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Issue 11

Issue XI: Editors’ Note

The past year saw COVID-19 and lockdowns as the only issues one extensively engaged with, both in their personal and professional lives. The question, “how has the pandemic been treating you?” slipped into every catch-up conversation with peers, friends, family and colleagues. With the current surge of cases in India once again, it is safe to say that even with the vaccine, the pandemic still continues to dominate a major part of our lives. We are constantly reminded of it every time we have to step outside our homes or log in to an online meeting or a Zoom birthday call. 

With this issue, we aim to provide our readers with a ‘pandemic-break’ and delve into stories that are equally important but may have been sidelined with constant COVID updates from newsrooms. 

To begin with, Madhulika Agarwal addresses an essential question revolving around what makes an event ‘newsworthy’ in the first place? And who has the authority on prioritising which news is worth the consumers’ attention? With Amazon’s Twitter antics having grabbed the attention of the media, Samyukta Prabhu and Rohan Pai use this opportunity to highlight the gig workers’ rights that have been sidelined by tech giants such as Amazon, specifically during the course of the pandemic. 

Akanksha Mishra covers the consequences of the Afghanistan peace deal on the country’s population, revealing a critical understanding of the negotiations between three stakeholders – the Taliban, the Afghan government and the United States. Speaking of the United States, Karantaj Singh analyses 100 days of Biden administration by critiquing as well as applauding his contribution towards restoring America’s identity in the global community. With New Zealand’s recently passed miscarriages bereavement leave law, Advaita Singh captures the reader’s attention by examining the relationship between workplaces, the economy and personal grief.

Closer to home, Saaransh Mishra confronts the structure of quasi-federalism in India and its exploitation by the ruling central government in implementing controversial laws such as the recent GNCTD Bill. Furthermore, Muskaan Kanodia explores the vote-bank anxieties behind the intense dedication of political parties towards temple beautification, which appears to complement the rise of religious politics in the country. Ridhima Manocha analyses the ruling government’s contradictory campaign attitudes towards CAA-NRC when contesting the current Assam Assembly elections. Meanwhile, Vaibhav Parik questions India’s Election Commission’s decision to hold the ongoing Assembly elections in multiple phases in the state of West Bengal.

Aarohi Sharma brings back the essential climate change debate and delves into why individuals continue to deny its existence and widespread impact. For our sports enthusiasts, Kavya Satish explores the possible reasons for the increasing loss of viewership and sponsorship in F1 and what it means for the future of the sport. 

To emphasise the immense strain that Coivd-19 has placed on our global healthcare systems, Saman Fatima explores how this has resulted in the marginalisation of treatments of other prevalent diseases among several populations. 

While other stories may continue to struggle to win the fight for our attention with the intensity of the pandemic, we hope our readers are able to take a step back and keep themselves updated with events beyond rising Covid-19 cases and vaccinations. 

-Ariba, Ashana Mathur, Harshita Bedi, Rujuta Singh

Picture Credits: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Categories
Issue 10

Politics of Postering – What the Walls Say in Tamil Nadu

In this country, street art and public political messaging are a common phenomenon. The ubiquitous student union announcements, boldly written on walls; the company advertisements along railway lines; or even protest art that temporarily flares up, to be wiped out alongside the protest  – everywhere we turn our walls display something. In Tamil Nadu, cinema posters and political parties have taken over the walls. The parties, big and small, national, regional, local, they all publicise their presence and their leadership with messaging on walls. Today, there are only traces, removed for the most part in preparation for the elections. But they are a part of the state’s culture – colourful, bold, and anywhere the eye turns. What is most interesting about this practice is that no one party holds a monopoly over this perennial campaign – if it is a campaign at all. This article is only the beginning of the exploration into this world. 

From larger-than-life banners, to small party symbols painted on walls along roads, these political references are a part of the states’ everyday life. It’s impossible to go anywhere without noticing a political symbol, a word of glowing praise emblazoned onto a wall, or the smiling face of a political leader. Most pass these reflections of the state’s diverse political milieu without much thought. Yet wherever you turn, you’re sure to see them. 

Something very striking on some walls is the appearance of two arrows almost bracketing the initials of a political party, with the addition of a year and the word ‘reserved’. This year marks the next election, and every party stakes a claim to a certain area, to a set of walls preceding this election. This wall, once marked off, is the hold of a single party until the next elections with a selection of posters stuck there. On the other hand, a large patch of wall could be white-washed and on it, in the colours of the party are painted the title or name of a particular local political figure. This is often followed by the names of this leader’s closest followers in the region. It should also be noted reservation of space is a fluid process, and not a necessary first step. However, the prominence and number of posters and painted slogans depends on the parties’ prominence in the local region. 

Of the various methods used to display their existence in an area, I would divide these into ‘poster-culture’, ‘paint-culture’ and ‘banner-culture’. 

Poster culture allows for greater political freedom in the individual it features, though the person it highlights (let’s call them the protagonist) is more often than not one of the more prominent faces in the party – a legislature member or a party leader. At the same time, these posters allow one to trace the political legitimacy of the person featured – smaller faces that appear towards the top of the poster, usually deceased leaders. Sometimes, with younger or less prominent functionaries in order to demonstrate their rising fortunes, they are placed immediately below the party leader, as the protagonist. There may also be groups of people in the poster, with the size and space left around it displaying the individuals’ importance – this is usually in cases of a party putting out good wishes. The text of the poster reveals the allegiance as well as what the protagonist’s titles in the party are. It is interesting to see what the posters say as well, the many titles it ascribes to the political representative or party leader – a continuation perhaps, of the culture of courts and temple proclamations of kings. 

Paint culture on the other hand is for a more local audience. Hired painters first pencil out their letters and accompanying symbols, before painting them in. Every leader is addressed by a different title, which is the focus of these messages. Horizontally aligned, as opposed to portrait alignment posters, and brightly displayed in party colours, these are meant to popularize the leader rather than provide a message. These magnify the title and subsume all other details, so that one is focused on the title of the one being praised, accompanied sometimes by party symbols.

As for banner culture, these banners are temporary. Legally they have been banned, but they do appear on occasion when the chief minister or another individual designated a ‘vip’. This is dependent, unlike posters and paint, on the party in power.  Median banners that sit in the middle of a road, or cut-outs that loom large over it. These are for special occasions, to demonstrate loyalty by the affiliated party members of the region. Special posters may often be used as well, alongside, or instead of banners in places. 

For poster and paint culture, while the party in power in a particular area may have a proliferation of their art, other parties with local representation may choose to represent themselves nearby as well. It is not out of place to see the blue elephant of the BSP, an Uttar Pradesh party, opposite the ruling party, the ADMK’s local MLA’s name painted on the wall. It is most interesting to note however, that the national party, the BJP, focuses its efforts on drawing lotuses on walls, with the most minimal of textual messaging. On the occasion of the visit of the Prime Minister or other higher party dignitaries, there are posters that may appear, sponsored by local groups. But these disappear within days. 

 The DMK’s ‘rising sun’ symbol, with an individual’s initials on the top left of both signs, which interestingly appeals to voters in English 

These are all always in the local, dominant language: Tamil. English words that are used are written in the Tamil script. However, over the last few years some English has appeared here and there. 

 In essence the posters and banners are celebratory and public. The art is in praise of an individual. While a fleeting glance will just reveal the name of a political leader, looking closer at this poster culture can reveal a lot about the local politics, embedded into these messages. This article has touched the surface. While the politics of the state is a study in itself, these posters are in a way a unifying political action – every party with a presence has their own way of expressing themselves in wall art or posters, and the way they chose to do it gives us a chance to examine party politics in a nutshell.

Nandan Sankriti Kaushik is a second-year History student at Ashoka University. 

All images have been taken by the author. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

 

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Issue 10

How Mamata’s Trinamool Broke The Glass Ceiling For Women In Politics

New Delhi: With 50 women candidates, or 17% of the 291 seats from where it is contesting a heated assembly election in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) has once again taken the lead amongst states that offer the largest space for women’s representation in politics.

In the outgoing assembly, 14% are women, well above the 8% national average across Vidhan Sabhas, though slightly below the 14.6% in Parliament and significantly below the 24% worldwide average presence of women in elected assemblies.

When Mamata declared ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that 41% of her party’s tickets would be given to women candidates, she translated her commitment to women’s participation in politics into action. If the rationale behind the “magic figure” of 41% appears unclear, it could simply have been that the “percentage was based on the number of women already in her shortlist”, said Tara Krishnaswamy of Shakti, a non-profit organisation that works to enable and increase women’s participation in electoral politics.

Of the 23 women who ran on a TMC ticket, nine got elected—the second highest contingent of women parliamentarians in the Lok Sabha, after the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That said, data suggest that while the TMC sails ahead of its opponents on this issue, the relatively higher participation of women in Bengal politics is part of a longer trend of gradual inclusion to which more than one party has contributed.

An examination of the profile of TMC women candidates over time also indicates that their inclusion in the party could well be the by-product of an instrumental approach to ticket distribution, rather than from the adhesion to a normative principle of equality that would prevail over electoral strategy.

TMC party members suggest that the inclusion of women in the party may be incidental to a selection strategy that does not consider gender to be either a particular advantage or an impediment to the party’s electoral prospect, even though Mamata has come out publicly in favour of women’s quotas.

“She is already committed to 33% reservation, but Mamata Banerjee has always tried to consider 50% women candidates,” said Dola Sen, the TMC MP in the Rajya Sabha, who has spent the last three decades as a trade union leader in West Bengal, and been a part of Mamata’s own efforts to develop and consolidate women’s solidarity into concrete electoral gains since the Nandigram and Singur movements.

Gradual Inclusion Of Women In State Politics

Since 1962, only 238 of the 4,119 individuals elected into the West Bengal State Assembly have been women.

Until the late 1980s, women barely made 2% of all legislators, a state of affairs to which both the Congress and the Left contributed equally. But starting in 1992 with the 73rd Amendment, which set up a three-tier panchayat system, women’s representation has risen steadily among candidates.

In the 2001 election, which took place after the split with the Congress and the formation of Mamata’s Trinamool Congress, women accounted for 9.5% of the members of the state assembly. From 1991 onwards, the percentage of women candidates has increased by about 1.5% in every election.

However, data gathered by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data shows that besides the TMC, other parties, especially the Left have also contributed to that rise.

For instance, even if the old generation of the CPM and its allies did not feel the need to extend their egalitarian views to women, the Left’s newer generation, led by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, was more inclined to include women among their candidates. In 2011, the state’s Left combine, including Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Forward Bloc and Socialist Unity Centre of India, gave 49 tickets to women candidates–higher than the 32 given by the TMC. And, significantly higher than the national parties: Congress has not given more than 10% of its tickets to women candidates to date, and the BJP, which has been fielding more women recently, increased its number of women candidates from 23 in 2011 to 32 in 2016.

Mamata Banerjee addressed a public meeting at Nandigram on 18 January 2021/ALL INDIA TRINAMOOL CONGRESS

As it opened the door to a greater inclusion of women in politics, the TMC took the lead in the past three elections. The party has also received considerable publicity for its inclusiveness–perhaps by virtue of getting many more women elected than its opponents. Sixty-two women from the TMC have been elected in the past 15 years; the Left has managed only 111 women in 54 years.

Profiles In Diversity

In the patriarchal world of politics, women politicians get easily stereotyped. While much of the media focus is on the five actresses fielded this year by the TMC, few are paying attention to the 46 other women contesting.

An examination of incumbency data reveals that men and women politicians in the TMC share the same turnover.

It is still early to make pronouncements about the 2021 candidates, but an examination of the 2016 women candidates reveals that the TMC recruits a diverse lot of women candidates. In 2016, only two of the party’s 45 women candidates were film or television stars; 17 belonged to political families (mostly wives of politicians); and 14 got elected.

In terms of occupation, 14 were self-declared housewives; the occupations of the rest were split between education (nine), social service (11) and business (six), among others.

That Banerjee consistently manages to identify such a large number of women candidates in the first place also must mean that she assiduously scouts for talent and sends out feelers to find the right women to offer tickets to, Krishnaswamy said.

As far as we could determine from the 2016 candidate list, only three of the women had any prior experience in local municipal bodies. A few others also seem to have emerged from the party’s organisation or familial connections while 18 ran for the first-time. Another 22 had already been elected twice or more times.

The TMC’s 2016 women candidates were also varied in terms of caste: 19 upper castes, 13 in SC-reserved seats and two in ST-reserved seats. There were only three women candidates from a backward class background, while nine were Muslims. It is worth noting that the TMC is probably the one party that offers the most representation to Muslim women in India. Like their male counterparts, most of the party’s women candidates were highly educated (24 graduates and above, while two were 8th pass candidates).

One cannot conclude that the TMC recruits “a certain type” of woman candidate, nor can we reduce their inclusion among the party’s candidates to a publicity stunt. But it is evident that the party chief believes that celebrity and star power help win seats.

Banerjee has “good equations with youngsters not only from film but also TV stars. She goes to their marriages and celebrations, spends time with them,” said political journalist Jayanta Ghosal. As a result, she has developed strong personal attachments with ‘Tollywood’, he said.

But could the candidature of these celebrities appear exploitative at times, especially in constituencies where strong local female politicians have been overlooked in spite of years of grassroots work?

While giving tickets to celebrities is a formula that has generally worked well for the TMC in the past (especially in heavily contested seats where inner party rivalries are at work) it also raises questions about whether this is a deliberate strategy to keep complacent old-timers on their toes and balance whatever power challenges they may throw her way with newcomers who will be loyal.

Like all political leaders, Mamata, too, puts a premium on personal loyalty. “People who are new, have the least expectations. Most candidates talk about the party, Mamata’s achievements and schemes. No one is campaigning on the strength of their own work,” said Krishnaswamy.

Compared to most other parties, the TMC stands out by making women political actors rather than mere figureheads for electoral mobilization. Unlike other women chief ministers who work in a quasi-exclusively male environment, Mamata has surrounded herself over time with women contributing to party work or to the cabinet.

Five of her 42 ministers are women, some holding several important portfolios or portfolios not immediately connected to women’s issues, like agriculture, fisheries, SMEs or land reforms.

Her party’s organisation includes large numbers of women office holders, and many women play a prominent role in campaigns.

That Mamata has consistently supported strong women in politics and led by example, is no secret. Nor is the fact that the TMC is one of the only parties on India’s political map that seeks to consolidate women as a powerful vote bank through political participation, rather than sops.

Her genuine desire for inclusion of women in politics is evident, and her supporters say a result of her own political struggles. “Unlike so many other Indian politicians who are women, Mamata Banerjee never had a man helping her – with due respect to others, she is no one’s daughter, wife, widow or girlfriend,” said Dola Sen.

“Look at me, for example,” she said, “We are independent, efficient and competent politicians with or without reservation!”

Gilles Verniers is assistant professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data.

Maya Mirchandani is assistant professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

Niharika Mehrotra, an undergraduate student in the Political Science major, assisted with data collection

This piece was republished from Article 14 with permission of the author. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

The Biden-Harris Campaign: Representation or Presentation?

On 20th January, as Joe Biden was sworn in as United States of America’s 46th president, Democrats celebrated Donald Trump’s departure from the office while also rejoicing in Kamala Harris’ entry. Kamala Harris, the vice-president with several firsts, has been the talk of the news cycles ever since she was picked by Joe Biden as her running mate, after she suspended her own presidential campaign in August.  USA’s first woman, Indian-American, Asian vice president’s candidacy has added onto the world’s fixation with US politics because of the position and the power the country holds in global affairs. It is extremely important to acknowledge and appreciate Harris reclaiming space where women, especially black and other women of colour are constantly overlooked, silenced and shut — as also noted by Harris in her speech. This joy gets doubled when one looks at it as a victory that comes off at the heels of an administration that has  enabled white supremacy. 

Though Kamala’s Harris’ entry is a historical win for the United States of America in most means, people of the country are looking at Kamala Harris unidimensionally, and reducing her existence to only her identity:  Indians, both in USA and abroad, have been quick to claim her as their own, just like they have always been with every successful member of the diaspora, with remote links that root them back to the homeland. The internet is flooded with people from all over the world, especially Indians reacting to someone who “looks like them” making a place for herself in a majoritarian white-male office. From people calling her “Kamala Aunty” to Mindy Kaling claiming that her toddler does not see a difference between Harris and Kaling herself, Indians, mostly Hindu, out of which a significant portion is upper caste, immediately appropriated every aspect of Kamala Harris’ existence to make it their own. Many feminists are referring to Harris as “girlboss”, a term most commonly used to describe women in power, that has been criticised time and again for straying away from activism. 

Such a reductionary approach to a politician is definitely not new but it is dangerous as it tends to be used as a weapon by the candidates to mask their intentions and mislead the voters into buying a revisionist identity. Kamala Harris’ campaign is often seen focusing on Harris “going back to her roots”, whether it is making dosas with Mindy Kaling or talking about the importance of idlis and festivals in her mother’s house, time and time again we have seen Kamala Harris’ identity been marketed as an identity tool to appeal to a particular kind of vote bank — the upper castes from the Hindu diaspora through quick and lazy surface level tropes. Identity Politics, that is crucial for bringing forward a diverse panel to avoid trampling of minorities in the country, is increasingly being misinterpreted and reduced to a marketing tactic that caters to the “feel good” sentimentality without actually bringing any tangible change. 

Representation holds concrete value, however, only when the candidate reflects back onto the struggles of the community they claim to represent. There is nothing about Kamala Harris’ candidature that separates her from her white colleagues and opponents. . It is extremely hypocritical of Harris to bring up her “Jamaican roots” and talk about smoking pot as a youngster and claiming to be for the legalisation of the same. when she saw around 2,000 marijuana related convictions during her term in San-Francisco.  All this is just talk that profits off people’s struggles by giving them a false sense of relatability when in reality it is hollow, keeps stereotypes alive,while enabling divide and rule of the proletariat. This kind of playing on the sentiments of the voters also helps the public hold their representatives less accountable — the marketing strategies of the campaign are rolled out in such a manner that only diverts all attention to just one part of the candidate, their persona, completely taking away the focus from their policies and ideology.  

During the peak of Black Lives Matter movement in America, the Jamaican side of Kamala Harris’ identity was brought out time and again. She called herself a proud black woman, talked about her experience as a black student in college, told the public about the societies she was a part of in college that helped her get a deeper understanding of her community and its struggles, she calls herself a “progressive prosecutor”. However, if one looks at her past actions, we can see how during her term alone in California, more than ⅔ of the men killed by police officers were people of colour, of which a majority were unarmed. She was also responsible for holding black men longer in jails when they were eligible for release just to extract cheap labour out of them. It is disheartening to see an important movement that seeks to bring resolution to racial disparity in the country being twisted to fit a political campaign and agenda, when the candidate does not comply with anything that the movement stands for. Kamala Harris’ campaign runs in a similar manner to that of any big co-operative, where they take people’s real struggles, and capitalise on them under the false pretense of bringing forward a social change — like how brands do with LGBT struggles during the pride month.   

Kamala Harris has also constantly referred to herself as a feminist beacon, who purportedly understands women’s struggles when her activites have shown otherwise. Harris has not done much that aligned with the feminist movement, more so, she has been dangerous to the sex workers and the trans community alike. In 2008, Kamal Harris opposed the Proposition K, which was directed at decriminalisation of sex work and prevention of STIs. She argued that Proposition K unfurled “a welcome mat for pimps and prostitutes to come into San Francisco”. Her campaign completely ignores this past of Kamala, which had put women into danger and continues to show her as a feminist crusader and a “girlboss” who would bring a fresh perspective and voice into the US politics. She willingness of people to selectively see their candidates as it seems fit to them, makes it even more convenient for the campaign to do so. She also claims to be pro-decriminalisation of sex work but has not even commented to make amends to this action she undertook as an attorney general. 

The Democratic party during the Biden-Harris campaign has shown exactly what happens when neo-liberals twist the identity politics model, and reduce it to a weapon that centres itself around one aspect of an individual’s identity and uses it as a ladder while aligning with interests do nothing to dismantle a pre-existing model, all the while disillusioning the masses into believing that they would bring some concrete and effective change. 

Madhulika Agarwal is a third year English and Media Studies major who is interested in literature by children and for children. When she is not lamenting over her tiktok career that ended before it could start, she likes learning about animals and reading books with good art in them. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 2

A Vote for America’s Soul

Since 2016, American politics and governance have been marked by a disappointing lack of trust in institutions, both international and domestic. Now, amidst the pandemic and during the run-up to the presidential elections, most of the world has been looking at the United States with a mix of shock, bewilderment and exasperation. Even as the diminution of America’s image and it’s power began before the pandemic, it has come into sharp focus this year. The country’s reputation seems to be in a free-fall. The perception of the USA seems to be that of a first-world country increasingly acting like a third-world country. A Pew Research Center poll of 13 countries (such as Japan, Australia, and Germany and Canada) found that its populations have been looking at the United States in its most negative light in many years. In all the countries surveyed, most respondents thought that the United States was botching its pandemic response.

As a candidate starting in 2015, President Donald Trump prioritized “America First”, in what he promised would be the “major and overriding theme” of his administration. By doing so, he pushed for nationalist, and anti-interventionist policies at the global stage. Nearly five years later, it is evident that we are now living through arguably one of the worst presidencies in modern history. For Trump, “America First” seems to stand for Trump first, America second, and Americans all alone. Starting with the global financial crisis, and exacerbated by the stewardship of Donald Trump, the USA evidently no longer occupies the position of the undisputed leader of the free world. International accords have been snubbed, policy agreements have been left unsigned all in the name of an America First policy. In 2017, the US pulled out of the 2015 Paris Climate deal, originally signed by 196 countries, to widespread condemnation. Donald Trump also weakened NATO by not publicly announcing USA’s compliance with Article 5 of it’s charter. His refusal to support the idea of collective defence commitment shook the base of the military alliance. The culmination of the last 4 years, compounded by the gross mismanagement of the pandemic, is that the status and power that American citizens have enjoyed is rapidly waning. Commensurately, the passport of the United States has lost the enviable status it once enjoyed, with a large swathe of countries disallowing American citizens. President Trump’s handling of the pandemic has automatically implicated US citizens with his racist and anti-science perspective. 

Within America itself, the presidency and Mr. Trump’s businesses have lost logical and moral separation. He makes money by visiting his own golf resort in Mar-a-Lago as a sitting President. The Trump International Hotel in Washington has become a meeting site for conservative politicians and lobbyists, for those currying favor in Republican halls of power. Donald Trump’s reluctance to release his Income Tax returns, and the subsequent leak by the New York Times paint a worrying picture of his financial liabilities, amounting to more than 420 million dollars. The President has reportedly only paid taxes in 11 out of the 15 years with available data. In 2016 and 2017, he only paid 750$ in Federal taxes. Additionally, The Justice Department has been transformed from a public affairs apparatus to a partisan instrument of the administration. William Barr, the Attorney General has taken strides to diminish the reputation of his department, one that is supposed to be a legitimate arm of the government that seeks public trust. As the commander-in-chief, Trump has also repeatedly disparaged the military and servicemen, calling them “sore losers”.

Worryingly, Mr. Trump refuses to commit to the American populace a peaceful transition of power after November 3rd, raising fears that he would mount an unprecedented effort to wield power after an electoral loss, leading the nation into unchartered territory at a historical moment defined by national and international tensions. Poll predictions of the race have remained steady, with Biden continuing to hold a significant lead. This has been sustained through all sorts of turbulent developments and drama that are characteristic of Donald Trump. 

Joe Biden’s electoral campaign has been centered around a referendum on Donald Trump. Through a 47-year long career as a Senator, Joe Biden has had a mixed record on issues, and has hardly been progressive. His redemption, however, comes with his willingness to consult, listen to and follow through with the advice of experts on issues ranging from healthcare and climate change, to policing reforms. The Democratic Party continues to deliver searing moral rebukes of Trump’s 4 year tenure in the White House, a stance that doesn’t seem far removed from the truth. Delivering to Donald Trump 8 years at the helm of the country will result in fundamentally altering the idea of America. His personal contempt for American values and institutions might convince Americans that democracy and checks of power do not work. The scary implications of a second Trump term justify this election as a test of America’s moral pulse, the trajectory of the country, and the world. 

The triumphs of globalization seem to be firmly in the past. Countries across the world are struggling with widening inequality and mercantilist impulses. Isolationist stances by leaders are becoming common. Democracy and its institutions seem to be in a decline across the world, and nationalism is apparently the flavour of the day. International institutions, the bastions of a coordinated global society are paralyzed by those initially championing them, by too much bureaucracy and evidently too little investment. All this is occurring as the clock of climate change ticks at an accelerating rate. To navigate this, the United States will need to move beyond the recklessness emblematic of this administration. America still has the world’s strongest military, the most influential economy, widest-ranging alliance system, and with it the most potent soft power in the world. However, a reinvention is needed to figure out America’s role in the world. That begins with the election of 2020, and recognizing it as a vote for the soul of the country.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Uncategorized

COVID or Not, The Campaign Must Go On

By Neelanjan Sircar

The upcoming polls, in Assam, Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, pose unprecedented challenges in election management. Even in the best of times, regulating the behaviour of political actors during elections is nearly impossible. Anecdotally, candidates regularly spend over the farcically low spending limits for candidates (although the official data show otherwise) and all manner of distribution of alcohol and cash occur in the days leading up to the polls. But this year has brought forth even more challenges. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, parties will be heavily restricted in hosting rallies or other large public events that are so crucial to a standard political campaign.

But the campaign must go on. I imagine that two campaign activities will be used as substitutes for the traditional campaign. First, in the absence of large public gatherings convened by high profile politicians, parties will have to rely much more on “within village” activities like door-to-door canvassing. Second, outreach to voters — especially from the party elite — will be far more dependent upon social media and other digital media. 

This will likely generate advantages for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by far the most well-funded party that has invested the most in its social media campaign strategies. For instance, data from the fiscal year 2017-2018 provided from Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) shows that the BJP received 210 crores out of the total of 222 crores from the controversial “electoral bond scheme” ushered in by the BJP, a staggering 95% of all electoral financing through the electoral bond method. This infusion of money has been crucial to maintaining electoral machinery that swells to impressive proportions during election time. For instance, in the 2019 national election, the BJP fielded an army of panna pramukhs (literally page chiefs), who were assigned to keep track of 30-60 voters each. While panna pramukhs were not fielded everywhere, the very fact that they can be fielded over a large swathe of the country indicates both the scale of funding available to the BJP and its commitment to building dense ground-level machinery during election time.

The existing investment in ground-level campaigning will be a huge asset for the BJP. In a time when movement is restricted due to the COVID pandemic, the ability of ground-level workers to mobilize and bring people to the polls is likely to have a greater impact. Furthermore, these same restrictions will make bureaucratic monitoring of elections and campaign behaviour more difficult, perhaps emboldening ground-level actors to use quasi-legal means to mobilize voters.

The BJP also has consistently demonstrated its proficiency in reaching voters through social media. The BJP of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah may not have been unique in their political appeals with respect to religion and caste, but it has been an innovator in campaign methods. Outside of the Congress, the (regional) parties that grew out of the 1990s built their campaigns in a particular manner that was labour-intensive and dependent upon the control of ground-level leaders that often had caste credentials. The BJP realized that if it had to spread beyond its traditional bases of support, it would have to develop a method of directly reaching the voter in places where it did not carry favours with local elites. The development of a strong social media campaign has created a direct channel between the central leadership, and Prime Minister Modi in particular, with the voter. This was a strategy that was effective, for instance, in the 2019 national elections in West Bengal.

Google search data provides a suggestive data point for BJP’s dominance in social media campaigning. While it is true that users of Google are likely to be younger, wealthier, and more educated than the general population, the recent spread of cheap smartphones in the countryside has significantly broadened access to the platform across India. In Google searches about politicians over the 2019 election period, an extraordinary 75% of searches were about Narendra Modi, compared to just 12% about Rahul Gandhi. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The BJP purportedly has extraordinary advantages in most social media and peer-to-peer campaigning through platforms like Whatsapp. 

Here too, the challenges of monitoring and auditing party behaviour are likely to be significant. During the elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has significant policing powers, regulating the content of campaigns and policy promises. As communication with the voter decidedly shifts towards social and digital media, where the content is less visible to third parties, the ECI is compromised in being able to regulate campaigns.

The 2019 national election exposed concerns about the impartiality of the ECI. A number of observers felt that, in the process of regulating content, the ECI showed biases towards the ruling BJP. This was in stark contrast to the narrative of the ECI that had started in the 1990s under TN Seshan and continued by subsequent heads of the ECI — which was seen as aggressively maintaining a level playing field for candidates and parties. The consequence of a level playing field was the democratization of the electoral space with new parties and new kinds of electoral appeals entering the system. 

The real threat to democratic norms today is not a momentary shift in campaign tactics due to the COVID pandemic. Rather, it is the fear that new forms of campaigning that are effective in skirting regulatory norms will get locked in, particularly when the ECI has shown little interest in innovating to meet these challenges. For all of its pathologies, the Indian electoral system showed that simply allowing parties to compete on equal footing generating high turnover in ruling parties at both the state and national levels.

Today, as the very basis of equal political competition is being challenged, we must wonder if brute force and money are all that is required to win elections.

Neelanjan Sircar is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His research interests include Indian political economy and comparative political behavior .

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