The state Assembly elections in November-December 2018 were just ahead of the Christmas season. All little boys and girls are reminded to narrate their good deeds to Santa Claus to qualify for rewards. In our burning desire to revive our ancient culture and traditions to the exclusion of all else, we may dismiss this as a Western fad, not relevant to us. But the BJP would have been in a happier place had it borne this lesson in mind. Its loss of the three Hindi heartland states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — that it ruled with more than comfortable majorities is hardly the gift it wanted. It had ample warning of the possible outcome through many pre-election opinion surveys, but chose not to pay heed to them at its own peril.
Voter fatigue following the prolonged period of BJP rule as a possible clause for this downturn in its fortunes is stating the obvious. Saying that the Congress reinvented itself at the opportune time is equally facile. People do not necessarily become allergic to their governments by the end of their terms. Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh all happily voted the BJP to power for three terms or more. The Left Front had an even longer tenure in West Bengal. The landslide win of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) despite being in power was perhaps not anticipated even by its most optimistic champions.
We need a better understanding of how elections are won or lost. This is where the lessons from the Santa legend come in useful.
Campaigns, including elections, can be won in two ways. The first is to show the best side of the contestant, which is a list of what good has been done by the entity or is capable of and promising to do. The second is to capitalise on faults of the opponent, by implication claiming oneself to be the less bad one. History, not just in India but the world over, provides us numerous examples of the positive approach being rewarded with success. The fear of the other has hardly had an overwhelming appeal anywhere in the world. It is possible to agree on what constitutes good — prosperity, stability, peace and a comforting sense of well-being. But the negatives are more controversial — a scion succeeding the parent is not always considered a bad thing because that is the natural order of things. Similarly, in a country mired in influence peddling, corruption is a fact of life and bothersome only if it affects the voter’s immediate existence.
Indira Gandhi had her greatest electoral triumph in 1971 because she was able to highlight the good she had done. The popular perception was that both bank nationalisation and ending privy purses were actions contributing to the common good. Her opponents were seen as a band of ragtag leaders desperately in search of issues. Even in these Assembly elections, the TRS government successfully projected its record, be it in making Hyderabad an exciting metro, or addressing the farm distress with loan waivers and the Rythu Bandhu schemes, or providing access to affordable housing, to gain handsomely at the hustings.
Such, unfortunately, was not the way campaigns elsewhere were conducted.
People were looking for governments bringing in change for the better — long-suffering farmers in the dry belt of Rajasthan; unemployed urban youth of Madhya Pradesh, or the tribals and non-tribals alike of Chhattisgarh desperate to escape the insecurity caused by the continuing violence between the law and Naxals. The rhetoric of all parties touched upon these issues only cursorily. The leaders’ campaign speeches were replete with repeated narrations of corruption in warplanes and VIP helicopter purchases, influence peddlers and crony capitalists, and the meaning and practice of Hinduism. What happened in Nehru’s India was made out to be more critical to the future of those born a full generation after his death than their current education or skill sets.
In 2014, candidate Narendra Modi made a rousing appeal to the aspirations of a nation of the young. He knocked the socks off a completely unprepared and dispirited government, routing it as never before. Four-and-a-half years later, Prime Minister Modi recounted the mistakes of the past and dangers of dynastic hegemony. The new, “improved” Rahul Gandhi, may have become adept at name-calling, but is nowhere near being a transformational leader that Barack Obama — the candidate in 2008 — was at the same age. The battle turned into a personal slanging match between the leaders of the two main contending parties. Family, kinsfolk and even provenance were not spared. This spectacle of politicians seeking ever-lower depths is of a piece with what Donald Trump has practised as a candidate as well as the American President in office. The angered electorate not finding deeds good enough to reward chose instead what it thought was the lesser of the two evils.
What does this portend for the future? The real question is whether politicians and parties will draw the right lessons from the 2018 results for next year’s general election. The blows to the BJP may be severe, but they are not fatal. The immediate past shows that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah election juggernaut rolls on regardless of setbacks and manages outlandish victories. Given the cacophony of voices surrounding the BJP leadership, chances are that the campaign will be even more strident in 2019 appealing to identity politics and the animosity towards those who do not conform to majoritarian concerns. The Congress, pumped up after what was in effect more of the BJP’s loss than its victory, would likely further finetune Modi bashing as its strategy and seek allies in this endeavour.
The very real possibility is that in 2019, parties and their leaders will prefer to scare the electorate into voting for them by painting their opponents in the darkest of hues than resorting to aspirational politics. The result would be a very ugly campaign. That may pay off, but at what cost to the nation? Fear may be the key in Alistair MacLean’s thriller, but it does not belong in democratic societies electing their governments....