Sanjay Kapoor |
On May 19, the long winding 7 phase Indian elections will finally come to an end. Touted as one of the costliest elections in the world – all Indian political parties will have spent close to $70 billion; in this unending election campaign to prove an important point- whether Narendra Modi will be re-elected as India’s next Prime Minister despite his high-strung governance. Opinion polls are suggesting an inevitability of the Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party returning to power. However, reports from the ground indicate a wide range for seats that BJP may win from 160 to 270 in a house of 543.
Misty Haze Prevails Over the Indian Election
What is the reason for this huge range? 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 because of the impact, the controversial Electronic voting machines (EVM) is expected to have on the poll outcome. However, 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 the drubbing in its 2014 parliament elections, 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 its lost electoral ground.
It seemed the BJP was playing according to its planned script. Long before the Pulwama terror attack took place, there was a belief that the BJP would either wage war against Pakistan or trigger a communal riot.
In the present circumstances, attaining simultaneously both these targets is a contradiction for the simple reason that the Congress Party’s grand enterprise to stop Narendra Modi and BJP from coming to power depends on it curbing its ambitions and ceding more space to the regional parties. The impact of following these two different objectives have hurt the Congress party in a crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, where its attempts to be part of a Grand Alliance comprising of Samajvadi party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal, was thwarted by one of their leaders.
Contesting alone, Congress realizes that as the Grand Alliance becomes bigger and more powerful, its chances of bagging many seats will dwindle as the minorities find the alliance more capable of defeating the BJP. However, the BJP is 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 a dip in Narendra Modi’s or BJP’s popularity.
BJP’s Fortunes: Pulwama Turned the Tide
Four months ago, the national mood was not like this. BJP was hit by the success of the Congress party in the central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and the Congress party’s internal calculations was that it was likely to win 150 odd seats in Lok Sabha. This assessment depressed the BJP as they were no longer sure about their return to power on May 23, 2019.
An upbeat Congress was reading 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. Political campaigns of political parties including the Congress party, which seemed to be on a roll, came to a stop for all except BJP’s President Amit Shah or Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As Shah cobbled alliances with all kinds of regional parties and brought defected mid-level leaders to the BJP, to ensure that the party could surmount its growing loss; Modi, used this fortnight-long period of national mourning to promise revenge for the lives lost.
Slowly, the Modi government was getting into its groove after its earlier drubbing in the 2018 state assembly elections. It seemed the BJP was playing according to its planned script. Long before the Pulwama terror attack took place, there was a belief that the BJP would either wage war against Pakistan or trigger a communal riot. In some ways, Pulwama provided that opportunity. On February 26, Indian Air Force bombers dropped its payload (bombs and missiles) at an alleged training center for terrorists of Jaish-e-Muhammad, accused of the Pulwama blast.
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 dared to teach Pakistan a lesson.
The attack took Pakistan by surprise, but the jury is still out on what the Indian aircrafts really damaged. The uncharitable say that only a crow and many trees. Pakistan retaliated next morning and struck at Indian Air Force assets. An Indian MIG Bison fighter aircraft was also brought down, and Pakistan arrested the pilot. India claimed that he had brought down an 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.
BJP’s narrative changed after Pulwama and Balakot. They abandoned their spotty track record on the economy and their highly publicized program 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 had 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 dared to teach Pakistan a lesson. While India’s “independent” Election Commission forbids political parties from using army operations in their election campaigns, Modi, seemingly, chose to ignore these concerns. Ever since he began his election campaign in 2019, he and his party used the exploits of the Indian army on their publicity material.
Before EC asked the BJP leaders to remove his image from hoardings, Wing Commander Abhinandan, who was released by Pakistan government after his aircraft was brought down, figured prominently on them. Since the Balakot strike, the BJP has just 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 could 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.” All these are various narratives have been floated to tap into the nascent hate that resides amongst many upper caste Hindus and their contempt for secularism; which they understood as an attempt to pander to the minority community. Hence BJP’s campaign has more to do with restoring Hindu pride or Hindus living under a siege surrounded by angry beef eating Muslims.
This time around BJP is pitching for 24 crore votes, and Congress just wants to get higher than 2014. It is contesting 423 seats in this Lok Sabha and BJP around 437.
In West Bengal, where the BJP, is desperate to win as many seats as possible – to compensate for the probable losses – from the high of 73 seats that they won last time, the same campaign is being played out. BJP leaders like President Amit Shah have not shied away from suggesting that Trinamool Congress chief, Mamta Banerjee’s policies of Muslim appeasement could turn the state into an Islamic State.
It’s no longer enough to drub hostile people and areas in Pakistan; but, in West Bengal, they are stoking fears of Indian Muslims as outsiders and a loss of majority status of the Hindus, which seems to be working well for them. The results will show how successful they are in this strategy. From every state where the BJP had garnered a substantial number of seats in 2014, the loss is visible.
Common sense suggests that the party, which is far stronger than in the past, would lose some seats from everywhere and make smaller gains from the states where they performed indifferently; losses would not be compensated by BJP’s winning seats. Arithmetically speaking, BJP will lose seats from its 2014 numbers to the Congress party and the regional alliances everywhere. These losses could be as high as 120 seats to about 80 seats.
India’s Grand Party Down But Not Out
In 2014, the Congress party received only 19.5 percent of the total votes cast, down from 29 percent votes it had won in 2009. This is around ten crore votes against the BJP’s 19 crore votes or 31 percent of votes. This time around BJP is pitching for 24 crore votes, and Congress just wants to get higher than 2014. It is contesting 423 seats in this Lok Sabha and BJP around 437. BJP will draw a blank in many states where it does not have a presence, such as Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Telengana.
In some states, it has allies and others it is contesting alone. Congress is also following a similar course, but its policies over the years have geographically shrunk it to only some states in the country. The party has not been able to recover from the loss of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana after the two states were split up. It will draw a blank from here. In Karnataka, where it is in alliance with Janata Dall (S), the grand old party may just hang in with its support.
However, the BJP is quite bullish about its chances here as the coastal Karnataka is considered to be mired in serious communal (Hindu-Muslim) polarization. Congress leadership decided to introduce Priyanka Gandhi as its star campaigner. Her presence has helped the party substantially, but due to its organizational weakness and desertion of its traditional constituencies, there may not be much gain in their cause. The best-case scenario is that Congress could win some 120 seats.
Once the BJP returns to power, Prime Minister Modi and his supporters will feel vindicated about their social policies and think that hurting minorities is electorally rewarding, so it should be pursued.
However, the real battle of the 2019 elections is in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 seats to the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the parliament). Last time, the BJP got 73 seats as the opposition parties were fighting separately. This time around the Samajvadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD)- all decided to contest together against the BJP. Congress chose to stay out of it when the other parties made it clear that they would not leave more than two seats for them.
Now Congress is contesting in 60 odd seats in the state, and the view is that it is fighting to hurt the BJP more and the grand alliance less. Hardnews magazine was present when the Grand Alliance kicked off their campaign from the city of Deoband, famous for its Islamic seminary. There was considerable excitement amongst the rallyists. It was apparent that the grand alliance or ‘MahaGathbandan’ was a response of the farming community to come together against the Modi government.
It was also an attempt at survival for the traditional castes against the onslaught of the dominant Hindu narrative. It was possible to infer from the excitement of the participants that they were smelling a win. On the face of it, the alliance promises to enjoy the support of Dalits, Yadavs and the Muslims, when all added up it suggests about 50 percent support in favor of the coalition. Congress is also putting up a lot of high-profile candidates to different constituencies of the state, but the strengthening of the Grand Alliance could hurt their chances.
Muslims, a big voter group, would support the grand alliance as it is capable of defeating the BJP. This alliance is expected to win about 45 seats- if there is no Electronic voting machines (EVM) manipulation as it is being feared. On the road to Deoband, even farmers who had stepped out to support the grand alliance were skeptical about the fairness of EVM, ‘Gathbandhan will win if the EVM does not play a part.’ Opposition parties fearing EVM manipulation want a 50 percent paper audit of VVPAT.
Election Commission of India (ECI) has been dragging its feet on this, and the Supreme Court is supposed to respond to this petition. The pusillanimity of the ECI is also evidenced by how it has chosen to ignore the violations of model code of conduct by Narendra Modi. Contrary to the surveys by opinion polls, the 2019 election is far closer than it is made out to be. Rahul Gandhi may not be positioning himself as the successor to Modi, but he and his sister have done plenty in the past two months to raise the profile of the party and create circumstances for stopping BJP from coming to power.
“Undeniably, the two are leaders of the future, whether they are able to win this time around or not,” claimed a political observer in Lucknow. Be that as it may, this election is for the soul of India. Once the BJP returns to power, Prime Minister Modi and his supporters will feel vindicated about their social policies and think that hurting minorities is electorally rewarding, so it should be pursued.
Read more: Indian Election Vibes
This is even though the US government’s recent report on religious freedom has severely castigated the Modi government for violence against the minority community. Similarly, the government may display less patience for freedom of expression and come down firmly against liberal education, media, and its practitioners. Turbulent times ahead!
Sanjay Kapoor is a senior journalist based out of Delhi, India. He is a foreign policy specialist with a focus on India, its neighbourhood, and West Asia. Sanjay is the founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine, a political monthly from New Delhi. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.