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Violence, legitimacy and the Indian elections


The gruesome sight of bodies of paramilitary troops stacked on the ground in front of a police station, killed by Maoists in a daylight attack in Chhattisgarh in Eastern India, daylight attackis a grim reminder of the violence that marks the election campaign, now in full swing. The coincidence of the killing and announcement of the elections is not accidental. Taking on the security forces is the most effective way for Maoists to assert their local control.  Such attacks are well calculated – meant as much to loot weapons and assert their influence as to show determination to enforce the poll boycott that Maoists have already announced. In view of these violent threats, polling is spread out over nine phases, which is necessary for the deployment and movement of troops to protect polling. The presence of paramilitary forces is imperative not just for ‘disturbed areas’ such as Kashmir or the North East, but for the country as a whole. Paradoxically, the world’s largest democracy can generate consent only under military protection.

The rise of law and order as a major election issue would probably give an edge to the electoral campaign of Mr Narendra Modi, the star campaigner of the NDA who has recently claimed that there have been no Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat during the past ten years, in sharp contrast to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – States led by his main critics. But the hope that ‘Modi will fix it’ is a dangerous delusion. The Modi mantra which sums up governance in terms of seven core issues – “family-based value system”, agriculture and villages, women empowerment, protection of “jal, jungle aur jameen, youth, democracy and knowledge” – does not make any special mention of law and order, which could be a tactical move to hold critics of his leadership style at bay. The fact remains however, that even in the event of an NDA victory in the forthcoming polls, law and order, as stipulated by the Constitution of India, will still remain the primary responsibility of the State government. That is where the buck stops.

As I have argued in my Puzzle of India’s Governance: Culture, Context and Comparative Theory and more recently, Politics in India: Structure, Process and Policy, when it comes to orderly rule, the central government can prod or hinder, but the primary responsibility to combine order, welfare and identity that alone can deliver governance still remains with India’s federal States. The central government can neither take over policing (short of an Emergency) nor deploy the Indian army in anti-Naxalite operations, for the reluctance of the army high command to engage in civilian warfare is well known. Incidents like the recent Maoist attack where local police had failed to follow proper operational procedures need to be controlled locally. Though the NDA is currently ahead of the UPA in opinion polls, the chances are that it might fall short of a majority in the Lok Sabha and will need support from regional leaders, precisely in the States which are most affected by Maoists. The strategic significance of this and the imperative of compromise that this entails are unlikely to be lost either on the NDA or the Maoists, or for that matter, the regional parties that dominate local politics.

To cope with the violence which casts its long shadow on contemporary politics, there are three issues that need urgent attention.

  • First, the linkage between widespread corruption and criminalisation of the political arena (charge-sheeted legislators, black money, bribery, nepotism) are visible signs of the symbiosis between lawlessness and disorder. As such, legitimacy-lowering activities by people in leading positions should be exposed in the media. In his recent, much publicised move, Mr Rahul Gandhi reached out to the tribals of Odisha, calling for radical action, and leaving it for the local administration to pick up the pieces after his hasty departure. The antics of Mr Kejriwal in his previous avatar as Delhi Chief Minister, staging a dharna against local police have now been followed up by the flagrant violation of rules against illegal assembly, which marked the start of his campaign in Maharashtra.
  • Secondly, the ‘model code of conduct’ – India’s all-purpose remedy against electoral malpractices – is no help against Maoists who explicitly reject the electoral option. However, a firm directive to political parties to refrain from seeking the help of Maoists overtly or covertly at the pain of appropriate sanctions by the Election Commission will possibly deny anti-state forces the political protection they get from local politicians and candidates.
  • Finally, India’s active judiciary and civil society need to remember that ‘hungry men rebel,’ is at best a dangerous half-truth. Being quintessentially strategic actors, the likely rebels are those who see a concrete benefit and an opportunity to strike and get away. The solution for turning rebels into stakeholders lies not in homilies but in fostering the rights to livelihood, security and property, backed by firm policing and administration, and holding local panchayats accountable for the maintenance of law and order.

Indian reaction from the high and low to Maoist violence has been mostly ritualistic. The Home Minister Mr Shinde “vowed to take revenge and to hunt down those involved in the attack” in nationally televised comments from Jagdalpur, a city near the place of attack. The dead bodies on public display, ceremonial salutes to the fallen, effete pronouncements against the ‘cowardly attack’, and the righteous sentiments of the Left and civil society activists linking the ‘cause’ of the attack to poverty and deprivation convey a dangerous sense of general drift. The long term challenge is to sustain the pace of democratisation and economic growth, effective and accountable policing, and to strive for a level playing field. But, in the short run, one needs to see the grim lesson from Chhattisgarh as a violent edge to India’s expanding democracy. For the safe conduct of the polls and to enhance the legitimacy of the outcome, it is supremely important for the government, regardless of which party or combination comes to power in June, to hold its nerve, and, to have faith in democracy but keep the powder dry.


Professor Subrata K. Mitra is the head of the department of Political Science at the South Asia Institute at the University of Heidelberg.


Published inIndia Votes 2014

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