EVERY LOK Sabha election in India is unique even if the two main contestants are the same. One of the reasons is that the political parties, other than the two main contestants, change their positions between elections.
There is another important reason: a main contestant may undergo a radical transformation, for better or worse, and the party’s entry into the battle in a new avatar may not resemble any previous occasion. That’s what has happened in 2019.
The incumbent of 2014 (the Congress) has become the principal challenger and the challenger of 2014 (the BJP) is the incumbent. The apparent role reversal has, however, acquired a twist because the BJP of 2019 is not the BJP of 2014. The BJP of 2014 was a structured political party while the BJP of 2019 is a one-person show. Mr Narendra Modi has swept aside all the structures in the BJP and has become the party. Consequently, the battle lines are different. It was the BJP vs the Congress in 2014; now, it is Mr Modi vs the Congress.
Money and power
Mr Modi is supported by the most powerful combination of money, power and political authority. Let’s take money. A Modi rally will cost at least Rs 10 crore and he holds three or four a day. Not even a fraction of the cost is accounted for and I wonder if the cost is added to the expenditure account(s) of the candidate(s) who were on the stage. On State power, it is well known that Mr Modi has by-passed the ministers concerned and controls all the levers of State power — the Intelligence Bureau, the Home Ministry, the Department of Revenue and the investigative agencies. Regarding political authority, his is the only voice that matters in the BJP on forging alliances, choice of candidates, election strategy and setting the narrative. The job of the famous blog-writer is only to provide ex-post justification.
The Congress was no match to the BJP in money or power. However, it stole a march in the realm of ideas. Early in the election season, the Congress realised that there was a yearning among the people for less noise, more security, vastly more jobs, relief to the farmers and welfare of the poor. The Congress decided to listen to the voices of the people. In due course, those voices supplied the ideas and the narrative for the most talked about election manifesto in Indian politics.
Within days of the release of the Congress manifesto on April 2, the battle line was no longer Mr Modi vs the Congress; it was Mr Modi vs the Congress manifesto. Just listen to any speech of Mr Modi. Apart from the usual quota of falsehoods and abuse of the Gandhi family, Mr Modi will launch into the Congress manifesto, erect imaginary ghosts and pretend to slay them. He will not utter a word about the BJP’s manifesto that was released a few days after April 2 and turned out to be eminently forgettable! Mr Modi has realised the power of the ideas contained in the Congress manifesto.
Manifesto captures imagination
I have just returned from a gruelling two weeks on the campaign trail in Tamil Nadu and I can tell you what captured the imagination of the Tamil voters. The top six were:
* Rs 72,000 a year (Rs 6,000 a month) to families below the poverty line;
*waiver of agricultural loans (The DMK added waiver of small-value jewel loans);
*increase in MGNREGA entitlement to 150 days a year;
*24 lakh government jobs in 9 months as an earnest of the promise to create several lakh jobs;
security for women, Dalits, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, forest dwellers, journalists, writers, academics, NGOs and practically every one who is chafing at the misuse of the government’s power (the income-tax raids on opposition candidates and leaders was the ‘proof’ that sealed the argument); and
* respect for the Tamil language, race, culture, icons and history.
Undoubtedly, most of the endearing promises were related to welfare, but that is because the people believe that Defence and Economy are the elected government’s responsibilities and complex issues that cannot be debated in an election campaign. If the elected government messes up these issues, it will pay a price (e.g, demonetisation, for which the people will punish the Modi government).
Power of ideas
Unless the field reports are hopelessly wrong, the Congress manifesto and Mr Rahul Gandhi’s articulation of each idea in a measured voice will carry the DMK-led alliance to a grand victory in Tamil Nadu. Besides, by a clever amalgam of the Congress’s promises and the DMK’s promises, Mr M K Stalin demonstrated the power of the idea of ‘Welfare’.
But it is early days and only two phases of the election (comprising 186 seats) are over. The crucial phases are Phase III (115 seats) and Phase 1V (71 seats) when the battle of ideas will be taken to the Hindi heartland.
‘Wealth and Welfare’ is a powerful message to the people. Mr Modi would understand it if he walked on the streets of India’s small towns and villages, but he prefers to fly. If the opposition parties understand the potential of the message and carry it to every corner of the country (even if they do so separately), they will win their separate battles against the BJP. I keep my fingers crossed.