Election officers check the identity of voters before allowing them to proceed to cast their votes at a polling station in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh state, India. Picture: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP
Election officers check the identity of voters before allowing them to proceed to cast their votes at a polling station in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh state, India. Picture: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

India’s exhausting election campaign

By Sanjay Kapoor Time of article published May 13, 2019

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On May 19th the long winding seven phase Indian elections will come to an end. Touted as one of the costliest elections in the world - $US70 billion may have been spent by all political parties in this unending election campaign to prove an important point- Will Narendra Modi be re-elected as India’s next Prime Minister despite his high strung governance.

Some opinion polls suggest inevitability in the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party returning to power, others are vague on this issue. Reports from the ground suggest a wide range of seats that the BJP is expected to win- 160 to 270 in a house of 543.

Besides deciding on the fate of Narendra Modi, the elections will also decide on some key foreign policy issues like the relationship with Pakistan which dominated the entire electoral discourse, and also with China. Domestically, a loss for the BJP and Narendra Modi could also arrest the rapid slide of India towards a Hindu majoritarian state.

Why is there a lack of clarity on the eventual winner? Principally due to the haze that has been created by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s well-funded publicity blitz and chaotic response from the opposition parties, but also by the impact a visibly “biased’ Election Commission and controversial Electronic voting machines (EVM) would have on the poll outcome.

Expectedly the narrative that “there is no option to Modi, and he is returning to power,” is being challenged; unevenly in different parts of the country by the poor and the disadvantaged sections of the society, whose cause the regional parties and the Congress party are articulating. Desperately trying to emerge from the ashes after its 2014 parliament elections drubbing that reduced it to an ignominious 44 seats and a low of 19.5 vote share, Congress is working hard to meet two of its objectives: prevent Narendra Modi from returning and reclaim lost electoral ground. 

In the present circumstances, attaining both these targets would seem a contradiction in terms of the simple reason that Congress' grand enterprise to stop Narendra Modi and the BJP from coming to power would depend on curbing its ambitions and ceding more space to the regional parties. The impact of following two contradictory objectives have hurt the Congress party in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh where its attempts to be part of a Grand alliance comprising the Samajvadi party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal was thwarted by one of their leaders. Contesting alone, the Congress realizes that as the Grand Alliance becomes bigger and more powerful, its chances of begging many seats will dwindle as the minorities would find the grand alliance more capable of defeating the BJP.

BJP is, however, strong everywhere. If the Grand alliance in UP and Bihar is finding the strength to take on the BJP, then the reason has more to do with electoral arithmetic of the alliance than dip in Narendra Modi or BJP’s popularity.

Four months ago, the national mood was anti the BJP government. The party had been severely drubbed by the Congress in the central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and the party’s internal calculations were that it was unlikely to win more than 150 odd seats in the coming 2019 parliament elections. This assessment depressed the BJP and they were not sure about their return to power on May 23rd. 

Contrarily, the Congress was quite upbeat and read the ground in its favor. Its decision to bring in Priyanka Gandhi, sister of party President, Rahul Gandhi, and a natural campaigner was prompted by the desire to cement further the growing trend in Congress’s favor. On February 12-13, Priyanka Gandhi went around the streets of  Lucknow to make her political debut.

A day later on February 14, in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, a CRPF convoy was ambushed by a suicide bomber moving in a car. 41 CRPF para-military personnel belonging to different states and castes died when their bus blew up. 

Grief descended all over the country. The campaigns of political parties including the Congress party, which seemed to be on a roll, came to a halt. BJP’s President Amit Shah or Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not give up their election campaign though. Shah cobbled alliances with all kinds of regional parties, defected middle level leaders to the BJP to ensure that the party could surmount its growing loss. Modi, used this fortnight long period of mourning to promise revenge for the loss. Slowly, the Modi government was getting into its groove after its earlier drubbing in the 2018 assembly elections. 

It seemed the BJP was playing according to its planned script. Long before the Pulwama terror attack took place, there was the belief that the BJP would either wage a war against Pakistan or trigger a communal riot. In some ways, Pulwama provided that opportunity. On February 26, the Indian Air Force bombers dropped their payload (bombs and missiles) at an alleged training centre for terrorists of Jaish-e-Muhammad, accused of the Pulwama blast. The attack took Pakistan by surprise, but the jury is still out on what Indian aircrafts really damaged. The uncharitable say that only a crow and many trees. Pakistan retaliated the next morning and struck at Indian Air Force assets. An Indian MIG Bison fighter aircraft was also brought down and the pilot was arrested by Pakistan. India claimed that she had brought down a F-16. The US denied it, but India is insistent on that. Whatever may be the outcome, the war of words that followed benefited both, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Indian counterpart.

The BJP’s narrative changed after Pulwama and Balakot. They abandoned their spotty track record on economy and their highly publicized programme to usher Digital India or create a “Startup India”. None of their leaders wanted to be reminded of demonetization that wiped off 85 percent of large currency notes ostensibly to fight corruption and counterfeit currency. Nor did they want to be told about the decision to usher in Generalized Services Tax (GST), which Narendra Modi grandly described as big as the moment when India gained freedom. All those grand choreographed events meant to announce many policy initiatives were jettisoned in favor of the most basic issue- giving a black eye to Pakistan.

Prime Minister Modi, whose campaign is driven by data analytics and google trends rather than what is ethical and moral, used the Pulwama and IAF attack on Balakot to burnish his credentials as a strong leader who had the courage to teach Pakistan a lesson. India’s "Independent” Election Commission forbids political parties from using army operations in their election campaigns, but Modi, seemingly, chose to ignore these concerns. Ever since he began his election campaign in 2019, he and his party men have used the exploits of the Indian army on their publicity material. Before the IEC asked the BJP leaders to remove his image from boards, Wing Commander Abhinandan, who was released by the Pakistan government after his aircraft was brought down, figured prominently on them. Since the Balakot strike, the BJP has become amnesic about what it did in the last five years. They want to make light of the fact that their decisions contributed to job losses, farm distress and spreading hatred towards the minorities.

During travels around the country, this writer found fawning admiration for Narendra Modi’s decisive nature and his ability to fight the terrorists in their safe haven. He was seen to be different from his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, who did not retaliate militarily after the Mumbai terror attack. Whether it was the small town and villages or chattering classes in Delhi’s watering holes, Modi was being celebrated as a Hindu Rambo incarnate who had the ability to correct a historical wrong of the Muslim invaders who had savaged innocent Hindu masses. A former bureaucrat said, “Modi helps Hindus to get over their humiliation of Muslim invasions and subjugation”.

Later this month, we will know which narrative prevails on this exhausting election campaign.

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