Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reply to the debate on the motion of thanks to the President’s speech in the Lok Sabha offered a sobering glimpse of the election campaign to come. A spectre, and spectral oppositions, underlay his speech. The PM warned against the coalition government. “Milavati sarkar” vs “poorna bahumat ki sarkar” (coalition government vs government with a majority) — the latter, he said, worked in national interest (“deshvasiyon ke liye samarpit”), the former did not. “Mahamilavat”, or grand alliance, was associated, he suggested, with instability, corruption, dynastic politics, it was bad for a nation’s health. He accused the Congress of dividing history into BC, Before Congress, and AD, After Dynasty, in order to project that nothing had happened before it came to power and to attribute all achievements to the Gandhis. At the same time, the PM himself repeatedly invoked a before-and-after scenario — 55 years of power play (“satta bhog”) vs 55 months of service (“seva bhav”). He countered the Opposition’s criticism against his government, that it shows disrespect to institutions, by questioning the Congress’s own record, pointing out that it was the party that imposed the Emergency and misused Article 356. When the Opposition criticises him or the BJP, it runs the risk of criticising the nation itself, suggested the PM.
A degree of combativeness is only to be expected ahead of a crucial election. But if what the PM said, and what he didn’t say, in Lok Sabha on Thursday is an indication, the campaign for 2019 may be more about stoking fear than promising hope. That is, the impending contest may be fundamentally different from the one in 2014 when the Modi-led BJP swept to power at the Centre, riding a wave. The election five years ago was aggressively, even nastily, fought, but it is possible to say that despite the name-calling and the jousting, the victor won on the strength of a dream, not a spectre. That dream was of Change, a break from the status quo, and the leaders and parties that had, in the popular imagination, come to be associated with it. It invoked a “New India”, increasingly young and aspiring, first-time voters in the driving seat, looking for a new kind of political representation. Five years ago, the Modi BJP seized the moment as much as it created it.
Of course, that the next parliamentary election, even before it has begun, seems drained of optimism about the future, is not just a reflection of the apparent strategy of the ruling party, but also of the politics of the Opposition. So far, the best case being made by parties that have ranged themselves against the Modi-BJP is that they are anti Modi-BJP. A bare-knuckled fight has begun. By all accounts, there will be little reprieve from the gathering heat.