Indian elections; Political Battle Packed With Suspense!

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Image source: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images

by Nilofar Suhrawardy 10 May 2019

Electoral battle on the Indian political field may be viewed as an extremely complicated race packed with suspense. Paradoxically, on the media front, while the primary contender, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his “key” rival Congress leader Rahul Gandhi are receiving substantial coverage, there is a catch here. The primary political fight can certainly not be viewed as between these two leaders and their respective parties, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress. Political complexities have surfaced in the present period due to several factors which need to be paid substantial attention.
Modi was a new entrant on the national field in 2014. Even he was not sure of his own victory in the race for parliamentary polls.

It is not without reason that he chose to contest from two constituencies. Also, compared to a decade ago, Rahul Gandhi is being given greater media coverage now. Besides, following the success of Congress in a few assembly elections, speculations began being voiced on whether political tide favors BJP now as strongly as it did in 2014. This definitely suggests that Rahul is now viewed as a stronger political figure than he was earlier. It would, however, be erroneous to assume that this is suggestive of Rahul ensuring the return of his party to power solely on his and/or its own strength. Elevation of his sister, Priyanka Vadra Gandhi in party ranks and her campaigning is undoubtedly a key political card being exercised by Rahul. Though the good-looking lady with a smiling face does attract crowds in her road-shows and other forms of campaigning, there is no guarantee that the same will have a magical impact in attracting votes.

At present, the crucial factor being deliberated on in most circles is not the return of Congress but the political fate of the present government with Modi as the prime minister. Opposition parties, keen to push BJP out of power, are banking on their open and silent alliances. Of these, the key alliance reached is between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). These two parties have a strong base in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the state which sends the maximum number of members to the Parliament. It may be recalled that though in 2014, BJP swept the polls in UP, the total votes of SP and BSP together exceeded those secured by BJP. This hard reality has apparently prompted SP and BSP not to lose their seats because of a split in anti-BJP votes. Yes, a lot is dependent on the division in anti-BJP votes. A great division may help BJP secure victory with even 40, 30 or even lesser percentage of votes.

The political fate of who forms the next government is likely to be decided by regional parties’ key decision, that is which leader/parties they decide to favor. This political reality appears to have dawned on Modi also. Not surprisingly, his campaign gives the impression of Rahul-led Congress being his principal rival. Clearly, he is being extra-cautious in not antagonizing regional parties. There lurks the possibility of his needing their support to form the government. Well, whether he will or not will be proved in a few days. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Modi’s political image is not as it appeared to be after he stepped onto the national stage to head the central government in 2014. Even media has started expressing that the Modi-wave is no more what it was five years ago. There is yet another angle to view this. During preceding polls, the hype about Modi’s image was undoubtedly created. “News” was created, propagated and spread at practically all levels about his promises regarding “better days” (Achche Din) for Indians.

The so-called Modi-wave rested on such manufactured news. It helped in “convincing” ordinary people, at least in the initial phase, about great promises held for them by Modi-government. Besides, during his campaign, Modi donned a “secular” mask to apparently wash off the communal stains linked with his image because of Gujarat-carnage. Yes, Modi succeeded in standing taller in people’s expectations than his party and his party members. This image was created, spread and propagated. Modi’s present campaign is also directed at advertising the same image. Yet, with his key rivals, including Congress and regional parties giving greater importance than before to their agenda as well as anti-Modi (BJP) campaign, the limited appeal of Modi’s political drive cannot be ignored.

Also, in 2014, Modi was given a chance. At present, a term of his rule has made people reasonably familiar with his credentials. Certainly, indulgence exercised by Modi in promoting his own image through media and other means of communication cannot be ignored. But, even maximum use of communication strategies to create and spread “news,” that is hype resting on manufactured news can succeed only to a limited extent. Expectations raised among the people are least likely to remain afloat for too long a time. Yes, it doesn’t take long for the same and their promoters’ agenda to be questioned and also criticized when they fail to deliver the promised goods. This only leads to hype raised on the basis of manufactured news to ultimately deflate.

Now, against this backdrop, would it be fair to assume that chances of Rahul’s success are brighter than what they were in 2014? As mentioned earlier, Rahul is certainly receiving far more media coverage and that too along positive lines than he did in 2014. But, to assume that this can guarantee him and his party total success would be erroneous. As suggested earlier, a lot is dependent on how do regional parties fare in their respective states and who they decide to support. Here, it may be noted, Indian political calculations have not always led to the central government being headed by either BJP or Congress. The possibility of a Third Front with the prime minister belonging to neither BJP nor Congress cannot be ignored.

To a degree, shocks received by BJP in several assembly elections just a little ahead of parliamentary polls have made the party itself and of course its rivals as well as observers quite cynical of what may be the electoral verdict. The difference in votes won by Congress and BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan is marginal. The situation is different in Chhattisgarh, where Congress has won 53 seats more than BJP and secured 10 percent more votes than the latter. In Madhya Pradesh, against 109 seats won by BJP, the Congress has secured 114 seats. Vote-percentage won by Congress (40.9) is 0.1 less than that received by BJP (41). Congress has secured 99 seats against 73 won by BJP in Rajasthan. Here, the difference in votes secured by both parties is less than one percent with Congress bagging 39.3 percent and the BJP receiving 38.8 percent. From one angle, the marginal difference in votes won by BJP and Congress in two states indeed suggests that this has not been comfortable victory for the latter. There is no guarantee that a similar/more significant margin may help either party to emerge the winner in parliamentary polls.

What perhaps stands out more markedly is that BJP did not succeed in these state-polls as the party leaders thought it would. Clearly, this signals that hype raised about the so-called Modi-wave failed to have any significant political appeal for voters. This point is being made as to when Modi took command of the central government, a lot of hype was raised about BJP’s victory resting on Modi-wave. The noise made about such a wave in the initial months gradually began to fade as people faced economic grievances, particularly inflation and demonetization. Had people not felt the economic problems so severely, the results of assembly elections may have been different. Had Modi succeeded in implementing claims made by him during the 2014 elections’ campaign, the hype about his wave may have still prevailed. And if this had been the case, Congress may not be the winner in the recent assembly elections. Indeed, the nature of Rahul Gandhi’s campaign and political strategy exercised by him and his team has also played a crucial role in contributing to their party’s success. But had Modi-wave still held some appeal for the people, success may have eluded Congress.

At least, the marginal difference in votes won by two key rival parties in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan suggests this. Neither can afford to be over-confident about their success in coming parliamentary elections.
The rudimentary survey indicates that even hard-fast BJP supporters are not confident of Modi returning to power with the same stunning majority that he did in 2014. Instead, the underlying opinion is that he is not likely to secure a majority. He may limp back to power, which implies that he’d be dependent on other parties’ support to head the government again. A few months back, BJP was not prepared for these developments. The party was over-confident about its political value and that of socio-religious cards its members and associates have been trying their hands at. What a shock. Just towards the end of its term in power at the center, the party has learned that its socio-economic investment- communal tension, inflation, etc. – cannot always yield political returns desired by it. This, as suggested earlier, has been indicated by BJP failing to sweep the assembly polls in several states. Undeniably, this only proves that voters have already dismissed image “manufactured” about there being no alternative to Modi in several states’ assembly elections. There is no guarantee that this would be repeated in the parliamentary elections. But, it certainly indicates that BJP and Modi were till not too long ago over-confident about their political image. If this perception of theirs was really correct, their party might not have suffered in assembly polls. Nor would speculations been voiced at present about limited chances of Modi returning to power with the sweeping majority he did in 2014.

It is possible, BJP may be outsmarted by the very political strategies that it had been substantially banking on till date to stay in the lead. It may be recalled, and even though BJP had won sufficient seats in 2014 parliamentary elections, the party chose to head the government by forming an alliance. BJP probably did not want to take the risk of losing the support of regional parties. The situation is totally different today. Earlier, BJP’s importance was confined primarily to Hindi belt. BJP’s attempts to move beyond this area have succeeded considerably. But its success has also proved damaging for its rival parties in various states. Clearly, where UP is considered, the regional parties, particularly SP and BSP fear the risk of their being almost wiped out, if BJP manages to improve upon its earlier performance. Most anti-BJP parties, particularly regional parties are banking on their alliances to succeed in preventing BJP from succeeding in their states. Clearly, regional parties don’t want BJP to strengthen its hold in their domain. This, in their calculation, may amount to their (regional parties) losing their own grip in their geographical territory.

This apprehension is also responsible for the alliance of UP-based parties, SP and BSP. The same apprehension may be viewed as responsible for anti-BJP alliance politicking engaged in by parties such as Trinamool Congress (TMC) led by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Telegumu Desam Party (TDP) headed by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and others. There prevails the risk among regional parties and leaders that increase in BJP’s regional strength can prove damaging for their own hold in their respective domains. Results of 2014 elections from UP are viewed as a witness to this reality. BSP failed to win a single seat. Clearly, BSP does not wish to face the same fate again. Other anti-BJP regional parties don’t want to be confronted by loss suffered by BSP in 2014.

Against this backdrop, regional leaders and parties keen to retain and/or increase their strength in their respective areas are least likely to be moved by whatever claims are made about Modi-wave. Though Modi and his team are going overboard regarding achievements of their government, political shocks faced by BJP have given them the message that they cannot afford to overestimate their party’s reach and that of Modi-wave. Besides, political image held about Rahul today is a lot more better than what it was in 2014 and earlier. Also, he is not viewed as a threat by anti-BJP regional parties in their domains. Not surprisingly, in UP, BSP, and SP have appealed to their supporters to vote for Rahul and Sonia Gandhi in their constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli, respectively. Thus, though Congress has not entered into any alliance with SP and BSP, the underlying understanding between them at pushing out BJP from power cannot be missed.

Clearly, the art of jugglery in Indian politics has taken an extraordinarily intense and extensive shape in these polls. This is certainly not an easy task for those who may view themselves as masters in this art neither for those who have never been comfortable at exercising this strategy. Nevertheless, with most upbeat about the gains that their indulgence in this move can spell for them, numerous interesting dramas may be expected to unfold in the coming days.

Ultimately, the success of either BJP or the Congress is not likely to depend solely on the political campaign of these two parties’ members or the image of their leaders, Modi and Rahul, respectively. The final verdict may be decided by who succeeds more in winning the support of regional parties. This may also prove decisive in displaying the actual leadership mantle of Modi, Rahul as well as the regional party leaders, including Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and others. Political suspense has begun!