Violence In Indian Politics: A Never Ending Story

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The key ingredients to winning an election can be classified as follows; a respected candidate, an inclusive manifesto and relentless campaigning. But in India, there is another ingredient which is used to sometimes win or even disrupt elections every now and then. This ingredient is violence. Vandalising public property, burning vehicles, stone pelting, use of guns and old-fashioned rioting are a common theme in Indian elections. Let’s see some of the reasons why violence is used to tamper elections in the world’s largest democracy.

Reducing voter turnout

When a constituency that is due to vote experiences violence of any form, it causes widespread fear among the voters. In such situations, the voters, fearing violence prefer staying at home instead of voting. A reduced voter turnout can help politicians win or retain their office even with extremely thin margins as Indian elections do no warrant for a minimum voter turnout. This allows their supporters to sway the elections in their favour as they are the majority of the voters.

In 2017, elections in Anantnag, Jammu and Kashmir were canceled by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti after only 7% voter turnout was recorded during a by-poll in Srinagar. Mufti’s call came amidst violence that killed 8 people including security forces due to clashes with stone-pelting protestors. The protestors had taken to the streets to protest the unwarranted killings and atrocities caused by the security forces in Kashmir. When the protestors came face to face with the forces, violence broke out.

Disruption of elections

When the masses are unhappy with the status quo, they often take down to the streets to protest. During elections, such protests laced with violent actions can cause severe disruption. This causes the Election Commission to call for repolling in many booths to maintain the integrity and fairness of the elections. This can have a huge impact on key constituencies as a repoll usually witnesses a lower voter turnout.

In May 2018, violence was witnessed across a number of booths during the West Bengal Panchayat polls. Over 25 people were killed and many were reported injured. Supporters of all major political parties were severely affected by the violence. The West Bengal State Election Commission ordered a repoll in 568 of the 41,000 booths in the state after the events disrupted voting in those constituencies.

Influencing the vote

Many politicians have a tough time to get minorities to vote for them. To solve this problem, they follow a simple strategy, if they can’t get votes from minority groups, their opponent doesn’t either. This is achieved by using violence to scare and intimidate certain sections of societies. This refrains them from voting, thus allowing the candidates to secure an easy win.

Violence also serves as a distraction during an election. Many instances have been recorded where violence has been used to distract election officers and armed forces. This allows people of certain political groups or angry protestors to stuff ballots, steal ballot boxes or even destroy voter ballots to cause disruption or influence the vote. Such violations were recorded heavily during the 2018 West Bengal Panchayat Polls.

Intimidating smaller parties or independent candidates

In heavily polarised states, the ruling party often uses violence against opposition party members and independent candidates. This causes widespread fear and makes it easier for the ruling party to retain its power in the upcoming elections. Independent candidates, as well as members of smaller parties, are made to withdraw their nominations or support coalitions against their will. Aam Aadmi Party leader Santosh Koli died after being hit by a car while she was traveling to her office. Koli was a regular recipient of threats and intimidation to discourage her from raising her voice. Koli is one of the many people suspected of being murdered in a case of intimidation and political vendetta.

In August 2016, the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M) accused the Trinamool Congress of a ‘systematic campaign of threats and intimidation’. It raised the fact that over 180 left workers and leaders had been killed since the TMC came into power in the state since 2011.

Divide and conquer

Many a times, specific religious communities, ethnic minorities and refugees are framed as an ‘enemy’ to the state by the means of false campaigning, propaganda and orchestrated rioting. This causes a divide amongst the masses which is often exploited by politicians by the means of negative campaigns and hate speeches. This serves as a huge benefit during elections as divided sections of society are easier to influence compared to a huge voter base where public opinion is scattered.

After the 2002 riots in Gujarat, the state witnessed severe polarisation based on communal grounds. Religious politics thrived in the state and the Hindu-Muslim divide was exploited to gather votes. The ruling party’s shortcomings would often be blamed on minorities and specific religious groups. Campaign speeches often featured messages of hatred and violence. Voters would often be reminded of the bloodshed that occurred in 2002 so that they would vote for a specific party to avoid further violence.

Why can’t it be stopped?

In a country like India, that is full of ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, the ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t cut it. In states like Kashmir violence is often caused by protests held by separatist forces and cross-border terrorism. While states like West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh tackle from violence based on ethnic and religious divides respectively. While the Centre and State Governments have worked closely with armed forces, police and the Election Commission of India (EIC) to curb election and political violence, it almost seems impossible.

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