The current political air has a certain tightness. Soon, the soil may shake in unpredictable ways, a flux that will last till May 2019. The two national parties admit, in private, that Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will signal whether the Lok Sabha poll will be a real fight or a contest for contest’s sake.
BJP president Amit Shah naturally wants to pin the narrative on the second theme. He is claiming a big slice of the future for his party: at least the next 50 years! Congress chief Rahul Gandhi will continue to make frontal attacks on the BJP triumvirate—Modi, Shah, Jaitley—to give it the air of a battle royale. But what does the ground tell us?
Well, the ground has a bad habit of shifting. It shifts over time, also at the last moment, often on technical micro-politics, like equations internal to an alliance, the caste matrix, vote-cutters, booth-level strength, cadre mood. Macro issues, the economy or the governance report card, can take a secondary status.
In 2014, almost all parameters, micro and macro, favoured Narendra Modi. Elections are never the same: 2019 will not be 2014, nor can it be 1971 or 1977. There was a time, for instance, the Delhi University Students Union elections used to be a bellwether of sorts. The voting students were from all over India and from all sections of society, besides the well-heeled Delhiites.
This time, the signals are not as clear. The unsavoury EVM controversy apart—the EC has distanced itself saying the machines were privately procured (!) by the DU authorities—it’s not a clean sweep by the ABVP. The NSUI managed just one post, but both sides increased their voteshare. Also, the AAP student wing’s tie-up with AISA (which is more-Left-than-SFI), came a cropper.
But all that may not give us an inkling about which way even Delhi will go. Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP regime, despite its agit-prop antics, enervating run-ins with the L-G and attrition from its ranks, does not appear to have lost ground totally. Its social sector delivery favours it. Plus, the Congress does not look on a revival curve and the BJP appears to be neither here nor there.
More grey areas. Lost in Shah’s headline-grabbing rhetoric of a “50-year-rule” and 300 seats in 2019 was a talk given at the national executive: an assiduously delivered coaching class on the government’s flagship welfare schemes, “the good work done”. This motivational therapy session was meant for booth-level workers, the ‘panna pramukhs’ et al, Shah’s infantry. (For Shah, 2019 is as much his election as PM Modi’s.)
On the other hand, there seems to be an odd dissonance between the high command’s sales pitch and what the BJP MPs feel (of course, many are fearful not getting another ticket). An insider recounted, “Even some of our MPs and MLAs are not aware of central welfare schemes ... the Congress is building such a false propaganda! Our cadres are also watching it on TV and getting demoralised...”
The BJP isn’t too worried about hot-button issues like Rafale or the lynching stories, however horrific. Apparently, those issues matter only to the liberal chattering classes, who never vote BJP in any case. As for the burning fuel prices and the tumbling rupee, the BJP take is: the economy is picking up, so would the job market by mid-2019. A collapsing banking sector, the NPA burden, the widening current account deficit—these abstractions don’t resonate with the voters. But fuel prices and the rupee do. (The PM has summoned his economic brains trust.)
Another issue getting sharp focus is Dalit disaffection. Bypolls have shown, Mayawati has the ability to harness and channelise it to an Opposition pool. The BJP’s tactics, therefore, are to ensure there’s no Dalit consolidation. The sudden release of Bhim Army’s Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’, for whom Mayawati has no love lost, is one such move to divide and confuse Dalit voters, which may pay off. Provided violent savarna retaliation on the restoration of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act doesn’t skew the picture. Dividing the Samajwadi Party family and votes is a parallel strategy.
The Congress, though for once trying to work as a team, has little time to devote to keeping the Opposition unity platform in event mode, like it did post-Karnataka. It knows it’s in a straight fight with the BJP in the three states that will shape the 2019 narrative. But it’s a dicey pitch. In Rajasthan, its rallies have been attracting huge crowds, but in Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan is far more visible than any of the Congress’s optional trio—Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Digvijaya Singh. And the GOP is looking very much like BJP Lite, asking to build gaushalas in every panchayat. As for Chhattisgarh, what the Congress is doing or plans to do is known only to the party!
It’s not as if Rahul isn’t working hard, but his attempts to shatter the BJP narrative are limited to the media. Once the biggest organisation in India with offices in every kasba and block, the Congress is a shadow of the past. It’s yet to galvanise or create a booth-level workforce. A vital organisational deficit: it’s from the ground up that you need to aggregate public dissatisfaction into votes.
And unlike the BJP pre-2014, the Congress hasn’t been able to take any of its accusations to a logical conclusion. It thus acquires the element of a smear campaign, which the BJP is returning bullet for bullet. Bet on seeing more exposés—some may click, some sow more confusion. Perhaps enough to leave Modi as ‘the’ pan-Indian mass leader, with a bit jaded but still matchless oratory. Even if this time it can hardly be a solo show.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express