Begining of an END?

2019 elections to the Indian Parliament have been one of the most bitterly fought ones with invectives, insults & innuendos flowing from rivals like free beer.

We are getting into the most critical phase of the 2019 Indian Parliamentary election. As with every other Indian election spanning well over 45 days, this one too had its generous share of drama, color, abuse, embarrassment & razzmatazz interspersed into its various avatars. However quite unlike the previous election, there was no palpable wave in favour of any political party. If anything the incumbent party BJP started off as a favourite, lost its flight course & ascent mid-way, smarted back in the aftermath of Pulwama, nose-dived some distance again till it managed to even out to its original “Most favourite tag” till we wrote this piece. Congress on the other hand, has done better than its last showing in as far as matching its most hated adversary in equal measure is concerned. This election has witnessed the bizarre & heard the ugly.

 

The Lingo

From relentless mudslinging to vitriol, slander, uncivil diatribes, storytelling, fake news, lies, contrived concoctions& promises galore, this election has been one of the most bitterly fought ones in recent history. We cannot recall if polls in India were ever a sort of performance appraisal of the previous government, that could be debated in open forums & the challengers given an opportunity to pick holes in such report cards; In contrast the 2019 elections are being fought on who did what 40 years ago, spoke the maximum lies, created greater consternation, stirred maximum controversies & made fools of the younger/first time voters by their guile, hyperbole & petty politicking. So much so, we even heard the chief Justice say about a bigger sinister conspiracy by forces inimical to the independence of the Judiciary were behind allegations of his improper conduct involving a female staffer. Such has been the fire & fury surrounding these elections.   

 

Notwithstanding the acrimony & a slew of contrasting narratives doing rounds in the political landscape of this huge country, this election shall determine the course of 130 crore Indians for many years to come. Would they be headed for a great booming economy welded to the peace, progress, employment, industry, healthcare, education, roads, sanitation, opportunity & aspirations of its citizens or would it lead to another 5 years of lackluster, age-old continuum, bigoted policy making, unequal growth of its citizens, rabid discourse & lack of employment opportunities for its youth. It is the future of a nation that is at stake.

 

It is time that people who have the right to elect began asking for a copy of the manifesto of their area candidate, read this sanctimonious document of promise, kept it in a safe vault till the next election when the parties would come callingagain for his vote. It would have been interesting if parties were held accountable to their promises recorded in their manifestos, appraisals done & a system enacted by virtue of which candidates and parties were graded on a scale of 1-10. That would be the ultimate defining paradigm of any democracy &ensuring real power in people’s hands.

 

In the current system of electioneering, there is no such thing called accountability & Indian as a nation has suffered fools by politicians & lawmakers for the longest period of time. Given that more than 65% of our population is below 35 years, these able & hardworking men & women would do good to stay in the hunt & be aware of how the country’s politics & politicians act before & after the elections, lest they continue to suffer like their parents, grandparents & great grandparents.

 

Whatever happened to 2014 Promises?

One curious glance at this year’s election discourse & the young voter would know that there is many a slip between the cup & the lip. We hear the ruling party talk about religious nationalism as opposed to collective conscience keeping. They talk of surgical strikes & appropriating armed forces valor & sacrifice to their chest as opposed to taking about national security as a strategic policy mechanism that protects its citizens from internal & external conspiracies, aggression or proxy wars. As opposed to the pain & pitfalls of the demonic demonetization& hastily implemented GST, they talk about Ram Temple, Article 370/35 A; when they should have been extremely sorry & distressed by the condition of farmers & their committing suicides across the country, they talk about giving alms worth 6k to one class of farmers meeting a certain criterion. They promised Swacch Bharat; clean Ganga, clean environment, crores of jobs, affordable housing, Make in India, Skill India; God knows how much, if any has been achieved in these five years gone by.

 

But are these subjects even remotely being touched upon or talked about in any of the public meetings that these leaders hold or address. Congress on the other hand may have made an exceptional vision document or a manifesto, going into this election? But they have a serious handicap. That of trust & credibility deficit amongst the new age voters arising from their relative newness or a late introduction to the millennial born after 1995; They have only known & heard of the party in power since 5 years of they becoming eligible to vote. That is the paradox. Congress is up against a vociferous defender who has all the required resource & ammunition at his disposal. The ECI that must have received complaints by dozens against the PM & his assistant choreographer Shah have had not even one reprimand or censure against their name. The mainstream media, social media, blogging networks, meek & pliable channels, controlled propaganda networks, influencer groups & a well-oiled & dedicated cadre, booth level workers, its ideological cousins in VHP, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, Ram Sena etc, aided, supported & encouraged by its ideological parent body called RSS. Congress has nothing of this sort to depend on.

 

A glance at what happened five years ago is a good reminder of the importance of agenda setting in politics. In the electoral sphere, micro constituency calculations, alliances, caste, resources, candidates, and organizational strength matter.But so does the big picture, especially in a country with such a large and fragmented electorate. With the power of media, and the increasing penetration of social media, the big messages get conveyed instantly. And so a voter in a remote village in Meghalaya and a voter in a tribal district in Chhattisgarh and a voter in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh have access to the same kind of information about the national situation.

 

Advantage Others

But paradoxically the big picture today is that the opposition is setting the agenda. The BJP is increasingly on the defensive. There is a caveat, of course. It is always easier to make allegations when in opposition; it is always more difficult to make a case for oneself when in power. But despite this, the narrative wars are now increasingly favoring the opposition. And when a self-styled repository of all the worldly wit, wisdom & knowledge of our PM suggests that it was he who suggested that the Balakot operation into Pakistani territory be carried out in cloudy conditions so as to ‘escape the [Pakistani] radar’, you head it right. Will those planning to vote for Modi now suddenly scrape their chins, consider the prospects of a leader who has a dodgy understanding of radio detection and ranging, and suddenly change their votes? 

Take Rafale deal for example. Irrespective of one’s views on the manner in which the deal was negotiated, you could believe it bypassed procedures and that it smacks of cronyism or you could believe that it was essential for national security and reflected decisiveness. The fact is that, every day, an aggressive media and the opposition was bringing in new charges. And each day, the government by resorting to technical nuances had to show that all is actually above board. Yes, the government has cited both the court and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report to vindicate its position. And yes, it is still not clear whether Rafale is indeed an electoral issue that could swing votes. But the fact that Rafale became such a major talking point is itself the success of the opposition.

 

Let us talk about Jobs that the opposition Congress is so shouting about. The leaked report on the jobs data gave tremendous ammunition to the opposition and lent credence to its charge that demonetization crippled employment, especially in the informal sector. The government through the NitiAayog put out a weak defence on why the data was not comparable to the past and had not been processed. But few bought the explanation. Again, it is no one’s case that the government did not recognize unemployment as a challenge. Its various initiatives, from Make in India to Start up India to Skill India to MUDRA stemmed from a recognition that the government has to create jobs. But over the past two years, the opposition’s narrative that not only did the government fail to create enough jobs, but its policies may have even eroded jobs, has gained traction.

 

Think about Famers &agriculture. It was the opposition’s aggression on farmers suffering from low incomes and the government’s MSP hike making little difference on the ground that helped catalyze a potent electoral constituency of angry farmers across caste lines. The results were visible in December in the state polls. The government was first in denial about the crisis, pointing to its various schemes as proof of intent. But the electoral wakeup call resulted in the budget announcement of an income support scheme& an election promise of Rs. 6000 succor annually to a section of farmers. Whether it is enough to quell the discontent is yet to be seen. Once again, the agrarian distress is not solely of this government’s making; there is no easy policy solution to it either.

 

The point here is that despite overwhelming political dominance, the government is on the back foot as far as real issues impacting India are concerned. It has its own narrative of course: strong leadership, rural welfare programs, instituting structural changes to clean up the economy, and low inflation. But in terms of daily headlines and debates, it is the issues raised by the opposition which are becoming dominant.. Frankly speaking  did anyone actually believe that when Overseas Congress chief Sam Pitroda said in his Hindi-challenged Hindi, “’84 meinhua to hua” (In 1984, [the anti-Sikh riots] happened, so what?), he actually didn’t mean what he later explained he meant — that these elections are about the last five years, why are we dragging out 1984? That explains the frustration amongst the BJP & its chief protagonist.

 

What happens in the election is a different matter. But for now, in terms of agenda setting for 2019, Modi and the BJP are helped by the fact that there is no serious opposition leader of his caliber & impact who could be seen on the horizon. Even if we were to believe that there could be few, but they are either lying dormant for some reason or the other or they simply have given up hope for the immediate future, despite the slight edge, it has in the current narrative business.

 

Conclusion

We Indians do not expect elections to pass off as the finest examples of sophistry & tongue up extravaganza. It would look stale. There is bound to be verbal roiling, in your face crass commentating & yet all this will not matter, unless you are a newbie & not exposed to the vagaries of this festival of democracy. Still from the side of those contesting for our affections, it’s not so much a Kurukshetra or ‘final’ of a cricket tournament also where the audiences are on the edge of their seats, heart in their mouth & prayer on their lips. By the time results are declared on the 23rd, all these speech bubbles and political rhetoric, banter & acrimony would have given way to celebrations for some, heartbreaks for few & commiserations for the hundreds others. Yet the idea of democracy & right to exercise our franchise & elect our government would have triumphed over anything & everything else.

 

Would the first time voter have got rewarded for their understanding, wisdom & choice or would they get cheated is amillion dollar question?