Edited Version Published in The Telegraph
The 2014 Lok Sabha elections were a watershed in more ways than one. A particularly pernicious outcome of the general elections was that the salience of normative principles of democracy was made contingent upon electoral outcomes. Secularism, it was alleged, lost its cachet as the former chief minister of Gujarat ascended the office of the prime minister. ‘Intellectuals’, who had ranged themselves against Narendra Modi earlier, hastily crossed over to the other side, articulating a baffling hierarchy of development over secularism and the rule of law.
The primacy of the electoral victory over all other considerations was apparent, too, in the appointment of Amit Shah as president of the Bharatiya Janata Party. As the person in charge of Uttar Pradesh during the general elections, Shah – a close aide of Modi – had been temporarily banned from campaigning by the Election Commission because of his inflammatory speeches. However, in a state where the strategies of political parties save for the BJP are centred on the minority vote, Shah’s allegedly divisive agenda reaped rich dividends with the BJP winning 73 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats. After the BJP swept to power at the Centre, a judge, who had rebuked Shah for non-appearance, was transferred. These assaults on the institutions of democracy were marketed as “victory of truth”. The verdict was swallowed whole by a polity that was still in thrall of the first majority in the Lok Sabha in three decades.
Unsurprisingly, the pattern repeated itself in the case of the BJP chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje. Chouhan came under fire for the Vyapam admission and recruitment scam in which over 40 individuals linked to the controversy have died under mysterious circumstances. Raje was criticized for,inter alia, her clandestine support for the immigration application of Lalit Modi, a fugitive being pursued for money laundering. However, the BJP’s victories in urban local body polls in both states shortly after the scams came to the centre stage were used to legitimize the leadership by thwarting questions over their culpability. In his victory speech, Chouhan conflated the attacks on him with attempts to defame the state of Madhya Pradesh – “It’s a victory of our ideology. I am overwhelmed. I am also angry because an attempt was made to defame Madhya Pradesh on Vyapam. People here are peace-loving and simple. The Congress maligned us because it could not fight us electorally”. Shah likened the Rajasthan civic polls to a “public court” and said, “This mandate is… against politics of baseless allegations. The win reflects the truth”. With the Rajasthan chief minister embroiled in a fresh mining scam, the BJP again sought refuge in the popular mandate saying, “Congress has not been able to digest the fact that the people of Rajasthan have formed BJP government with a majority in the state. They have been constantly demanding Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s resignation over false allegations.”
It is expected that the victor will use political power to establish dominion over the ‘truth’. However, electoral outcomes are increasingly being linked to wider legitimacy by the media, the intelligentsia and the public. Both issues had dominated the media discourse and the chief ministers were under intense scrutiny – all of which dissipated after the elections. This conflation of the electoral process with the normative framework of democracy itself is misguided and dangerous. The maturity of any democracy is linked to progressive institutionalization of power and the rule of law. However, such a conflation personalizes power and undermines political equality, which is an essential prerequisite of the rule of law.
One telling example is the differential treatment afforded to the Prime Minister and AAP MLA, Jitender Tomar on the question of their education qualifications. Tomar, former Delhi Law Minister was arrested on charges that his law degree is fake. The Prime Minister has claimed an MA degree from Gujarat University in his 2014 Election Commission affidavit; however subsequently an interview of his while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat has surfaced in which the PM has said that he has only studied up to class 10th. Right to Information applications asking for information on his degree were rejected by the Prime Minister’s Office and Gujarat University. The issue was raised by the Opposition yet the Prime Minister seems to have a free pass on this in the media. Surely at a time when a sitting state minister has been arrested for a fake degree, this discrepancy is worthy of investigation and resolution. However the determination to not pursue this issue is based on its electoral salience and not on principles.
Conversely, the conversion of elections into referendums for/against specific individuals has further led to an erosion of substance from electoral contests, relying instead on personalized attacks and counter-attacks. Consequently, the electoral process is becoming increasingly shorn of ideology and is now an exercise in management through arithmetic (consolidation or fragmentation), organization and marketing. There is no question that the relevance of any political party is inextricably linked to winning elections. However, political legitimacy in a democracy goes far beyond the electoral process alone.
To be sure this is not the first time that an electoral mandate has been used to undermine principles of democratic functioning. However, what is frightening is its normalization under the present regime. Institutions that have traditionally kept a check on the executive are being systematically politicized and dissent ruthlessly suppressed. In the ensuing world where realpolitik will reign supreme, all opposition will be dismissed as partisan and the real loser, ironically, will be the people in whose name power is being commandeered.