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India’s April-May general election for members of the Lower House of parliament saw an historic voter turnout of 66.4% (the highest ever recorded in any national election). The right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the election with 282 of 543 seats (51.93%), now holding a majority in the world’s largest democracy, where the size of the population eligible to vote is over 800 million, including 150 million newly registered voters between 18 and 23.
An increase in voting by women in general, was observed at this election. ‘Women’s empowerment’, though not very clearly defined, and the safety and security of women, was a key electoral issue, and part of the manifestos of all major national parties. Televised and on-the-ground debates about the increasing violence against women, and persistent gender disparities, were central to this election in a way unseen in earlier ones.
The Indian National Congress (INC), which led the United Progressive Alliance that ruled the country for the past ten years, suffered its worst defeat in history – receiving less than 20% of the popular vote and winning just 44 seats. However, as one of India’s leading social critics, Arundhati Roy, noted there is no apparent departure from the former Congress-led government’s economic policies, with the BJP championing unbridled economic growth at the expense of the environment and human rights. The BJP’s leader Narendra Modi spent 13 years as state minister of Gujarat state on India’s west coast, where in 2002, some 2,000 minority Muslims were systematically slaughtered, and countless others tortured, raped, maimed, and over 100,000 homes seriously damaged or destroyed.
The election results look to reflect then, not only a rejection of Congress rule, but the successful overhauling of Narendra Modi’s image through the country’s most impressive electoral PR campaign to date.
Women’s rights activists watchful
Modi was recast from the man who presided over violent pogroms to the architect of the “Gujarat Model” symbolizing rapid economic development with clean and efficient governance; and from a rabid fundamentalist to a mature, inclusive national leader. Women’s rights activists are not fooled by the image reshuffle, however.
Feminist writer and activist Vasanth Kannabiran is deeply concerned by Modi’s track record as Chief Minister of Gujarat, and whether this foreshadows positions that his government will take at the national level: “The long term impact on minority rights and communal relations will have to be watched.”
For women’s rights activist Abha Bhaiya, “[w]e still need to wait and see how BJP fares on issues of women's rights, minority rights, and communal politics and practices. It appears obvious which side they are going to lean. The fact is that violence against women and girls has never been so brutal, so extensive” In her view, the BJP will continue the neoliberal development model promoted by the Congress, accelerating “the pace of selling the nation to the global market and the corporate sector. The displacement of the poor, tribals, Dalits, … all marginalized [groups] will bear the brunt of this newer dawn of the nation.”
Bhaiya and many other women’s rights activists were expecting the BJP to win.For them, the elections marked the defeat of various movements, clearly pointing to the lack of popular support. “We have not been able to build our constituency. We know the reasons for this and this moment in history must be used by us to do serious reflection.” An activist working at a sexuality rights organization, R. says “The future does not bode well for overall development or rights-related issues --the current government is likely to focus on whetting the middle class' aspirations at the expense of all else - the poor, the environment, and any 'minority' groups..” Bhaiya concurs, saying, “[t]he deadly combination of the fundamentalists and the capitalists is something we are all dreading. The destruction and sale of natural resources is inevitable. We are in for a dark period in history.”
Rights violations are already occuring
There are real concerns that the BJP will clamp down on civil society organizing and that democratic space will shrink under Modi’s rule. Kannabiran emphasized the Intelligence Bureau’s submission of a report to the Prime Minister’s Office arguing “that foreign-funded NGOs are obstructing development”. She says “there will be greater censorship and repression from the police on civil society groups. It is a difficult path ahead, (and our) work has to be very slow and steady. There has to be a rethinking, fresh strategies and a new language to talk to people.”
Maya Ganesh, working from Bangalore with international information rights and advocacy organization Tactical Tech, says that already impacts are being felt, with international environmental organization Greenpeace targeted in the recent Intelligence Bureau report, as attacking India’s coal sector and threatening development. “Everything we feared has happened so soon. Industry supported Modi and is trying to push their skewed notion of 'development', and the voice of dissent has been targeted.” Already “More than ten people have been arrested for saying ‘defamatory’ things online about Narendra Modi. When the last government was challenged it was 'freedom of speech', now it is called 'defamation'.”
For now, R. sees social movements as “watching, analyzing and critiquing, but from all accounts, space for free expression and dissent is also surreptitiously disappearing. However, we have many strong and fearless people who continue to speak up, so there is hope that things will not get too bad.”
Bhaiya’s assurance is that as “ feminists, we will continue to struggle and carry on our work. We are not going to stop our work or allow any paralysis, [even though] in fact our tasks are heavier, but [they are] critical. I am an optimist and do believe in people's wisdom."
Feminist researcher-activist Srilatha Batliwala also maintains her optimism: “For the past sixty years, Indians have become used to a high level of civil liberties and democratic space. While many—especially the middle and upper-middle classes—may be willing to surrender some of these in exchange for a high growth rate and less corruption (at least of the kind that affects them), after a while, they or their children will react against a serious curbing of their freedoms. And those from more marginalized groups, who do not benefit much from the current model of development, will not suffer long in silence. Indians are simply too used to protesting and speaking out.”
With the BJP in power for only a couple of months and rape scandals in India intensifying, women’s rights advocates like Kannabiran hope that, “after his huge victory, he may take care to protect his image internationally at least. He has a team of expert advisors and seems to be taking their advice. So he may… realize that his continuing success is linked to the protection of all rights. That is a hope. On the range of disgusting remarks made in public by politicians, he has not yet reacted and I am not sure whether he will act. That is another test.”
Women’s rights and feminist activists from around the world will be watching the BJP and supporting our sisters in India in solidarity.
Thanks to Saira Zuberi and Srilatha Batliwala for research assistance.