Why Do Indian Voters Elect Hardliners Despite Their Failure?

As a student of political science, my particular region of interest is South Asia and particularly, India and Pakistan. I am naturally interested in Pakistan’s politics as I am a Pakistani national. However, I am also greatly interested in Indian politics.

 In my opinion, no country is as fascinating as India when it comes to an extraordinary mystery with respect to sustenance of democracy. India, according to Professor Oldenberg of Columbia, is an exception and not a norm. In fact, I was present in one of his lectures which he gave as a guest lecturer at Cornell. He remarked that it was expected that India after a brief flirtation with democracy would either fall into autocratic rule or a quasi democratic rule dominated by some communal party. And yet, India defied the odds and to this date remains a liberal democracy. Yes, by no stretch of imagination it espouses, in realistic terms, everything which a modern Western democracy espouses, but given the fact that India at independence was an underdeveloped and impoverished state, its democracy is still a remarkable achievement.

And this adherence to liberal democracy has come at a cost. And that cost is economic prosperity and to some extent even merit. Here you have to understand that there is a difference between democracy and a liberal democracy. Former is the rule of majority whereas the latter fuses definite minority rights with democracy. The latter is in fact a compromise. Today USA is a liberal democracy as its Bills of Rights, actually place a check on what simple majority can do.

India democracy, at least to some extent is formed on the same principles though instead of individual liberty it is more concerned with group rights, which again is understandable given the society is formed less on individual freedom but more on collectives like religious, ethnic , caste and linguistic identities.

To keep the social fabric cohesive in the face of so many cleavages which can always explode is an extremely difficult thing. And to keep everything together with parliamentary democracy is even more difficult. Many of today’s loathed concepts like “minority appeasement” have in fact played a role in maintaining social cohesiveness under the democratic umbrella.

In India despite its secular constitution, religion and communal politics in recent times have become electoral factors and have been whipped up to get votes. Religion is at times whipped up in a crude and direct way. But other times, it is brought in to attack the present notion of secularism in India. In Indian context secularism is often understood as protection of religious minorities rather than strict separation of state and faith.  For example, benefits or privileges given to minorities are mocked as “pseudo secularism”  and it is also accused that despite being a majority, Hindus are being treated as a minority due to excessive minority appeasement.

This tactic has been successful for a variety of reasons. First it appeals to the base instincts of some hardline elements. Second, it is also effective in convincing educated middleclass that secularism is a hoax and facade by liberal leaning parties to cover their “crimes” and incompetency and that by adhering to strict merit ( which does not take account into structural differences between various religious and ethnic groups) India can move forward. This line of thinking actually makes a case for doing away with minority protection and indulging of politics of progress rather than that of inclusion.

In recent times, Indian voters have consistently warmed up to right wing BJP despite its obvious communal rhetoric. Some vote due to that rhetoric and some despite it. Those who vote despite it have generally cited factors such as  “crime control” and “development” as major reasons. This set of people does not deny communalism of BJP but tend to trivialize it by calling it an overblown issue by Leftists which can easily be tolerated as other factors like development, crime control etc. are more important.

This mindset has chiefly been instrumental in the rise of extremely controversial person like Modi and morerecently of Yogi Adityanath. In 2014, Modi won in a landslide despite the stigma of Gujrat riots because many thought development was more important. There was also trivialization of the possible dangers of increase in communal rifts. Modi won and I don’t know whether India has become more “developed” or not, but communal rifts and religious intolerance have increased confirming the worst fears.

Even more striking example is of Yogi Adiyanath. In 2014, Modi still campaigned around the slogan of development. In 2017, Utter Pradesh (UP) elections, the campaign was starkly communal, polarizing and whipped up hatred against Muslims.  Many voted for BJP despite open display of hatred and apparently incompetency of the previous Yadav regime particularly in economy and crime control were the major factors.

Open bigotry was once again trivialized by the educated also and BJP won in a landslide. Yogi was then nominated by BJP to head the state. During the campaign he had been active but many did not predict that after the elections, he would be nominated as obviously he was a polarizing figure. Yet BJP nominated him. Some tried to justify his nomination due to his strict stance towards high crime rate in the state. The fear that his rule would witness increase in communal violence was again trivialized and called as baseless propaganda of Indian pseudo seculars or sickulars (as they tauntingly called).

Five months after the elections, the results are in front of us. Communal violence and intolerance has risen as per the fears while crime rate, the so called reason for voting BJP, has also risen dramatically. Apparently the honeymoon period is over.

One can now question the entire rationale for electing such demagogues. Why even some of the moderate and educated Indians are willing to give such people a chance when they are obvious hate mongers. This question becomes even more crucial given the fact that these leaders have not even delivered.

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