The 2019 Lok Sabha elections have seen one of the most vitriolic campaigns ever in India. From PM Narendra Modi saying former PM Rajiv Gandhi died as “corrupt number 1”, to Mayawati dragging Modi’s wife into her speech, 2019 has seen it all. The high-pitched campaign comes to an end Friday.
ThePrint asks: Can Indian politics recover from the toxicity of the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign?
This is possibly the first time when a PM is facing abusive attacks from opposition during campaign
National spokesperson, BJP
What makes this election unprecedented and truly toxic is the manner in which the Prime Minister of this country has been attacked relentlessly by the opposition. This might be the first-ever election campaign in the history of this country where the country’s PM is facing abuse.
Attempts have been made by the opposition to polarise the elections; the BJP has only talked about development. Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas was our motto in the previous elections, and it hasn’t changed in 2019.
Rahul Gandhi of the Congress is the epitome of double standard – on the one hand, he talks about love, and on the other, he says “Chowkidaar chor hai”. Love and affection can’t exist in the same realm as hate and calling your PM a “thief”. After all, PM Modi is also Rahul Gandhi’s PM.
As far as the BJP is concerned, all the statements given by Pragya Thakur, Anant Kumar Hegde and Nalin Kateel have been condemned by party president Amit Shah. They have been issued a show-cause notice and the party’s disciplinary committee has been asked to submit a report on the matter within 10 days. The BJP does not tolerate any disrespect to Bapu.
Blame must also lie with mainstream media, which amplifies the BJP’s toxicity
Political discourse in India has been on a downward slide since the advent of Narendra Modi on the national scene. Vile personal attacks with no grounding in truth are the trademarks of the prime minister, BJP president Amit Shah, and a large section of their followers. Over the past five years, the BJP and the RSS have slowly dialled up the toxic rhetoric. They take it to a crescendo come election time.
This is not new. During the Gujarat elections, Modi accused former PM Manmohan Singh of collaborating with Pakistan.
The deterioration in civility allows the BJP and its leaders to shy away from a debate on the issues that actually matter to the lives of Indians, which the Congress has been trying to emphasise. We are in the midst of a historic unemployment and agriculture crises.
Blame for this must also lie with the mainstream media, which serves to amplify the toxicity. Tale-bearers are as bad as tale-makers. In the name of balanced coverage, there’s an increasing trend of false equivalences and whataboutery instead of constructive criticism and accountability.
The Election Commission has also failed its role as a neutral arbiter to promote civility in public discourse. In a not so distant past, politics was conducted in a manner befitting a democracy, where candidates competed on ideas and issues. Opponents were not enemies, and no one was “anti-national”. We need to return to that world.
2019 campaign is just the culmination of BJP’s five years of hate politics
Professor, Delhi University
The campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha election was the culmination of the divisive campaigns started in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Contrary to what poll experts want us to believe, the BJP’s 2014 campaign included slogans that asked Indians to choose between the pink revolution and the white revolution.
All the state elections since then were fought on divisive slogans coined by the BJP. In its sustained effort to forge a permanent Hindu majority, it ran its campaigns on hate politics. The BJP portrayed Muslims and minorities as a threat and equated them with “enemy” Pakistan.
To subjugate Muslims, an aggressive political Hindu majority was essential. The BJP forced other parties to persuade the Hindus that they were also for them. Thus, in all these elections, including the 2019 one, only Hindus were addressed and minorities were carefully shunned. It has created a deep sense of alienation and disenfranchisement among Muslims.
In parliamentary democracies, parties vie with each other courting all sections of the electorate. Due to the violent majoritarian campaign unleashed by the BJP, minorities were told that they don’t matter. The very project of anIndian nation where all voices are expressed and heard was paralysed.
Politicians today lack Vajpayee’s ability to build consensus and maintain good relations with opponents
Former editor of ‘Organiser’
With every election, we see a consistent deterioration in the way politicians conduct themselves; so, the toxicity or the acrimony in election campaign has become more or less a permanent feature of Indian politics. One of the reasons behind this could be the number of political parties that we have; another could be the limited or practically complete absence of friendly relations between party leaders.
When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, he maintained an excellent relationship with opposition leaders, be it with Narasimha Rao or Chandra Shekhar.
In fact, it was under Atal Bihari Vajpayee that states of Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand were carved out of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, respectively. None of these states had a BJP government, but Vajpayee managed to build a consensus with governments in all these states.
It is this camaraderie that is missing in today’s electoral politics. But consensus is not a one-way road. All parties are responsible for it. That said, I personally believe things are likely to change after the elections. What should worry us though is that while it may be easy for political leaders to forget the past and move on to make friends of their former foes, the heightened acrimony could end up percolating among their followers, which will be nearly impossible to reverse. It will make things more vicious for parties’ local functionaries, as well as the people of India.
The good thing about democracy is that voters can bring back the pendulum to the centre
Contributing editor, ThePrint
Whether Indian politics can recover from the toxicity of the 2019 campaign will depend on the numbers. For the sake of the collective sanity of 1.3 billion people, one hopes there is no clean sweep, no clear majority. Coalition pressures, India has realised the hard way, are the best checks against the excesses of absolute power.
The good thing about democracy is that the pendulum can be brought back from the extreme to the centre. But only the voter can do so. If not this election, then the next, there’s always hope. The people of India threw out Indira Gandhi after the Emergency. She couldn’t even save her own Rae Bareli seat.
It has to be said that for all their shortcomings, most top opposition leaders have carried out the campaign with dignity. There may be an Azam Khan here or a Mani Shankar Aiyar there, but for the most part, the venom in this election has come from the ruling BJP. And the peak was when it gave a ticket to Pragya Singh Thakur, who is facing trial in the Malegaon blast case.
The brazenness of the ruling party in getting away with things like these can be checked if only 23 May doesn’t give them absolute power once again. If they do get easy and absolute power, things will likely be worse than what they have been in the last five years, because our independent institutions have long not been independent.
By Fatima Khan, journalist at ThePrint.
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