognosis applies to the judiciary and to the media. Will they resist the government’s use of liberticide laws that have been passed in the last 10 years? Because we are not in 1977 and the draconian laws restraining freedom of expression and individual rights will not be repealed — there is no majority for that.

Federalism should be revitalised too, not only because of the relative decline of the government’s authority but also because this government will need the support of two or three State parties, including the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Janata Dal (United), or the JD(U), which have traditionally defended the autonomy of States.

We will not see the kind of decentralisation that was at work under A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, but coalition politics should imply a greater recognition of the Chief Ministers — who, we must remember, were not even consulted before the demonetisation of 2016 and the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020.

Besides power relations, narratives matter. Like other national-populist leaders, Mr. Modi claimed that he was the nation and tried to disqualify his rivals by calling them anti-national. And, many politicians, pseudo-intellectuals and journalists supported this discourse. As a result, an equation was propagated between Indianness and Hindutva, relegating minorities and especially Muslims, to the margin. This form of identity politics may well be on the defensive, now, countered by another ideological agenda prioritising social equality. Once again, like so many times since V.P. Singh had decided to implement the recommendations of the Mandal report in 1990, two repertoires are in competition: to counter the rise of the plebeians, the Sangh Parivar resorted to ethno-religious identity from the 1990s onwards, and to counter Hindutva, today, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party as well as the Rashtriya Janata Dal and others mobilise supporters on social issues, including the caste census issue, in order to promote social justice again.

This programme has been clearly articulated by Rahul Gandhi whose yatras, the Bharat Jodo Yatra and Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, have made him a popular leader, in both senses of the term, in spite of poor media coverage. This transformation has been magnified by the election results: nobody will call him “Pappu” any more. It is not only because of these marches but also because of the way he defended the Constitution of India, built a coalition of so many parties, the INDIA bloc, as well as the attractive nature of his social issues-oriented discourse.

Different scenarios

Bihar, under the stewardship of Nitish Kumar, has been the first State to organise a caste census. Will its Chief Minister try to persuade the National Democratic Alliance to emulate this initiative? Or will he abstain from pushing this issue? More generally speaking, how far will the JD(U), the TDP and others try to promote their own agenda and interests? This is a key variable which may lead to different scenarios.

The most likely one may consist, in the weeks and months ahead, in a modus vivendi based on concessions made by the Modi government for accommodating demands by the TDP, the JD(U) — and may be others — that will be very substantial, but acceptable.

Another scenario — the worse case scenario for Mr. Modi — would crystallise if the TDP and the JD(U) were to formulate exigencies affecting the BJP in terms of power sharing or the party’s support base (reservations above 49% or in the private sector for instance). These “partners” may also not see eye to eye with friends of the government (and support, for instance, an investigation regarding Gautam Adani’s activities). The bargaining power of the JD(U) and the TDP is immense: by shifting from one side to the other of the political spectrum, they would make the government fall and could allow the INDIA bloc to take over.

These two scenarios are not mutually exclusive. The second one may unfold itself after a few months or even a year or two later, especially if the Modi government is further weakened by electoral setbacks (the State elections in Maharashtra and Haryana will be watched closely in this respect) and if the ruling coalition, including the TDP and the JD(U), are under pressure from other State parties and Congress: the Opposition has tasted blood and realised its strength in such a way that it is bound to mobilise relentlessly in the street and solidify its unity and even recruit more partners. Ms. Mayawati may even become less fearful of antagonising the ruling party in the context of the new dispensation, and revive her party, the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Under these circumstances, Mr. Modi may not be in a position to keep the NDA together, either because its partners would be asking for too much or/and because he has never been a team player, a pragmatic expert in coalition making apt at defusing tensions by making concessions. The Sangh Parivar, then, may replace him by a man such as Nitin Gadkari who has been supported by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on many occasions in the past. Mr. Modi was the candidate of Nagpur by default in 2014 and his relationship with the Sangh’s top leaders has not improved.

But Mr. Modi (and Amit Shah) will not let go of power so easily: there is so much at stake. And, nobody can anticipate the techniques that Mr. Modi may resort to, to save his post. Time matters a lot here: a political crisis would not make the same impact if the institutions of the Indian Republic have had the time to recover from 10 years of erosion.

However, besides the political actors, civil society is also bound to play a key role again in the rejuvenation of India’s democracy. If this election is probably marking a transition towards a new era, eventually, a change of guard at the State level will not be enough for re-democratising India — and, in particular, to counter the dense network of RSS-related vigilantes.

Christophe Jaffrelot is Research Director at CERI-SciencesPo/CNES, Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s College London, President of the French Political Science Association, and Chair of the British Association for South Asian Studies



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