NEW DELHI: The wait is over. The dates for the big Lok Sabha elections are finally out. The Election Commission will stage the mammoth process between April 11 and May 19, in seven-phased polling, and have the electorate of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh elect their assemblies alongside. Jammu and Kashmir has been kept out of this synchronisation. The results will be out on May 23. In about two and half months, democratic India will get to know who will steer India’s political destiny over the next five years.
For all practical purposes, the contest is between Narendra Modi’s re-election bid in the backdrop of the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot airstrike, and a comeback bid by the opposition, comprising the Congress and a motley group of regional parties and combinations, who will seek to turn the debate back to livelihood and governance issues.
The odds are stacked against an opposition that is attempting to puncture holes in the Modi/BJP/NDA narrative built over the last five years, one that revolves around making his leadership look like the only option to take ‘New India’ forward, and painting the resistance of other parties as attempts by the ‘old elite’ to pull him back.
The slogan Modi has chosen to go into these elections is ‘Namumkin ab mumkin hai... (The impossible is now possible), which signals a promising future. If he has to reaffirm his popularity, and prove his critics of his policies wrong, Modi will have to post a resounding victory — a repeat of 2014 or better. Anything less would be taken as a referendum against the Modi style of governance, one that relies on surprise, awe and grandness of spectacle.
Indian democracy has often not been kind to those who have sought re-election after having won an absolute majority the previous term, Indira Gandhi in 1977 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 being the two prime examples. But Modi, who has a penchant for registering firsts and upsetting set patterns, has the chance to create a new record.
What he’ll be up against is a bitterly opposed but in part a mutually misaligned opposition. It has not fared too well in its tactic of trying to drag down his muscular, interventionist policy of dramatic retaliation after every big terror strike. So expect its rhetoric to swivel back to the ‘felt’ issues on the ground: jobless growth, agrarian distress, the hits faced by the unorganised sector, the socio-economic dislocation of minorities, Dalits and tribals. (The flurry of last-minute inaugurations notwithstanding.) And if the latest ‘election tracker’ of India Today TV is anything to go by, Modi’s popularity is indeed facing a downslide among these communities, with a commensurate rise in favour of Congress president, Rahul Gandhi. But the overall numbers among the middle class and OBC groups still favour Modi for PM.
And the battle ahead for Rahul and the Congress is far more uneven and perilous than it is for Modi and BJP. In the war-like haze and hanker for revenge after Pulwama, much of Rahul’s gradual ascendance to a position of a serious contender to Modi has been overshadowed. The halo he had acquired with the hard-fought state assembly victories in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan stands partly forfeited. As is his wont, Modi has wrested the narrative back from the opposite block just as the elections got announced. The larger opposition too has failed to carry forward the momentum created on the Vidhana Soudha stage in Bangalore in the euphoria of the Karnataka elections.
In UP, the Congress did not find a place in the SP-BSP gathbandhan. In Andhra Pradesh, which will also see an assembly election, Chandrababu Naidu’s ruling TDP has not been able to solemnise an alliance with the Congress. In West Bengal, which will see voting in all seven phases, Mamata Banerjee’s ruling TMC can’t choose who she wants to pit herself against, the emergent BJP or her old rivals, the Left and the Congress. Only the latter two have managed a covert no-contest agreement. In all these states, despite the rival congregations, it’s not going to be a single opposition candidate against BJP; multi-cornered contests will increase the unpredictability quotient.
Will these elections witness a generational shift? Not in terms of candidates —Sonia Gandhi, 72, and Mulayam Singh Yadav, touching 80, will be there. Sharad Pawar, 78, and H D Deve Gowda, who will turn 86 one day before May 19, the last day of polling, should be there too. So will some of the BJP’s own veterans. But a silent revolution is on. Millions of first-time voters will hit the booths, including around 15 million young Indians aged 18-19. Not to forget millions of women, who now vote in ever greater numbers. Between these two, and their understanding drawn from real life and media (including the deep webs cast by social media), a government will form.