Drawing-room campaigns do not work in a country like India where large sections do not have houses to live in, leave alone television or the Internet

How time flies — and often it is the arrival of an election that reminds that we are five years older since we last voted.

I still can’t believe that 10 years have passed ever since I had taken the Tamil Nadu Express from Chennai one night to spend two months in Uttar Pradesh, reporting on the public mood in the run-up to the 2004 general election. I even recall the tiny details: the simple dinner at a rest house in Rae Bareli, the spicy lunch at a hotel in Allahabad, the tea-break on the road to Ayodhya.

At the time, India was shining — or so the rulers claimed. If you went by the advertisements released by the government in newspapers and television, India, under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition, was making rapid strides in the path of progress. There was peace in the country, peace with the neighbours, highways were being built, poverty was on the decline, the unemployed were getting jobs and, above all, the country had become a nuclear power and earned the respect of the international community.

Projection vs. ground reality

This happy picture, painted by the BJP in its “India Shining” campaign, went very well with the image presented by the Congress of being a party in a shambles. Sonia Gandhi was still being considered a foreigner; Rahul Gandhi was only 33; its top leadership mostly comprised men who were well beyond seventy and couldn’t be counted as charismatic campaigners; Manmohan Singh had nearly retired from public life; above all, the party had no projected prime ministerial candidate.

So if you were to watch the run-up to the 2004 election from the comfort of your drawing room, you would have believed that the battered Congress stood no chance against the dynamic BJP, which had made India shine.

But the ground reality was different, as I found out when I went from one town to another in U.P., talking to the lay voter (and not just to the taxiwallah). It was evident that life had remained unchanged for the common man, and that the “India Shining” campaign only rubbed salt into his wound.

As the election dates drew nearer and top BJP leaders began hitting the dusty roads, they probably began to realise that little had been done for the masses. L.K. Advani, in his election speeches, was suddenly adding a footnote to the “India Shining” campaign: “We are only saying that India has begun to shine. We never said that India has shined.”

The footnote had come a little too late in the day. Even though there wasn’t a wave for or against the BJP, the anti-incumbency anger was palpable at the ground level — but not at all visible from the drawing room. In Allahabad, for example, public resentment against Murli Manohar Joshi, the Union Minister and the sitting MP, was so pronounced that I wondered whether I should say so in my dispatch.

It was unthinkable that Mr. Joshi would lose on his home turf and I did not want to make a fool of myself by writing him off. I eventually wrote what I saw and heard. When the results were declared, Joshi did lose — and so did the BJP.

Time flies — we are suddenly into 2014 and yet another general election is round the corner. Back in 2004, even Gmail was a year or two away (I remember sending my reports from a Yahoo ID), but today we also have Facebook and Twitter and, above all, smartphones that provide us round-the-clock access not only to these social networking sites but news as well.

Online propaganda

Also back then, only journalists and columnists could give news and views, but today everybody who has a computer and a smartphone is entitled to expressing an opinion — and being read too. So much so that at times you find an intimidating online mob out there, ready to lynch newsmakers who are pronounced guilty by the ever-shrill television channels.

Needless to say, the election campaign has acquired a new dimension: online propaganda. I have about 1,800 Facebook friends — of them nearly 60 per cent are not politically inclined. Among those who have political leanings, 40 per cent are in favour of Narendra Modi, another 40 per cent in favour of Rahul Gandhi, and the remaining 20 per cent neither in favour of Mr. Modi or Mr. Gandhi but strongly against the Aam Aadmi Party.

Am I going to be swayed by their opinion? Maybe yes. Maybe not. Is the election going to be decided on the basis of their opinion? Certainly not.

Drawing-room campaigns, as had been demonstrated in 2004, do not work in a country like ours where the vast majority does not even have houses to live in — leave alone drawing rooms equipped with TV or an Internet connection. The results of the 2014 election, therefore, will be decided by Indians who probably don’t even own a phone — leave alone a smartphone.

If we haven’t heard that Indian’s voice yet, that’s only because we have been too busy listening to the ‘Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi’ debate. But we shall hear his voice, loud and clear, when the votes are being counted.

bishwanath.ghosh@thehindu.co.in

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