What the Indian election can teach us/ Dr Naazir Mahmood

by Abbas Adil

The people of India have spoken; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has won a third term, but this was a much tougher victory as compared to the previous two elections where he sailed through smoothly.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has failed to secure a comfortable majority for the first time in a decade. Its 240 seats are still short of the halfway mark of 272 seats needed to form a government in the 543-member Lok Sabha. In the lower house of the Indian parliament, the BJP will depend on its allies; this shows a remarkable turnaround in the party’s fortune.

The main opposition, the Indian National Congress, won 99 seats that are twice as many as its previous tally of only 52. The Congress-led INDIA alliance secured 233 seats and is hoping to garner more support in the Lok Sabha to be in a better position to form the government.

The first lesson for Pakistan and its people is that if you allow free and fair elections over a long period, people will start believing in democracy and its power to bring in a government of their choice.

This was the election for the 18th Lok Sabha since Independence, and so far the average life of the Lok Sabha has been slightly over four years. The same constitution has been in force since 1951 – of course with many amendments – and not even once did an army chief mount a military coup or a chief justice stage a judicial removal of an elected prime minister.

Modi performed better in terms of economic growth but failed to check the high unemployment rate. This brings us to the second lesson. Just high economic growth does not mean much if it fails to translate into high employment and job creation. In Pakistan, a common argument is that under military rule, the country showed high economic growth. But again, that economic growth benefited an elite that sucked the blood of people. In India, too, the elite rules, but at least people have managed to elect a large number of educated and middle-class people to represent their interests.

The BJP’s inability to secure a large majority is a surprise electoral setback, but the party has accepted it as a verdict by the Indian voter. The lesson for political parties in Pakistan is that in democracy there are setbacks, which are not necessarily the result of a conspiracy. Most political parties in Pakistan refuse to accept any electoral setback and blame it on other factors, which might be at play but not necessarily the deciding factor. The BJP used all possible pre-poll gimmicks but still fell short without any conspiracy.

The next lesson is not to focus on just fast economic leaps. It is better to solve the crises affecting people. If people’s everyday lives are not improving and you claim to strike one ‘game-changer’ after another, people may remove you from power. The economic distress that people face is almost always an underlying cause of an incumbent government’s defeat in elections.

In countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, it is the unorganized sector that impacts the election results more than the organized one, provided elections are fair and free.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist appeal to voters was no longer working, but he insisted on it. If people do not have money in their pockets, nationalism does not work. So, the lesson for Pakistani political parties and the state itself is that removing – or at least reducing – nationalist rhetoric might help. Banking on nationalism does not always work and, at times, backfires.

Emotional pitching to Hindus in India worked for a while, but it is failing now. Emotional pitching in the name of Muslim nationalism in Pakistan has done more harm than good. So, please, stop using it to dupe people like Imran Khan did or the way many other parties are doing in Pakistan.

In India when inequality and prices were on the rise, Modi tried to overcome it the wrong way without realizing that people react to their economic situation more than anything else. Now Modi is in talks with key allies to form a government and that will force him to consider the opinions of others. That is the beauty of democracy, no matter how flawed it may be.

In Pakistan, we have seen political leaders refusing to consider any other viewpoint in their arrogance. The closest to Modi in nature was Imran Khan in Pakistan, both of whom are populist and hyperbolic leaders.

For healthy democracy and parliament, leaders need to learn to negotiate. Modi appears to be a negotiator, but we still have to see how far he succeeds. The ability to work with an alliance is a crucial ability for any leader in a parliamentary democracy. In Pakistan, the PML-N and the PPP have learnt the lesson of negotiating with each other, and perhaps this is the reason both fell out of favour in the most powerful circles. A disadvantage of a coalition government is that a junior partner could pull the plug at any time.

The lesson is to learn how to deal with junior partners. Indian democracy has also allowed Sikh separatists from Punjab to contest elections. One such candidate scored a victory as an independent from inside a high-security jail. Sarbajit Singh Khalsa is the son of Beant Singh – one of the bodyguards of former prime minister Indira Gandhi – who killed her in 1984. Sarbajit had unsuccessfully run for election three times earlier; this time he defeated his opponent by a margin of over 70,000 votes to get the Faridkot seat. The lesson is that democracy allows everyone to contest elections.

Sikhs are observing the 40th anniversary of Operation Blue Star launched by Indira Gandhi on the Golden Temple – a holy site of Sikhism. Indira’s grandson Rahul Gandhi is leading the opposition Congress now. That shows there are no permanent enemies and friends in politics. In 2019, the Modi government stripped the special status of the disputed region of Indian-occupied Kashmir. In recent elections, Modi tried to capitalize on that but failed. The lesson is that victimizing one province or region does not endear you to the people of other provinces or regions.

Since 1957, Kashmir had enjoyed semi-autonomous status with a separate constitution and inherited protection in jobs and on land. Modi ran it with unelected bureaucrats, snatched the Kashmiri constitution and flag, and deprived it of its criminal code too.

But all this failed to impress the people of India who showed their anger against Modi and the BJP. Even dividing the region into two federal territories – Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir – and ruling over them directly from the central government did not help. The lesson is that such high-handed measures by any central government against any province do not help.

Modi also filled courts with his favourite judges who in December 2023 upheld the annexation of Kashmir. But that also shows that if you manipulate the judiciary in your favour, the people do not like it. The court has ordered that India’s election commission must hold legislative polls in the region by September 30, 2024. Modi tried to capitalize on this too but failed miserably as the opposition INDIA alliance could improve its position without capitalizing on Kashmir.

The latest tally is that the Indian National Congress won 99 seats, the Samajwadi Party 37, the Trinamool Congress 29, the DMK 22, and Shiv Sena 9. The most surprising result was in Uttar Pradesh – the centre of Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda. The BJP lost more than half the state’s seats and for the first time in 15 years failed to win the most seats.

The BJP’s candidate even lost in Ayodhya despite Modi building the Ram Temple there with much fanfare recently. Maharashtra and West Bengal too dealt major blows to Modi’s majority.

All this shows that secularism in India is still not dead, as some people in Pakistan claim and rejoice about it. The final lesson is that once secular traditions are established, they are not easily rooted out.

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