Almost a Billion Indians Will Vote This Month…..

Photograph Source: Election Commission Of India – GODL India

Dimitris Givisis: How do you judge things in the run-up to the elections?

Vijay Prashad: India’s elections are a mammoth exercise, with 970 million people allowed to vote between April 19 and June 1. The election itself started with a scandal around Electoral Bonds, which are monetary vehicles that would allow undeclared money to be raised by the various political parties. The Left parties exposed this, and the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. However, the issue of the Electoral Bonds reveals that this election – just as the past parliamentary election of 2019 – will be extraordinarily expensive (around $8.5 billion was spent on the 2019 election, and this time it is expected that the price will be higher). Most of the money is being siphoned into the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of prime minister Narendra Modi. The election will end up being defined by money power, which has greatly undermined the spirit of democracy in India.

Money power means that the BJP is also able to capture media attention. The entire corporate media is fixated on this or that aspect of the BJP agenda, and it focuses on Modi as if he is divinity. That Modi never gives a press conference is not an issue for the media. They are quite happy to play videos of him standing around, talking to people, and to allow his surrogates to come on the air to speak for him. The corporate media is entirely for the BJP and its government. Any dissident media is either bought out (such as NDTV) or its journalists imprisoned (such as Newsclick).

Dimitris: Under what social and economic conditions are these elections held?

Vijay: Over the past several years, India’s economy has grown faster than the economies in the Global North (by about 7% over the past decade). However, this growth has been very uneven. About ninety percent of the Indian population lives on less than $3,500 per year. The World Inequality Lab has shown that India’s inequality rate now is higher than it has been in over a hundred years. This is a scathing indictment of the Modi government since 2014. The imbalance of rapid growth and inequality defines the condition of these elections. These imbalances differ across the different regions of India, with greater inequalities in the north of the country; it is one of the great mysteries that in the area of greatest inequality, Modi and the right-wing perform strongest. In the areas of lower inequality, such as in southern India, the regional parties and the left perform better than the right-wing. This might have something to with literacy rates and rates of social confidence.

Dimitris: In these elections we see great dominance of Narendra Modi. What do you attribute this to?

Vijay: Modi has achieved something unique in Indian history. His right-wing party is both anti-state and uses the state more than any previous ruling party. What it has done is to centralise the image of Indian state in Modi, and to provide social welfare schemes in his name rather than in the name of the state; at the same time, the state has lessened regulations of capital and provided enormous advantages to close allies of Modi. So, Modi is both the saviour of big capital and of those who need social welfare. This centralisation of the state into Modi’s persona has allowed the right-wing to overshadow all other parties in India and to make this an election of Modi against everyone else.

It is not that Modi is a ‘populist’, a word used casually these days to define the politics of the far right. There is very little that is populist in Modi’s political agenda. Certainly, he has centralised social welfare into his person, and he has driven a strong religious agenda into Indian nationalism (with the inauguration of a temple to Ram in the city of Ayodhya). If he were a populist, he might have handled the farmers protest differently, perhaps even pretending to be on their side. Modi’s agenda is sinister. It accuses any political opponents of being ‘anti-national’, of being agents of a foreign power, of being against development, and so on. It is a clever way to say that anyone who does not agree with him is anti-India. In that sense, he tries to associate himself as a person with India as a political entity.

Dimitris: What prospects do you see for the Indian Left in these elections?

Vijay: The Left has an uphill fight. Left parties will win some seats in Kerala, which remains an important bastion for the Left, and – through alliances – in Tamil Nadu. There is a slim chance of making a recovery in West Bengal. However, in the heartland – in northern and western India – the Left does not play a significant electoral role. The main role of the Left has been to corral the opposition into the INDIA bloc, although even here the Left’s leadership has not been able to inject energy into the lethargic regional parties and the parties of the centre-right. They have not been able to create the kind of momentum required to properly develop an alternative project to put before the nation. Despite Modi’s advantages, he has yet used the machinery of the State to arrest and harass political forces of the centre-left (such as of the Aam Aadmi or Ordinary People Party that rules Delhi) and the left. It shows the anxiety in the BJP, which although confident of victory would like to vanquish the left, which remains the most articulate critic of the right-wing political project of the BJP.

Dimitris: What prospects are there to overcome this multifaceted crisis India is facing?

Vijay: India politics struggles with the collapse of the parties of the centre. The Congress Party, which remains the largest national party after the BJP, is a pale shadow of its former self. It has no unifying project and has no organisational enthusiasm that would be driven by young cadre eager to shape India into their image. None of that. It struggles to carry on through the fumes of a dynasty that is exhausted. Only when a social democratic force truly appears, a force that can ally with the left and with the regional parties, and only if it appears in India’s west and north, only then can a real challenge to the far right be mounted. Such a social democratic political project would have to put the eradication of social misery at its heart. Right now, such a project is not visible on the horizon.