In the plethora of impressionistic narratives around the elections, here is one more: Has the hawa acquired a different tone this time round?
To begin with, the euphoria centred on a messiah, pervasive in 2014, is now conspicuously absent. The untiring preoccupation with one individual’s pronouncements, from the most casual to the most elaborate, whether uttered at a gathering of a village school kids or a massive public meeting in the national capital, commanded the same amount of coverage on the TV channels for a couple of days throwing everything else on to tickers below the line. That preoccupation is much more subdued now. Thus, one of the pillars of the earlier campaign — unprecedented publicity — has lost much of its vigour.
Much more significant, however, is the winning — or losing — strategy of setting the agenda for the elections. 2014 saw Narendra Modi setting the agenda and the ruling party, the Congress, responding to it defensively. Responding to, in lieu of setting the agenda, in any case, is defensive by nature. Modi set the agenda of sab ka vikas, giving it the irresistibly seductive wrapping of sab ka saath. An add on was the highly inflated image of corruption, while the subterranean communally divisive agenda was getting organised support of the RSS at the ground level.
The conspicuous absence of euphoria is now matched by the equally conspicuous absence of any reference to either sab ka saath or sab ka vikas in the current campaign. This absence gets all the more highlighted in the face of the Opposition’s centring of the economic issues of farmers’ distress and joblessness in the campaign. The centring isn’t a last-minute improvisation by one party. The several farmers’ marches organised by the Left parties and numerous farmers’ associations of a variety of hues over the past nearly two years brought the issue inescapable attention on a national scale. Joblessness grew into an established fact with such data as was becoming public and the truth of it was reinforced by the government’s clumsy attempts to conceal the data.
The Opposition, especially the Congress under Rahul Gandhi, combined the two issues of economic distress as the centrepiece of its campaign in the state elections in Gujarat and later in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, yielding impressive dividends. There, too, the agenda was being set by the Opposition and Modi was responding to it by seeking to divert attention from it.
Now, with the entire electoral process in full motion, the Opposition in general and the Congress, in particular, has seized the initiative by framing an imaginative and attractive plan of action through its manifesto at least on the farmers’ issue. The fact that the BJP leaders only response to it is to keep announcing that the plan is unimplementable is defensive at best and getting caught with its pants down at worst. Interestingly, the BJP manifesto was released three days before the first votes were cast indicates its low opinion of electoral promises.
Caught unprepared, the BJP hopes to get home by playing the divisive as well the nation-in-peril card vis-à-vis Pakistan, thus admitting the Opposition’s charge of complete failure on the economic front. At any rate, contrary to the common assumption of the communal divide and the national security as the unfailing harbingers of electoral victory, history tells a completely different story. The 1965 war with Pakistan brought the Congress in 1967, to loss of governments in all states from Punjab to West Bengal, except at the Centre, where too it suffered setbacks. In 1971, Indira Gandhi had already won the massive mandate before the decisive war with Pakistan. The victory did not give her comfort for long and by 1974, India was engulfed in unprecedented unrest led by Jayaprakash Narayan, leading ultimately to the Emergency and Congress defeat in the1977 elections. The victory at Kargil in 1998 did not give any relief to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh’s “inaction” after the horrendous Mumbai attack in 2008 did not bring any electoral punishment — he comfortably won a second term in 2009 for his impressive show of economic growth.
The same is true on the question of divisive politics. The BJP’s rise from two Lok Sabha seats to 86 occurred between 1984 and 1989 before the now “liberal” L K Advani led his rath yatra from Dwarka to Ayodhya. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in the presence of all the stalwarts of the BJP on December 6, 1992, failed to become the vehicle for its jump to power. Indeed, in the elections held in 1993, the BJP lost three of four Hindi speaking states: Uttar Pradesh (the locale of Ayodhya), MP, Himachal Pradesh and barely survived in Rajasthan where the Chief Minister, B S Shekhawat had kept himself aloof from the Advani adventure. If the BJP won the election in 1998, six long years after the demolition, clearly the two events were unconnected.
More recently, within months after the grand victory in 2014 with 31 per cent of the vote, it badly lost Delhi and Bihar where it pitched its campaign on the divisive agenda. The Indian electorate votes through its lived experience of governance and between the options of economic welfare and jingoism, internal or external, it prefers the former.
The defensiveness of the BJP’s current campaign has many facets. The euphoria the media had created is subdued now because even the achievements on the security front have been clouded with questions and its equation of a question with desh droh is hardly resonating. Partly also because over the past five years, the media itself has become immensely diversified with innumerable small-scale, local-level channels, videos on the social media and local level regional newspapers have proliferated and these are not slavish to the regime as much of the “national” media is. And the BJP’s strategy, perfected by its top leadership, to pursue either divisive measures or especially measures to undermine almost every working institution and blaming it on the Opposition cannot yield more than the minimal dividends. Lies have a limited life span.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 16, 2019, under the title ‘2019: Blowin’ in the wind’. The writer taught history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.