How do heartless leaders win elections? Part 2: India and beyond

In India, although Modi failed to deliver on election promises of economic growth, he drew public through hypocritical arguments about the importance of protecting the Hindu nation against Pakistan. The elections came at a crucial time when two Indian Army pilots captured by the Pakistani military were released back into India. The fanfare around their release gave the BJP and Modi enough momentum to stoke nationalist fires. Parties associated with the BJP had already done plenty to fan communalism through social media, and so Pakistan’s capture of the pilots created the means to continue nationalist messaging in public spaces to keep the fervor at fever pitch. The supremacy of the far-right Hindu nationalists is becoming widespread and overt in its reach under the Modi government. Modi openly articulates his allegiance with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS, and its divisive nationalism and Hindu militancy.

Besides masking economic growth with nationalism, Modi and the BJP have used the figure of the woman as a symbol of nationalism. This ploy has been enacted since before India’s struggle for independence from British rule. In the last election, Modi promised that he would make sure women had rights but did nothing to curb violence against women. While the BJP under Modi talks about Hindu womanhood and protecting women, drawing upon the religious trope of worshiping goddesses, we see the government’s hypocrisy in turning a blind eye to the rape of young women and children, particularly in Muslim, Adivasi and Dalit communities. Witness the rape and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl by 9 Hindu youth, four of them police officers; the crime was politicized and although the rapists were charged, Hindu right-wing protesters, Modi silently lending them support, wanted the rapists exonerated: “Some of the staunchest defenders of the suspects in the girl’s killing have been high-level officials in Mr. Modi’s party. Analysts said this was consistent with how the party has operated for years.”Throughout the country it has become an increasingly onerous task for any sexual abuse victim to get justice. 

While the government won re-election based on national security, the country has become unsafe for women, Muslims and Dalits. Dissenting voices are in danger of being assassinated, as we have already seen in the murder of prominent journalists and writers for their critique of the government: Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M.M. Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh and many more.

While abortion is legal up to 20 weeks, many women around the country do not have access to safe abortions. Maternal deaths from pregnancy and abortion continue to plague the country. A recent report from Mumbai showed a sudden dip in the numbers of abortion among girls 13-15. While this may sound like a good thing, a senior gynecologist from one of the BMC hospitals thinks that the dip could mean that young girls may be getting unsafe abortions. No statistics are available on the number of abortions as a result of the abortion pill. In short, unsafe abortions are prevalent, including self-selective abortion, which is unlawful.

What does all this mean? Within a neoliberal philosophy we see an increase in right-wing political parties in Europe and in India. Many scholars have made connections between this current political climate with the 1930s as the EU has gone through various turbulences that have exposed the fragility of the principle of democracy in society. In his book “Recidive,”(Recurrence), Michaël Fœssel uses press and journal articles to analyze the dynamics that prevailed in the year 1938, noting, “I didn’t research 1938 with 1940 in mind, but rather with 2018 and the years before.” He remarks that French women in 1938 were mostly invisible; one would have thought that France was inhabited only by men “whose only ambition was to become chief.” Men forbade women to vote until 1944, which is a significant difference compared to 2019. In addition, Fœssel observes that in 1938 many principles were challenged. France had passed new labor protection laws and progressive social laws 2 years earlier. In 1938, with a new government elected on negative campaigns to restore order, the goal was to weaken social protection and the new rights of middle and lower classes. Although women were not allowed to vote, two women held ministry positions in the previous government, and still progress stopped there. With the more conservative government of 1938, women were sent back to the private home and family duty. 

In a time of crisis, we observe the reoccurrence of these discourses of rights and protections reductions, making the vulnerable more precarious and supporting right-wing messages of nationalism and dominant powers. Besides the obvious differences between both electoral situations (in India and in the EU), the commonalities are important to identify. 

For the time being, patriarchy as a system of control and accumulation has reinforced its power. The heartless leaders are patriarchal leaders. Their networks of influence have, through social media, disseminated their discourses using the mythology of virility to legitimize inequality between genders and unleash intolerance toward everyone outside of their normative view of human society. They have successfully eliminated the ethics of reciprocity and care from the political discourse. The destruction wrought by climate change that affects the most vulnerable in society is a casualty in this patriarchal power grab in the elections in Hungary, Poland, Italy and India. Ending the power of the heartless demand constant criticism of the patriarchal order that outrageously begets inequality and suffering. 

(Photo Credit: Reuters / Mukesh Gupta / The Guardian)

How do heartless leaders win elections? Part 1: In Europe

In the past month, around the world, heartless populist leaders have had successes in numerous elections. The Indian election occurred over 6 weeks, with 900 million registered voters, and 63 percent actively voting. The European elections were organized in 28 countries to renew the European Parliament where European laws are discussed and passed or not. It comprises 751 Members of the European Parliament, or MEPs. The European Elections presented a great danger for women and minorities. European populist groups have organized since 2013, creating a structure called “Agenda Europe”, promising to “restore the natural order”. This fabricated argument about a “natural order” is precisely unnatural and threatens violence against women, minorities and Nature.  Despite all its shortcomings, the European Parliament has, in general, over the years pushed for more progressive laws. In response, the current generation of heartless leaders have developed ultra conservative doctrines to curtail any possibility for inclusive and progressive evolution.  

As political scientist Rosalind Pollack Petchesky has noted, “Abortion acquires political volatility in periods when the social position of women generally is under siege.” Today, access to sexual and reproductive health has been challenged by the heartless leaders even in places where one would have thought these rights inalienable. The heartless movement materialized with neoliberal austerity measures and structural reforms. Neoliberalism opportunistically aligns itself with various strandsof neoconservatism and religious fundamentalism. 

Heartless populist leaders bear common features: an opportunistic mind guided by big data algorithm systems and an unfettered desire for power. They use nationalist – racist messages through social media without concern forethics or veracity. Theirtargets have included immigrants, feminists, Romas, Muslims, and more. The European and Indian elections have brought these neoliberal, conservative, propagandist, and rights-unraveling elementstogether. In Europe a resistance has also strongly emerged. In some countries, Socialists and European Green parties gained seats. Meanwhile populist parties having difficulty agreeing to form one group in parliament; their divisions appear deeper than expected. 

In France, the populist party, Rassemblement National, RN, finished with less than 1 % ahead of the center liberal party. Marine Le Pen’s RN party list led by Jordan Bardella garnered votes from the popular discontent represented by the Yellow Vest movement, mostly a vote of rejection of the liberal doctrine of the current President Emmanuel Macron. The surprise came from the Greens who became the third party ahead of the regular conservative and socialist parties. The German Green party became the second party in Germany this time, ahead of the populist party. Spain, Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark sent more socialist and social democrats to the parliament with, again, a representation of the Green party.    

In Poland, the extreme right-wing/populist Law and Justice party (PIS) won 45.6% of the vote, sending 26 MEPs to the European Parliament, while the opposition European Coalition (Social Democrats) won 17 seats and the leftist coalition obtained 8 seats. The Law and Justice party increased its representation compared to the previous European election. Their conservative campaign was based on imaginary Polish values which included strict control of sexual and reproductive rights, reducing health services for women.  Although Polish women have had total access to abortion until 1993, conservative religious leaders in Polish politics have made Poland one of the European countries with the most restrictive laws on abortion. Currently, each year 150 000 Polish women get back-alley abortions. Women in Poland have organized to block a total ban on abortion. The PIS based its campaign on repetition of social media slogans against immigration, supporting family values and energy independence. Actually, they implemented the most xenophobic and anti-women’s rights policies, including lowering protection against domestic violence, reducing access to contraception, and keeping coal energy production, refusing to comply with reducing CO2 emissions according to the Paris Agreement. 

In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s ruling party won a landslide victory with 52.3%, giving 13 seats to Orban’s EEP, 7 seats to the opposition and 1 seat to the Fascist party. When Viktor Orban was first elected, only 3% of the Hungarian population thought that immigration was an issue. Orban’s domination took off when he met Arthur Finkelstein, an arch conservative Jewish American homosexual, just to challenge common assumptions. Finkelstein has built a discreet career using invisible parallel means of communication, such as negative messaging in public spaces and social media. He has been behind many elections of conservatives around the world from Ronald Reagan to Benjamin Netanyahu. The Hungarian slogan for the European elections was similar to the Polish one. Women had to curtail their desire for emancipation to serve the great country of Hungary, migrants had to back off from entering the country, and environmental issues were irrelevant in comparison with the rebuilding of Hungary’s great past.

According to Ludmila Acone, in Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian right-wing party ‘The League,’ and current co-vice Deputy Premier and Minister of Home Affairs, won the most seats with 34,3%,which gave ‘Identity and Democracy’ 28 seats. Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the anti-establishment Five Stars movement, with whom Salvini shares executive power, received 17,1% of the votes, or 14 seats. Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the democratic party, came in second with 22,7%, or 19 seats. These elections strengthened Salvini’s power in Italy. At the last European election in 2014, The League only received 6.2% of the ballots and sent 5 MEPs to Brussels. His success is based on his ability to «speak to people’s guts. » Bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Italy is the main land of arrival, and often a place of transit, for migrants and refugees traveling by sea and seeking asylum in Europe. Salvini based most of his political program on the urgency of fighting immigration and the right to defend oneself against migrants who are supposedly more violent. The League, supported by Steve Bannon, extended its power by producing fake news, thanks to social media. Negative messages annihilated the discourse on climate change: Italy is not sending an MEPs of the European Green Party.

The League’s political agenda rests on ‘replacement theory.’ This approach claims to protect «the traditional family» against the danger of abortion, divorce, contraception, and gender equality. Salvini pretends to protect women, thanks to one of the Five Stars movement’s legislative initiatives: the code red laws, protective measures against domestic violence. Italy has one femicide every two days.

(Image Credit: European Views)