First conducted in 1952, General Elections in India have changed dramatically in terms of scale and scope to emerge as the world’s largest democratic exercise today. Yet a majority of elections in the past two decades have remained the same in contours and composition. Canvassing techniques — primarily roadshows, public rallies, giant posters and, of course, abstruse methods of bribing poor voters — and the primary contenders — regional patriarchs, India’s most revered dynast and a bewildered Hindu nationalist party positioning itself as a Right alternative — have been undistinguishable to an extent.
Experts have always commented that the Lok Sabha elections are not “national” elections but rather an aggregation of 28 provincial elections. It has been argued that given the country’s complexity, voters rarely vote on national issues and very few leaders can achieve truly pan-India presence. Also, India’s opaque political system and remote geographies restrict the role of the electorate to just casting the ballot, in what many term as the festival of democracy. But the 16th General Election is fundamentally different from all previous elections in more than one way. The election, this time, has had a dash of hi-tech flavour, wider participation, a common agenda, powerful actors and other makings of a truly national election.
Technology as an enabler for outreach
Campaigning for the 2014 election has utilised technology and social media in an unprecedented manner. Compared to technologically-driven campaigns in other countries, India is a basket case. According to the government’s own estimate, only a little over 3 percent of the households have Internet connections and approximately 200 million people have access to the Internet, including via mobile phones. This is still a paltry number, considering that India’s electoral rolls have more than 800 million voters.
Rather than reaching out to individual subscribers — as is the case worldwide — Indian political parties, primarily the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has managed to rally voters around advanced technological platforms. Using his pathbreaking 3D rallies, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has managed to reach out to thousands of remote villages by addressing them simultaneously from a remote location. Similarly, through his ‘Chai pe Charcha’ or ‘Discussion over Tea’, Modi has interacted with over a million people at a time, using a hybrid combination of broadcast and webcast. Rather than relying on technology to conduct his campaign, Modi has been able to complement and scale his campaign using advanced technology in a democracy where more than a quarter of the population remains illiterate.
The BJP’s campaign has seen technology being used not just from the highest echelons, but even to mobilise its booth-level workers — or grassroots-level volunteers, who literally run the door-to-door campaigning — through specialised WhatsApp groups.
Modi’s opponents initially scorned upon his use of technology, calling it an “elitist approach” as most Indians do not have access to the Internet. But most of them went on to change their stand, at least implicitly. The Congress party, too, did a major overhaul of its social media presence just months before polling began.
Increasing dependence on technology is a welcome step for Indian elections. Critics have pointed out the rampant use of unaccounted money to fund election campaigns. A significant amount is used to fund whirlwind travel plans of leaders, who depend on private helicopter services to reach remote corners of the country. Technology has to an extent dented, if not eradicated, this barrier.
This election will also be noted for the active role played by ordinary citizens in campaigning. Like in many emerging democracies, the masses at large remain an audience and not an actor during the entire canvassing process. Politics in India has always been an exclusive domain meant only for those either born in particular families or with an appetite and ability for using muscle and money power. A tiny elite and a large base of illiterate and socially disconnected rural dwellers helped maintain this chasm.
But the country’s burgeoning middle class, no matter how one defines it, is increasingly demanding a greater role for itself in governance and politics. It was such a demand that gave an impetus to the anti-corruption movement in 2011, which culminated in a political entity called the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) a year later. AAP has experienced phenomenal success in drawing motivated youth to further its political cause in an organised and institutional manner rarely seen before in our democracy.
Inspired by AAP’s achievement, other political parties are also following suit. The BJP has lent its support to platforms such as Citizens for Accountable Governance and Mission 272+, which offered those with no prior connection with politics a chance to play a meaningful role in the election. Even the ruling Congress party — overshadowed by a single family for more than half a century — has adopted the American-style primaries in some seats to democratise the selection of candidates. Such conscious efforts by political parties to engage ordinary citizens in the entire electoral process mark a paradigm shift in altering the balance of power in Indian politics.
Cacophony is a trademark of Indian elections. The country’s complex sociopolitical environment makes it impossible for a single agenda to dominate the electoral discourse. The 53 regional and national parties in India ensure that the overall public discourse remains abstruse and muddy, so much so that political scientists often dispute whether Indian voters actually vote on local or national issues in the parliamentary elections.
But 2014 has been able to beat the trend, at least partially. Modi’s model of governance has undisputedly emerged as the single most talked about election whisper across any part of the country. Rarely in any democracy has an Opposition candidate come under such a scanner where the performance of the ruling incumbent is not even put to debate. Modi’s ability to package himself, his decisive leadership and a pointed campaign have resulted in a unique bipolar contest, where it is Modi versus the rest.
Such a clear stratification of political faultlines has not happened since the 1977 election. But the comparison between 1977, when the election held after two years of an unpopular Emergency, and 2014 remains pale as the electoral debate then was about excesses committed by an incumbent regime, but this time the discourse is centred on the kind of redemption promised by an Opposition leader. Modi’s leadership issue has been able to galvanise voters across India and minimised the influence of traditional and parochial factors such as caste, religion and region.
Urge to be national
Regional satraps have blossomed in Indian politics in the past two decades. Their emergence also forced the conventional national parties to be focussed on remaining relevant in their areas of influence rather than on expanding their footprint. However, in 2014, there is a rat race among the regional parties to metamorphose into national ones.
Consider the cases of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), which are primarily based in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, respectively. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the TMC had fielded only 35 candidates in West Bengal, but in 2014, more than 50 candidates are fighting under the party symbol from West Bengal, Jharkhand and Delhi. Similarly, this time the SP has made a foray into Assam in the Northeast. The Congress, too, is contesting 20 seats more than it did in the previous election.
Curiously, the BJP has fielded candidates in only 428 seats, five less than in 2009. But the party has pursued its most aggressive campaign ever in the southern and northeastern states, which have traditionally been held either by the regional parties or the Congress. In the contest to remain national, senior BJP leaders have had to crisscross the entire country, thereby abandoning the month-long road shows, or ‘rath yatras’, which had been a hallmark of their earlier campaigns. Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the two main protagonists of this election, have addressed public meetings in diverse corners of the country on a single day.
The desire to be national is a healthy development for the country. India’s fragmented polity and dominance by regional powers has had an economic and social cost. In the long run, through the evolution of a truly national election, one hopes that national policies will be prevented from being hijacked by local or provincial interests. The 2014 election could mark a new era in Indian politics, where the citizens and politicians use innovative methods to interact and perhaps, for a change, make an attempt to think of the country as a single entity.