The world’s largest democracy has begun voting this week for a new Parliament. The process will go on for some weeks till the dust settles and final results are known. The slanging match between the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress and its allies has reached a crescendo. PM Narendra Modi has referred to himself [...]


India votes; Modi vs. the Rest


The world’s largest democracy has begun voting this week for a new Parliament. The process will go on for some weeks till the dust settles and final results are known.

The slanging match between the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress and its allies has reached a crescendo. PM Narendra Modi has referred to himself as the Chowkidar, an Urdu phrase coming from British India when the police stations were known as Chowki and the lower ranker on duty were known as the Chowkidar (the Watchman). Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has called him Chowkidar Chorhai (the Watchman thief). Both Messrs. Modi and Gandhi have pledged to put the other in jail after the elections – such is the intensity of the campaign.

The elections should be of some interest here, though this time, Sri Lanka is not on the Indian political agenda as it was some years back. Even in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where the issue of the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka was an emotive albeit politically motivated issue, the deaths of its leaders Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalitha who would feed on the situation in Sri Lanka, have seen Sri Lanka-bashing fade into the dustbin of history. The reverberations of Tamil Nadu sentiments of yesteryear had a visible impact on New Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy due to coalition compulsions, but not any more. The BJP Government did not need the support of regional parties when it won in 2014, but political analysts predict the party will be returned to office this time round only with a lesser majority, which then might witness the rise of regional parties exerting their influence on New Delhi’s policy.

Narendra Modi’s BJP Government has been flayed for not delivering on its promises of 2014. This, in turn, has made them fall back on their comfort zone of drumming ‘nationalism’ as their primary platform for re-election. The recent skirmish with Pakistan has come as a Godsend to whip up patriotic zeal among the masses and add some masala to their Hindutva policy. Mr. Modi keeps referring to the “surgical strikes” he ordered on Pakistan and his opponents complain that he is now implementing “surgical strikes” on his opponents at home. His acolytes say that it is the BJP that gives bombs and bullets to the Pakistani terrorists, while the Congress gives them biriyani.

The use of the Pakistan bogey and external adventures for electioneering purposes are not new in India, and the Congress cannot complain when its past leaders have done the same. The best example is when India under Indira Gandhi intervened in the creation of Bangladesh, called elections soon thereafter, and won easily. Similarities between the BJP and Sri Lanka’s Joint Opposition extend beyond the commonality of their party symbol – the lotus bud.

The Congress and its allies, on the other hand, have launched a NYAY scheme – a minimum income guarantee and targeted the farmers, once the base of the BJP to see them home.This coalition has taken a more secular line and is expected to win the votes of the minorities in India. The similarities with Sri Lanka’s ruling UNP cannot be missed.

… And lessons for Lanka

In the midst of the ‘noise and chaos’ of electioneering in a democracy like India, there seems to be some sanity prevailing. At least there is in place, a Model Code of Conduct (MCC) that provides some guidelines that keep the campaigns within its tracks.The MCC is implemented by the independent Elections Commission (EC), and though it has lost its once powerful image under the former Commissioner T.N. Seshan when it not only implemented the guidelines but was seen to implement them, its edicts are taken seriously by competing parties even today.

Last week, the EC transferred the Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh, much to the chagrin of the Chief Minister. Senior police officers in another state who were doing the bidding of the ruling party politicians rather than their duty to the nation were sent to another state. The police have been given the greenlight to search vehicles that transport bundles of cash meant to buy up voters, and many have been remanded for their inability to explain the source of these funds.

On Wednesday, EC banned the release of Modi’s biopic, saying the film had the potential to “disturb level playing field during elections”. The BJP Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh was cautioned by the EC when he referred to the Indian Armed Forces as ‘Modi’s Sena’ or Modi’s Army, and the Prime Minister’s own address on ‘Mission Shakti’, (Mission Strength) an Indian satellite that was launched deftly named after a BJP poverty alleviation programme, was subject to scrutiny by the EC.

The EC’s writ extends to SMC voice-messages on phone during campaigning, the broadcast of which needs pre-certification from the concerned authority – the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee. The EC has looked into the funding of private television stations, one of which is believed to be a BJP funded outfit.

The controversial social media giant Facebook already under fire worldwide as an unregulated ‘Knight of Slander’ and user data breach, recently removed 687 pages and accounts linked to individuals in an IT cell of the Congress Party as it tries to crack down on false accounts and ‘inauthentic behaviour’. It is also keeping a close watch on political ads on its platforms and adding more teams to flag fake news, as the Indian Government itself is concerned that social media platforms may be used by external elements to influence the country’s elections through undesirable means.

Despite all these checks and balances, the Indian political and electioneering juggernaut continues to roll. All parties have a bagful of goodies on offer – both by way of promises in their election manifesto, and in their secret accounts of undeclared funds. In Tamil Nadu, voters have been showered with washing machines, cookers and TV sets – even gold. Party workers are given local brews and lunch at a Dharba before they go to mass rallies. There is no way an EC can stop all of this which is part and parcel of elections in this part of the world.

With this being in all likelihood an election year in Sri Lanka, there may well be lessons to be learnt from the world’s biggest democracy. Firstly, a look at the MCC of the Indian EC to see that a free and fair election that reflects the will of the majority is eventually delivered. Sri Lanka is among the oldest of the modern democracies in the world, and its elections have only recently come into question with computer gilmarts and an Elections Commissioner going missing for some hours during the counting. With old tricks and new treats up the sleeves of contending parties, and undeclared funds raining down at election time, Sri Lanka’s proud history of elections will be tested to the core come its turn.

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