With the campaign of 2009 over,I find myself scratching my head trying to figure out what was this elections defining theme. There was no catchy slogan,which sticks in your mind. One still recalls old rhymes from past elections: Congress ka haath aam admi ke saath,woh kehte hain Indira hatao,ham kehte hain garibi hatao,Vote nahin denge hum,tope ke dalalon ko,Na jaat pe,na paath pe,mohar lagegi haath pe,tilak,tarazu,aur talwar,maro jootey in ko char. The Congress paid a crore to buy the rights to A.R. Rehmans Oscar-winning song Jai Ho but,according to media reports,the party dumped the song in the last lap of the campaign,possibly because it found the concept too similar to the NDAs ill-fated India Shining slogan of 2004. (The BJP caught on quickly enough,parodying the song as Bhay Ho.)
If there was no one significant slogan encapsulating the mood of 2009,it is because our political parties were themselves flummoxed as to what was the key issue. On the other hand,if you watched TV you got the impression that a new election issue popped up every other day. But the talking heads assembled by TV anchors had little relevance on the ground. Remarks about the Congresss budhiya vs gudiya status,L.K. Advani and Manmohan Singh trading charges of weakness,Varun Gandhis rabble-rousing,the CBI letting Quattrocchi off the hook,black money in Swiss banks and so on hardly struck a chord with the public at large.
But politicians on the campaign trail say Delhis chattering classes are totally divorced from the reality of India,and that includes the media as well. In fact,the only common query put to politicians,from one end of the country to the other was,What have you done for us?
Some politicians blame todays lacklustre election campaigns on the Election Commissions spoilsport edicts,no painting slogans on the wall,no flags,no bunting,no loudspeakers after 10 pm. How does one get the central message across? The fun and fizz has gone out of the colourful,loud and festive mood of the campaign trail. But this is really just an excuse.
A more plausible explanation could be that,in this election,there was no central personality around whom a campaign could have been woven,either for or against. For instance,from 1969 till 1980,Indira Gandhi was the towering figure in all elections. Either you were passionately for her or you wanted her removed. You could not ignore her. In the 1984 elections,Rajiv Gandhi symbolised a new India and change. V.P. Singh was the man of the hour in 1989,his honesty contrasted with the corruption symbolised by the Bofors deal. In 1998 and 1999,it was Atal Behari Vajpayee who dominated,projected as the paterfamilias. In 2004,it was Sonia Gandhi,Rajivs widow,who stepped out into the public to assist her party in making a comeback.
But who was the dominant figure in the 2009 election? True,both the national parties declared their prime ministerial candidates. But neither the incumbent,Manmohan Singh,nor L.K. Advani,his challenger,could be described as the predominant figure. Both were slightly overshadowed by their probable successors. In the case of Singh it was not Rahul Gandhi alone,but also Sonia Gandhi,who shared the spotlight with him. In fact,in the Congress posters and campaigns,Rahul and Sonia were projected more than the prime ministerial candidate. Similarly,Narendra Modi has diverted attention from L.K. Advani,what with a number of BJP leaders dubbing him the man who will step into Advanis shoes in the midst of the campaign,and party workers claiming he was the biggest draw at election rallies.
Apart from the two main prime ministerial candidates,several from smaller parties also threw their hats into the prime ministerial ring. We have never had so many candidates as this time. The buzz around the Third Front was so overwhelming that some dream that this could be the year when the Third Front emerges as the victor and the two main national parties play second fiddle to them. My gut feeling is that the very opposite might prove true when the votes are finally counted. Both national parties may actually emerge stronger and the several regional parties,whose leaders have been fantasising that this is their turn to form the government,may end up losing ground. The test will be whether the BJP and the Congress together account for more than half the Lok Sabha seats. If that turns out to be the case,then it could be said that voters across the country were swayed by a genuine pan-Indian vision.