India’s fast approaching 2019 general elections will be the most ferocious, very likely the ugliest and, therefore, the most fascinating fight for power in the world’s largest democracy. The Opposition is desperately seeking to thwart the ruling BJP’s run of remaining in power for another term. Already some kinds of pre-election alliances, including a ‘mahagathbandhan’ (grand alliance), by various Opposition parties with diverse ideologies are being frantically cobbled up at state and national levels because for many current opposition leaders, another BJP term may well effectively end their political careers.
Yes, a large number of Opposition leaders have serious personal political stakes – especially those who stand indicted in various criminal cases, including corruption – and, therefore, their moves of forming pre-election unions are likely to be intensified as the Lok Sabha (LS) polls draw nearer. However, this patchwork of Opposition alliances is unlikely to affect BJP’s job of mustering at least a simple majority on its own as the party confidently seeks re-election on the strength of its government’s ‘excellent performance’ in the last 5 years. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has already gone on record that the proposed ‘mahagathbandhan’ is a combine of those who are angry at his stringent action against corruption as they have been stopped from looting public money.
Indeed, the best thing that has happened in India in the last five years is that, a huge number of laws, some dating to the colonial era, have been amended or scrapped altogether and fresh ones enacted from GST and the Real Estate Regulation Act, to Benami Transactions Prohibition Act and Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets Act (this has stirred up a hornet’s nest among certain corrupt people), to new laws for recovery of debt, insolvency and bankruptcy, besides attachment of fugitive’s property, etc., which has quickened the pace of economic change that has benefitted the underprivileged apart from the country’s middle class – one of the main hallmarks of PM Modi’s government.
Today, India’s economy is structurally much better because the government went after ill-gotten, well-concealed wealth and streamlined indirect taxes. The macro economic revival has happened just at the right time for the BJP, and most economic indices are in the right direction as the country goes to polls. Given ‘recency bias’ – our tendency to let what has happened recently color our views and sentiments – BJP definitely has an advantage.
The BJP’s ideology has more takers now than ever before because the party frames the main issues for the elections. Its long-standing ideological association with nationalism renders nationalism an issue on which it has huge advantage over all other parties. Parties that are able to successfully shape election campaigns around their own issues ultimately succeed in winning elections. By placing a large emphasis on nationalism, the BJP has cleverly tailored its ideological message to be able to capture the imagination of a larger section of the public. The party has also placed a large emphasis on other issues that it has traditionally been associated with, such as national security and terrorism, patriotism and the all pervasive corruption in public administration.
The BJP, under the leadership of Amit Shah, has also revamped its electoral strategy, one focused on widening its appeal by stitching together multi-caste coalitions. As is widely known, the BJP’s traditional social base is predominantly upper caste. To increase its support base, the party has built an electoral machine of its own at the local level in the form of caste-based coalitions. Its election campaigns are always led by a galaxy of local and national leaders, together covering an eclectic set of caste groups – almost a Congress style coalition in the 1970s.
Besides, PM Modi continues to be a most popular brand the Indian voters buy, because he seems very different to the kind of political leaders they have so far been used to. He does not have a family that is benefitting financially from his office. He does not lead a political party that is in fact a family business to be handed down to some heir. And his message remains mostly positive. He may not have achieved all the goals of ‘Swachh Bharat’ but nobody can fault him for not trying his best. He may not have yet brought prosperity to the vast majority of Indians but he cannot be faulted for not trying. He may not have made India more secure against Jihadist terrorism and Naxalite violence but nobody can accuse him of not making national security a priority of his office.
On the other side stands the Congress, the main Opposition in the Parliament, which has not come up with anything resembling a new idea in decades. No doubt, the present Congress President Rahul Gandhi has undergone a political makeover. But his party needed one too, desperately. Since taking charge of the Congress around four years ago, he should have formed a team of new generals and galvanized foot soldiers to change citizens’ perception in favour of his party. He badly needed a firm understanding that, if citizens perceive that voting the Congress back to power means reinstating the same old bunch of utterly corrupt and incompetent politicians who dragged the nation down to its knees, they will never sign up for it. So, newer and young faces should have been brought in to lead the charge by permanently retiring the old crooks on account of who the Congress had earned the dubious distinction of being a conglomeration of black-marketeers, smugglers, black-money hoarders, etc., and that the party’s ideology was based on one-point-agenda of ‘loot and let-loot’. Clearly, his party’s legacy is more of a handicap than an advantage.
(The writer is a freelance journalist)