Indisputably, India has entered the last lap of the most confrontational years between two parliamentary elections, and the early indications are that this will be the most rancorous polls ever. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly told his core team in 2013-14 that the middle class has a memory of just three months, and whatever has to be done to enlist this demographic group should be done in the last quarter. This explains the new narrative he has begun weaving with the passage of the quota bill for the “not so poor” in the general category.
There are expectations that he would, in the time available before the Model Code of Conduct kicks into effect when the dates of the election are announced — likely in first week of March like last time, announce a slew of schemes and promises. The shower of largesse is likely to be aimed at farmers, the urban poor, youth and possibly women, all sections which had expected a lot from this government but are disillusioned, especially since the later part of 2017.
The government’s urgency to evolve a new narrative is evidence that the verdict of 2014, described by Mr Modi as an occasion when “India won”, did not lead to the fulfilment of the hopes it had generated. Instead, the past five years was characterised by what Amit Shah immortalised in the Indian political lexicon — “jumlabaazi”. It will, consequently, be judged by future historians not for what it delivered, but for the deficit in expectations.
Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, however, know that the election will not be determined by historians of the future but by people whose opinion can still be shaped by last-minute handouts. This explains why the political campaign directed against adversaries is being backed by government decisions like the quota bill, made a law in less than 72 hours. This government can be decisive, but only when its goose is about to be cooked.
Incumbents taking desperate measures is nothing new, but there is less ground for disenchantment when the expectations were few. This is not the case with this government, as with his much-hyped promises in 2014, Mr Modi had raised the hopes of people like never before. “Achche din” may have been a mere election slogan for the BJP, but people actually believed the yarn that UPA-2 was marked by “policy paralysis” and that Mr Modi was the redeemer of their futures. Because there has been no dramatic improvement in the lives of people, the government is forced to stress on incremental gains — toilets, gas cylinders, Jan Dhan accounts, etc, in a bid to obfuscate the fact that people do not have what they need most — cash in hand or ready jobs.
As a result, the India of 2019 is dramatically different from that of five years ago. By early 2014, there was a certainty across the country that Mr Modi would be the next Prime Minister. Much needed to be formally done, and although officially anointed by his party, he was yet to mount a campaign that would enable him to take an unbeatable lead.
Mr Modi is aware of the limitations of an incumbent, and while he weighs various options to turn the sense of insufficient deliveries, he has so far built an electoral campaign based on negativism. In fact, this marks the fundamental difference between the two elections, as both the ruling party and the Opposition are focused more on delegitimising the adversary than on seeking a positive vote. While the contest in 2014 was between the Modi-personified optimism and the despair typified by Dr Manmohan Singh and the rest of the Congress leadership, the dominant sentiment this time is of fear. Both the BJP and the Opposition parties are peddling varieties of horror or worry. The Narendra Modi-led BJP is depicting a nightmare that would be India’s fate if an “unstable, non-ideological coalition” is placed at its helm. On the other hand, the Opposition is sounding the alarm that yet another mandate for Mr Modi would herald the “death of the republic”.
In 2014, Mr Modi secured support from people who were not part of the BJP’s core voter base because of his promise of reforms and development. This section, including the ideological “middle India”, disregarded the reality that Mr Modi’s narrative was embedded in Hindutva. This time, however. the equilibrium is getting increasingly skewed in the reverse direction. The government’s possible decisions over the next few weeks would establish where Mr Modi positions himself between being the Hindu Hriday Samrat once again and the man whose heart bleeds for the last person in the line.
Regardless of whether Mr Modi rediscovers the magical weave over people’s perception or whether the Opposition is successful in converting dissatisfaction into anger, like in Chhattisgarh recently, the events over the past five years presents people with an opportunity to assess their experience with dominant leaders. There is a need to examine if the nation’s socio-economic compositeness is more secure under governments dependent on continued support of the people because they have not been handed a runaway mandate. From past experience, the answer is in the affirmative. There is little reason to be “worried” at the prospect of a “weak” coalition coming to power in the summer of this year.
There is little doubt that the elections this year will be the most important one since 1977. Just as Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime attempted a major departure from democratic principles, this government has tried to deviate from the commitment to social inclusiveness. Dogged pursuit of the Citizenship Bill by the BJP demonstrates acceptance of the Muslim League’s two-nation theory. People this time face the challenge of side-stepping emotive issues. Instead of being propelled by worries over the absence of alternatives, people need to make choices on the basis of their aspirations and not on superimposed ideas. This will be Indian democracy’s true test this time....