The nature of Narendra Modi's mandate has been so overwhelming that the Opposition is still reeling from the aftershocks of Lok Sabha elections. They are still unable to come to terms with the reality even though the first Parliament session of 17th Lok Sabha commenced on Monday. Handed one of the worst drubbings of their career, many Opposition leaders are still licking their wounds. Some are still in denial, while some are caught in a state of suspended animation.
When an Opposition is this demoralised, it becomes easy for the government — certainly one that enjoys such a muscular majority — to bulldoze through its agendas. The prime minister, however, reassured the Opposition that their voices and opinion will be given importance regardless of their numerical disadvantage on the floor of the House.
"The Opposition need not worry about their numbers. Whatever numbers opposition parties may have got from the people, for us their every word is valuable. All their feelings are valuable," Modi had said on Monday while addressing the media outside the Parliament.
In the spirit of this statement, Modi invited the heads of 40 political parties who have representation in the Parliament (Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) to have a debate on several issues, including the idea of "one nation, one election", an issue which ranks high on the Modi government's agenda. Holding of simultaneous polls is not a new idea in Indian politics. In fact, Lok Sabha and Assembly elections were held together in a newly Independent India from 1951 till 1967 when a premature dissolution of several state Assemblies broke the cycle.
The issue has received backing from 21st Law Commission draft report that, over 160 pages, has argued that it will lead to better implementation of policies, less distraction for governments, reduce policy paralysis and save public money. Though the panel did not submit a final report, it suggested that it's time an idea like the simultaneous elections is an idea whose time has come "in greater national interest".
The need for a Constitutional amendment, however, has been pointed out and it could be the reason why the BJP-led NDA government has insisted on having a wide-ranging debate. There is little disagreement over the fact that simultaneous polls make great economic and logistical sense. In 2014, the year Modi rose to power, the Election Commission of India spent Rs 4,000 crore in holding general elections. Whereas, according to EC estimates, the cost of holding simultaneous polls could be around Rs 4,500 crore.
A 2017 report in The Hindu Business Line notes, "A NITI Aayog paper points out that in the last 30 years, there has not been a single year without an election to either the State Assembly or the Lok Sabha or both. The Model Code of Conduct will be in operation for four months in a year till 2021 under the current election schedule, disrupting government functioning."
The issue for debate, therefore, is whether the simultaneous holding of polls presents the ruling party, or the dominant national party with an undue advantage in terms of relegating quotidian issues to the background since there is a strong possibility that a party which has a charismatic leader such as Modi, may be able to turn the election mode (at least virtually) from representative to presidential. This may push regional outfits to the background and undermine the Constitution's federal structure. It is also not clear what may happen if a state Assembly is prematurely dissolved.
On the other hand, as the recently held Lok Sabha elections pointed out, voters are quite discerning in electing state and national governments that indicates a maturing of Indian democracy. In Odisha and Andhra Pradesh - states which went into simultaneous Assembly elections — voters settled for Naveen Patnaik's BJD and YS Jaganmohan Reddy's YSR Congress Party, respectively. It is also to be noted that while the BJP had lost in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh Assembly polls held in December last year, the saffron unit won the Lok Sabha elections comprehensively in three Hindi-centric states.
Congress leader Milind Deora was quoted as saying in Hindustan Times, "I am yet to see evidence which suggests that if the election to Vidhan Sabhas is held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections, it will help the party that is in power nationally". Deora is an exception.
Congress was among the 21 political parties who skipped the meeting called by the prime minister. The list of absentees included West Bengal chief minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee, MK Stalin's DMK, BSP chief Mayawati, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Samajwadi chief Akhilesh Yadav, former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, Delhi chief minister and AAP boss Arvind Kejriwal.
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati have demanded an "all-party meeting" on EVMs. On Twitter, the BSP chief called the electronic voting machines a "threat to democracy".
बैलेट पेपर के बजाए ईवीएम के माध्यम से चुनाव की सरकारी जिद से देश के लोकतंत्र व संविधान को असली खतरे का सामना है। ईवीएम के प्रति जनता का विश्वास चिन्ताजनक स्तर तक घट गया है। ऐसे में इस घातक समस्या पर विचार करने हेतु अगर आज की बैठक बुलाई गई होती तो मैं अवश्य ही उसमें शामिल होती।
— Mayawati (@Mayawati) June 19, 2019
It is easy to label key Opposition leaders who turned down the government's invitation for a discussion on 'one nation, one poll' as "sore losers". From their rants against EVMs it is evident that they have not been able yet to accept their defeat and are clueless about the possible causes. Their absenteeism from a meeting to discuss an issue of grave national import also indicates that these parties will carry an obstructionist attitude throughout their tenure on the Opposition bench and may try their utmost to scuttle government's plans for legislation and debates.
The parties who skipped the 19 June meeting have all along been accusing the Modi government of pushing through its agendas without debates and discussions, but when the time came for their active participation, they were found wanting. More than anything else, this exposes the Opposition's lack of agenda and hypocrisy.
All this is okay, but the issue goes deeper. The Opposition parties lost the elections, but not because of their want of trying. They threw everything at Modi. Some 'liberal' commentators, who are probably more bitter at Modi's return than the defeated Opposition leaders, have suggested that BJP's rivals failed because they couldn't stitch meaningful alliances, ran a negative campaign or failed to seize the narrative on lack of jobs and rural distress. This is clutching at straws.
The real reason why Opposition lost, and BJP won is simple. Modi has caught on to the changing realities of a rapidly transformative India while his competitors remained stuck at old equations of caste, community and dynastic succession. The drubbing received by SP-BSP alliance, that was supposed to stop BJP on its tracks, is the clearest indication that voters are rejecting parties that have nothing to offer except lazy pandering to casteism or identity politics.
Let's not make the mistake of thinking that these issues have become overnight irrelevant. Rather, they are less important and going forward will be increasingly so. That's why relying solely on caste or community vote bank equations may not be enough to win elections. These must be supplemented with a narrative of aspiration that appeals to an ambitious New India whose middle consists of people who are freshly put of poverty and want a better future for themselves and their progenies.
As scholar Sandhya Krishnan and economist Neeraj Hatekar point out in their paper Rise of the New Middle Class in India and Its Changing Structure in Economic and Political Weekly, "after being largely stable between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, the new middle class in India (that is, those spending between $2 and $10 per capita per day) doubled in size between 2004-05 and 2011-12, amounting to nearly half of India's population. This growth, though largely in the lower middle-class category, happened across a majority of states in both rural and urban areas."
This neo-middle class, which seeks to rise through dint of hard work and looks for opportunities to prosper, is disgusted at entitled dynasts and sees little merit in appeal to casteist sentiments. Unless the Opposition understands this changing reality, no amount of ranting against EVMs and skipping meetings may work. If anything, it would add to the impression that an obstructionist Opposition is not letting Modi work. That may further diminish their electoral relevance.
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Updated Date: Jun 20, 2019 23:55:30 IST