The thing called mandate: Reflections on the moral compass of India’s electorate

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah 2

On the night of 22nd May, I was talking to a good friend, a sensible academic deeply committed to his students. We were anxious. Millions were desperately waiting for the results to be declared the next day. Perhaps we (and many others I am sure) were not waiting on the same lines. We were not keen on waiting because deep down we knew our vote did not make a case for that. Waiting and hope inform each other. We were not very hopeful but we agreed to silently witness the passage of time. I jokingly told my friend that the situation made me think of writing a short story in which the protagonist sleeps on the night of 22nd, wakes up on the 24th and throughout the story seeks to know what happened on the 23rd but keeps running into people who also missed the date and were equally restless.

Much to our unease, our literary yearnings have little bearing on our lives. We slept on the night of 22nd and woke up on the 23rd. Early in the day we got to know what we knew. While the NDA won 350 plus seats, the BJP,outperforming its 2014 stellar performance, emerged winner in as many as 303 seats.  It was spectacular indeed, both in terms of numbers and the margins of victory. In a democracy, how else does one come about understanding the spectacular success of a party. It boils down to who won and, occasionally, by what margin.

As soon as the results were declared, news anchors, winners, losers, intellectuals (a considerable chunk) described NDA’s victory in terms of “people’s will”. It was maintained that the people of India gave their verdict by decisively choosing NDA over other political formations. NDA’s victory, we were told, was the victory of the people of India. In the address to BJP workers on 23rd May, both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah repeatedly highlighted NDA’s victory through “will of the people”, “people have expressed their choice” etc. On the other side, Rahul Gandhi in his press conference too picked the same explanation for Congress’ debacle; the people of India have given their verdict and we must respect the mandate. This I think requires some deliberation.

In populist democracies across the world there is a repeated reference to “will of the people”. Very often this logic of “people have chosen” is employed to dismiss debates and earnest deliberations on crucial issues. Repeated recourse to “people’s mandate” is an attack at the legitimacy of any critical opinion vis-à-vis the government’s doings. In relation to India, while debating a move or policy of the Centre, it is not uncommon to come across statements such as, Before you criticise the government you must understand that it is elected by the people of India, or, It is the people of India who have chosen Narendra Modi as the country’s prime minister. Statements of this nature imply that whatever is done by the government is not simply done on behalf of the people but by the people. Naturally, mandate is to be respected. But, this phenomenon wherein ‘the people’ and ‘elected government’ become synonymous with each needs questioning.

How is one to respect “people’s choice” or “mandate” in a democracy? Is people’s choice beyond the reach of an inquiry that is fundamentally interested in  the moral foundations of our choices? Is there any scope in voicing serious concerns related to the moral compass of the electorate? Is voting simply geared towards a crass number game or it is to be understood as our hope and faith vis-à-vis a collective future?

Elections are important with reference to the operation of any democracy but the democratic spirit is beyond it. To restrict democracy’s essence to election’s results is to push the unfortunate to its limit. The essence of democracy lies in earnest deliberation, dissent, watchfulness, campaigns vis-à-vis social justice and inclusion, protests against violation of people’s rights and claims, and so forth. It is about inculcating a sense of deep connectedness in each of us, a feeling that urges us to think beyond ourselves and, consequently, strengthen progressive possibilities of representation. The 2019 mandate, in that respect, does not offer much. It is simply a readymade reference to altogether dismiss voices that differ. It is what makes the party in power claim with disconcerting ease that disagreeing with them is essentially disagreeing with the people of India.

Popular understanding of “people’s will” or “the people” is too simplistic. In a country like India where cultural and political diversity is exemplary, it is not easy to know “people’s will”. What we have at our disposal are numbers and they do suggest a mandate. However, it remains a populist one and not representative.

Ever since the 2019 results are out there have been so many write ups on EVMs. Few have once again informed us that more people voted for a political alliance other than NDA (an argument made much more forcefully in 2014). Why so many of us hold on to the EVM malfunctioning narrative? I for one have no evidence to back that but I still find it impossible to dismiss the likelihood of it. When I try to seek an answer to this strange ill-founded conviction, I go back to the ways in which I understand people in a democracy. I still find it difficult to believe that the majority has chosen what the results tell us. Candidates who openly indulged in hate and bigotry won by huge margins. How do I come to terms with it? I stick to the EVM narrative believing that people of India in decisive numbers cannot vote for hatred. However, deep down I also know that for the most part our fingers did press a specific button on the EVM.

The BJP launched Sadhvi Pragya Thakur as their candidate from Bhopal. Thakur is a terror-accused firebrand Hindu ascetic who is out on bail. Her candidature was defended on “technical grounds”. Reflecting on her getting the ticket, Gopalkrishna Gandhi succinctly articulated the issues with technicality of political contestations taking over ethical aspect of the same.  In the course of her campaign she called Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assasin, a patriot and asserted that all those who considered him a terrorist will be given a befitting reply in the elections. In no time she was criticised by many for her remarks including members of the BJP and as a nation, for a few days, we were relieved knowing our priorities remained in place. But then came the mandate in her favour. She defeated the Congress candidate by approximately 3.6 lakh votes. What does that tell us of our political choices and our aspirations as a people with respect to representation?

The 2019 mandate is about a kind of politics taking over, one that instills fear and polarises. It is not victory per se but victory of a specific kind. Highlighting how brazen and violent picking sides could be, it suggests a disconcerting righteousness that forcefully resists the possibility of knowing that there exist other choices. The opposition is reduced to nothing and the ‘losers’ are denied any right whatsoever to be entertained by human memory. More than loss, a mandate of this kind asserts a sense of defeat.

In his recent work How Democracy Ends, David Runciman draws our attention to how democracy itself can facilitate the mutilation of its soul. We can democratically do away with the very essence of democracy. A mandate against perpetual questioning, inclusive politics and development, and morally informed choices is surely in that direction. When people’s will is registered in favour of a combative politics that divides, fundamental tenets of democracy such as self-questioning and self-correction are rendered insignificant.

Amartya Sen in his recent article perceptively reflects on the 2019 elections and eventually asserts that a democracy demands more than the counting of votes. Sen’s engagement is deep and meaningful but there is more to this degeneration that calls for our attention as a people. At a time when cinema’s potential is understood in terms of box-office returns, legendary sportspersons are referred to solely in terms of their earnings, literature is reduced to sales, music to endless playlists, education to annual packages, talent to reality shows, and love to a massively televised spectacle, democracy, much to our misfortune, has no other option but to be reduced to numbers.

This mandate that is being referred to betrays the deep connections that exist between the political and the moral. Its forceful character makes it stand outside the five year cycle that we follow in India. As people of India gear towards a unifying politics based on ill-informed convictions as opposed to thinking about an accommodative one willing to revisit itself from time to time, we are on the verge of depriving democracy of its fundamental strength, its vulnerability. We can argue endlessly and make a convincing case that people of India did not vote for hatred and bigotry (one must hold on to that as fervently as one can), deep down we know we have lost something exceedingly crucial this time. Unsettling it might be but if we were to entertain the possibility of Gandhi and Godse contesting as opponents for a constituency, we might not be able to immediately answer who will get the mandate. Perhaps, deep down we know who will win. This very knowledge marks our loss as a  nation.

Irfanullah Farooqi teaches sociology at South Asian University.


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