Whatever their precise provocation, the communal clashes in Meerut on the last day of the campaign, Saturday, were a sobering reminder: for all the claims and conceits that this election was about development and issues of governance, on the ground, and particularly in Uttar Pradesh, it will be counted among the more polarised. It is true that this is, in large part, due to the poisonous afterlife of the Jat versus Muslim communal rioting in Muzaffarnagar in western UP last year on the watch of the SP regime. But that is not the whole explanation for the deepening of religious faultlines that was visible in this election. All parties, those that call themselves secular as well as those that are dubbed communal, have unabashedly played upon the community divides — but the BJP has much to answer for. Be it in the aggressive electioneering of Narendra Modi or the party campaign run in his name, little or no effort was made to address, leave alone assuage, the fears that had understandably been stoked in the minority community due to the prime ministerial candidature of a leader who is yet to fully answer questions on, or express remorse for, Gujarat 2002. And, in the course of the campaign, the apparently emboldened voices of hate within the parivar were allowed to say their piece and get away with it.
Yet, Campaign 2014 was not about communal polarisation alone. The second term of the UPA had seen a slowing down of governance, an increasing party-government disconnect and a large number of high-octane corruption scandals amid a worsening economic situation with little or no attempt by the government to talk to the people. The BJP was quick to seize its opportunity, and its communication blitz focused on the themes of decisive governance and promises of kickstarting stalled development and economic growth. But it was a campaign, above all, that may have set a new trend: with the BJP succumbing to Modi’s personality cult, the political party, already an embattled institution, seemed to subside even further, meekly taking second place to the leader. The presidential cast of this parliamentary election has been talked about. But its consequences will need to be weighed and watched in a democracy as diverse as ours.
In the end, then, as polling concludes today, this was an aggressively fought election that mobilised many more voters than ever before, including first-time voters, in which the stage was dominated by the BJP, with the Congress never seeming to get off the backfoot and regional parties playing supporting roles. Whatever the outcome on May 16, however, the communal polarisation that this election also triggered and leaves behind, will be key among the challenges for the new government.