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The hidden story behind India’s remarkable election results: lethal heat | Amitava Kumar
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The hidden story behind India’s remarkable election results: lethal heat | Amitava Kumar

The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), led by India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has won more seats than the opposition alliance, and yet its victory tastes of defeat. Why?

In the days leading to the election, the BJP’s main slogan had been Abki baar, 400 Paar, a call to voters to send more than 400 of its candidates to the 543-member parliament. This slogan, voiced by Modi at his campaign rallies, set a high bar for the party. Most exit polls had predicted a massive victory for the BJP – and now the results, with that party having won only 240 seats, suggest that the electorate has sent a chastening message to the ruling party and trimmed its hubris.

Let’s take as an example what has happened in the Faizabad constituency.

Faizabad, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, also includes the city of Ayodhya. Back in January, Modi inaugurated, with tremendous fanfare and pomp, a temple built on the site where a Hindu mob had demolished a 16th-century mosque. The opening of the temple had not only brought to fruition a three-decade-old promise of the BJP, it also cemented the notion of India as a Hindu majoritarian state.

The inaugural ceremonies were led by Modi, and he stood inside the temple, in its sanctum sanctorum, with the head of the militantly ultranationalist Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Modi called that moment “the beginning of a new era”, but to many it signified the end of the secular ideals behind the idea of India.

And yet, one of the most significant outcomes in this election has been the defeat of the BJP candidate in Ayodhya. It was not the inauguration of the temple and the televised spectacle attended by celebrities that mattered in the end; instead, it was the more pressing issues of unemployment and price rise that the voters cared about. A survey spread across 19 of India’s 28 states showed that while 22% of the people felt that the temple was the Modi government’s “most liked” action, only 8% said that it was their primary concern. In contrast, unemployment was the primary concern for 27% of those surveyed.

You wouldn’t know this if you heard the hype in India’s television studios, where enthusiastic anchors mirrored Modi’s aggressive statements, particularly his hostile and bigoted remarks about Muslims – but there was no Modi wave. There was only the heatwave. Just this week, in my hometown of Patna, in eastern India, I met a man named Ashutosh Pandey who told me that the level of heat had proved fatal for people in his own village: he wasn’t going to risk voting, and neither was his mother.

People in Patna voted on 1 June, the last day of the seven-phase polling schedule. In Patna, the temperature had hovered above 40C. Local newspapers carried government ads exhorting voters to exercise their franchise, as well as half-page ads from the health ministry offering advice about how to avoid heatstroke. In the days leading to the voting in Patna, there were reports of personnel at polling stations dying from the heat. In the nation’s capital, Delhi, there were protests over water shortages. Last week, the temperature in Delhi hit 49.9C.

One could say that the overbearing, unendurable heat was an obstacle to democracy because it was impossible for many – especially those who are poor, need to earn their livelihood or are without means of travel – to contemplate standing in a line to vote.

The crucial point to be noted here is that the heat did not figure at all among the thundering sentiments delivered from the dais by the candidates. The prominent environmentalist Ashish Kothari told me that the “full dimensions of the climate crisis” had escaped both the BJP’s and Congress’s manifestos. In the face of such silence, it fell on the Delhi High Court to warn of the effects of global warming this past week: The court warned that Delhi could soon turn into “a barren desert.”

Perhaps the election results hold a small promise of change. The Indian electorate has resurrected a viable opposition in the parliament – a possibility that had seemed remote when the television channels were forecasting an inevitable and overwhelming BJP triumph. There might still be drama in store with shifting alliances in the coming days. But all of this will appear ordinary, maybe banal, and certainly irresponsible and deadly, when the effects of overheating and water shortage spread through India.

The truth about climate change is that it exacerbates social inequities, and once multiple crises begin to unfold in the future, one of the first victims will be the faith in democracy that we are all experiencing in this heady moment.

  • Amitava Kumar is an Indian journalist and author. His latest novel, My Beloved Life, is out now.

Source: theguardian.com