An homage, a tribute to the Indian Elections of 2014. A set that I was physically apart from, and from this geographically distant vantage point I was able to finally be an observer, or as Derek Zoolander would put it, a eugooglizer.
This set of elections was rather different from any I’ve seen so far as long as I’ve understood what elections were. In a move that I’m certain was meant to capitalise on the youth vote bank, campaigns this year were massively focussed on social media. This increased online participation meant that everyone and their mother was now on Twitter, Facebook and whatever other social network is there, looking to participate. This, as a standalone fact, is an excellent thing in the world’s biggest democracy. The wave of politicians (and therefore, more and more users) on social media meant a massive online democracy had been mobilised to opine, to rehash, to ruminate and philosophise.
Or so it would seem.
While there have been voices from and about every part of the Indian political spectrum, this past election has seemed overshadowed by a very specific section, whether in the press or on the internet. A little digging and some investigative articles suggested that a lot of this publicity was paid for. The entire idea of the press not being neutral is absolutely infuriating, but in a largely capitalist world where money talks, and talks louder and more forcefully than anything ever has, it’s going to happen. Should there ideally be rules against this, irrespective of the type of economy? I believe so. Are there? I’m not so sure. But it is absolutely a worldwide phenomenon, spurred on not by the beliefs of news disseminators, but investors.
Various media outlets nationwide, barring fewer than a handful, have taken rather specific political stances – interviews, analyses and ‘debates’ have all been biased, slanted rather obviously in favour of one candidate or the other. That has happened since public media has existed, and will continue to do so for a while, or at least until some extremely advanced technology, some form of Artificial Intelligence kicks it into obsolescence.
Unfortunately, while the ‘world’s largest democracy’ has now begun to be online, it is unclear whether this media is deliberating on issues to the extent that a democracy does, a la the idea of agonistic pluralism theorised by Chantal Mouffe. It hasn’t just been the victory that has been a landslide, the campaign has seemed that way too. There has been pluralism, there have been campaigners, there have been voices of dissent against what can only be described as predicated on the subject’s apparent success in his home state, the facts and numbers of which seem to indicate thus.
However, it is neither sensible nor fair to pick a candidate entirely on the basis of success in his home state, the data behind which may or may not be true, but was, and is bandied about repeatedly on social media by said supporters.
It is to be noted, however, that the same people refuse to mention, or even entertain any discussion regarding the 2002 Godhra riots, largely seen to have been a form of communalist violence, which happened in the exact same state. If one were to go by the oft-repeated statement that the Supreme Court of India granted the candidate a ‘clean chit’ in the matter, the fact still remains that not nearly enough was done to stem the violence, which seemed to become, to the perpetrators, some form of pogrom, an ethnic cleanse in their minds. The attacks were seemingly allowed to continue well beyond what they should have, the violence unimaginably gruesome and gory. Even if they were, according to the Supreme Court, not premeditated, and no political influence was involved, the fact remains that the same political power permitted the violence to continue. It must also be noted that said party (honestly, much like any other political party/politician in India) is communalist and plays on religious sentiment (sadly all too strong and polarising in India) in order to garner votes.
This is not exclusive to India, however, these communal, divisive politics, this ‘othering’, with a small section of political parties in the UK using this sort of tactic to pull in votes.
Temporarily, however, there was a glimmer of hope in the form of the Aam Aadmi Party. The name literally translates to the ‘Common Man’s Party’, and although they started small, they seemed to want to move in the right direction, their goals for once truly in line with what the country needed. They did not play at looking for votes from a specific sect, religion, section of the economy, but society as a whole. Unfortunately, their campaign petered out early, with their candidate withdrawing 49 days in. In the end, a real pity, as they were the only party that seemed to treat the people of India as people, as an actual society, instead of bits and bobs of an economy, or a market to be sold a product entirely. They cared about the aspects of social change that other parties either claimed to care about or in the case of the currently ruling party, are vehemently against. Regretfully, while their ideals were wonderful, it seems their ultimate execution was not.
Back to the politics of the specific state in question. Numbers were marketed, nay, hard-sold to the public, epic tales were told of wondrous development, of progress and the sort of magic one might seemingly only find at Hogwarts. But ask questions and you may as well be entering the Forbidden Forest.
Statistics show that despite the grand claims of development, education, nutrition and clean drinking water are all but accessible to significant sections of the population, and in some cases a majority of the state.
Child nutrition is at an all-time low – 47 per cent of children below the age of three in the State were underweight. That figure was 45 per cent in NFHS-2. That’s about twice the average for sub-Saharan Africa.
When a state claims as significant development, or at least a party does, surely nutrition is part of this ‘development’? Or is their idea of ‘development’ only the sort that is measured in money the rich can bring in? The metrics for the analysis that caused state, masses and media alike to arrive at the wonderful rosy scenario known as ‘development never seem to be revealed. When your nutrition rates are abysmally lower than those in sub-Saharan Africa, can you really claim development?
That leaves a staggering 57% of households that do not have access to water, having instead to travel several kilometres, very likely on foot, through arid, harsh conditions, often to bring back enough water for entire families. This water, too, is often not fit for any form of consumption, as “67 per cent of rural households in the State have no access to toilets and members of more than 65 per cent of the households defecate in the open, very often polluting common water sources.”
It seems from this that the purported economic gain did not reflect within the state itself.
While the religious fundamentalism that has historically characterised the party has seemed to be absent from this round of elections, with a significant non-Hindu vote going towards the party, a fair number of significant members of the party hold rabidly religious and social views that seem to be stuck somewhere, perhaps a century ago. With several social movements in India in the last few decades geared towards eradicating exactly this sort of thought process, one worries that this might be a step backwards for India as a functioning society.
The Indian LGBT movement has gathered steam in the past few years, and a general awareness of what many, sadly, across generations, believed to be a ‘curable disease’, rather than an innate biological characteristic, spread. More and more of the Indian public began appearing in public, at movements and rallies protesting the criminalisation (and re-criminalisation!) of homosexuality. It was no longer the taboo it had been in the past, and pride movements became a thing. It was absolutely wonderful.
And now, a party that has stayed apart from the religious fundamentalism it has marked itself by in the past has come to power. But while the party may have stayed away from communalist marketing tactics, its leaders, and the men at its helm still believe in archaic ideals, such as these –
BJP President, Rajnath Singh: “We will state (at an all-party meeting if it is called) that we support Section 377 because we believe that homosexuality is an unnatural act and cannot be supported.”
Senior member of the party, Subramanian Swamy, an erstwhile intellectual and former Harvard lecturer, described homosexuality as a ‘mental disorder’ in a series of tweets.
Sadly, the Congress party was not much better, with the Health Minister in 2011, Ghulam Nabi Azad, describing homosexual sex, or ‘MSM’ as a ‘disease’. While these archaic ideals may not be party-specific or community specific (in fact, some of the major religions practised in India sadly all view homosexuality as some sort of ‘disease’ or ‘disorder’), it is a massive blow to the movement that the newly forming cabinet is against progress and change in the social fabric of the country.
As I publish this, a woman has just been appointed the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, which is a wonderful thing. Anandiben Patel is, by all means, an accomplished person and politician, and her history seems to bode well for reform.
However, it now remains to be seen whether this is merely lip service or the sign of better things.
It is unfair to treat the country entirely as a market and focus merely on economic development, which, while important, needs to occur concurrently with social change. However, the focus on this seems to have been lost, buried somewhere beneath the cries of ‘development’. Statistics can be bandied about that prove said development – but this is something everybody needs to keep in mind.
Change is never instant, and it is wrong to expect it to be. However, I sincerely hope checks and balances, from within both public and establishment, can keep India as democratic as it has been. Perhaps this election was about development. Perhaps it was also predicated on a strong anti-incumbent sentiment that is fairly justified, all things considered.
Ab ki baar, the change that occurs remains to be seen. The latest developments, however, do not seem to be very promising, with AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal arrested today for expressing an unsavoury opinion of a prominent BJP leader. Genuine worries for the freedom of expression have now grown – will all public opinion be hereafter, er, modified?
One can only hope that in this race, this mad quest for ‘development’, this live-action form of Temple Run, India is still, in the eyes of the powers that be, not a corporate entity that needs to maximise profit, but a country. Made of living, breathing people who retain wholly the right to express themselves, personally and publicly, people who need more than just progress for progress’ sake, and not just the economic kind, .