India will soon start to vote…but blink and you’ll miss it


One of the most interesting facts about India’s upcoming general election – beginning April 19 and set to run in seven phases over six weeks – is the lack of attention it’s getting.

I don’t mean media coverage.

There is the usual sort, of course. Every media outlet in India and overseas has put out a piece or two to explain “the world’s largest democratic exercise”. And there are some attempts at analysis – of the choice before Indian voters and what these might mean for the country and the way it deals with the world.

But all too often, the coverage feels like a proforma exercise, something required by the news calendar. It lacks any genuine desire to look too deeply at what India is today, what might it want, seek to elect, and why.

Bloomberg talks (free piece) about the “hypnotic sway” of India’s “Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.

The Economist writes (paywall) about “Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party” and puts the Indian prime minister in the same category as Donald Trump. Both, it says, “are part of a much-written about wave of populist politics that includes leaders from Mr Trump and Mr Modi to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and France’s Marine Le Pen”.

So far, so usual. What about the April 19 election and the subsequent phases? What is the “hawa”? In other words,  how does the wind blow, as it used to be said when we, young journalists, covered India’s vibrant elections in the past?

There is little if any indication from the coverage.

So, does the wind not blow any longer?

Does it blow only one way?

Does it blow only one way everywhere across India?

Is everything Mr Modi and his BJP now? And if so, why? What has India lost or gained by this lack of uncertainty and excitement about its periodic tryst with the ballot box?

If I weren’t Indian born and bred, I too might think that the proforma coverage reflects a grey reality – that there are no gradations in the way Indians think in 2024, that everyone is seized by the delirium of this moment in political time.

It’s fair to note at this point that Mr Modi, his BJP, and their message of self-respect has enormous resonance among many Indians at home and abroad. That many believe this muscular thrust towards forging a new reality based on the faith and principles of India’s majority community marks real independence for the country, one distinct from that wrested from the British colonial masters in 1947. By that argument, this way of doing things is crucial for India to find its real place in the world.

That said, every election anywhere – even for a school board! – must have a frisson if it is really and truly an election. It must carry that essential charge – uncertainty. That there might be unexpected winners and losers.

In India 2024, that just doesn’t seem to be the case.

The media’s ennui simply reflects that reality. And in doing so, it says a great deal about the state of India today.

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