A pixelated campaign

Election time as a ritual often presents a split-level reality. The contest, the struggle, the battle, the debates provide an epic panorama of possibilities. One can think and wish aloud as the battle rages but election day is a time for closure. It is not the magic of the battle that counts but the banal score. Results are a narrowing down of the world into real articulations. Hopes and wishes disappear by the morning of counting day.

Prediction and reality

The Gujarat election of 2017 was a classic illustration of this paradigm. Even as the results were being touted local, commentators and pollsters were proclaiming a Congress surprise. But as the numbers came in, hopes of the Congress went down. The standard exaggerations between Rahul Gandhi as a naïve Boy Scout and the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine as professional came into play. The tentativeness of the last few weeks was forgotten and Mr. Modi was once more the constant refrain.


The picture has become critically different. It is not possibilities but numbers that are recorded. Suddenly, Mr. Gandhi is read in a different way. He is not a recharged leader bringing a fresh look to the Congress, but a Johnny-come-lately, a Rip Van Winkle who got up too late. Mr. Gandhi might be tactically precocious but Mr. Shah and the RSS are the classic strategists. Mr. Gandhi is labelled an amateur and Modi-Shah professionalism is re-emphasised.

One must stress on one event. As commentaries and broadcast go this year, election coverage was the weakest one has seen. There was no sense of camaraderie between experts, no attempt to explain the magic of elections. Explanations were bland and experts blander. In fact, commentators became hagiographers, a chorus of admiration for Mr. Modi as the results became clearer. As the morning drew to a close, one sensed a stereotyping of the two parties.

Targetting Hardik

The butt of the attack was not Mr. Gandhi, but Hardik Patel. Commentators felt Mr. Gandhi was naïve to have emphasised the importance of personalities. As personalities go, Mr. Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani attracted attention. They were the toast of the press for playing out the dissatisfaction against development. But as results trickled in, there was a sense that all three were only personas, not people-centred politicians who built elaborate networks. They sounded like false echoes against Mr. Shah’s style. Two aspects were severely criticised. They were described as attention-grabbers, not vote-converters, openers without the finishing touch. Second, their timing was poor. One cannot instigate a battle a few months before elections and expect effective results. The election drama was no time for Twenty20 experts when aficionados of the five-day Test had already taken control. Time had become a disadvantage for the new trio.

There was also a sense that the magic of development had remained durable for the urban voter. For the urban and semi-urban voter, the promise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held and worked. Even Surat, where demonetisation had devastated the economy, returned the BJP almost full house. Urban was the magic word for the BJP, while the Congress had to be content with its tribal, farm and youth following. Even here, it is clear that years of RSS work in the tribal areas might one day nibble away this constituency. The Congress, once a coral reef of coalitions, suddenly seemed even more vulnerable.

For the commentators, the moral of the story was that while individuals create instant drama, they lack the epic pull of interests. Interest, not individuals and ideologues, is the gold standard of Gujarat politics. Anger and dissatisfaction might surface occasionally, but interest is the cement that guarantees votes. This, many admitted, was wisdom straight from Mr. Shah’s political handbook of elections. They added that when it comes to delivery, Mr. Modi is a believable Father Christmas while the electorate reads Mr. Gandhi as merely promising. His promise is only a hypothesis next to the formidable interest clusters Mr. Shah has built over the years.

One also sensed that memory was a major factor. It was not anti-incumbency that was a major theme. On the contrary, most people could hardly remember the last time the Congress was in power. Mr. Gandhi and the Congress might be good at articulating Patel distress, but when push came to shove, they lacked the confidence as delivery boys of politics.

Memory affected other perceptions. While Congress rode on the myth of poverty, BJP rule had seen a decline in overt poverty. Or to put it more sociologically, one realises that inequality had increased but poverty had declined. This was particularly true of the urban voter who loved “achhe din” while destitution was restricted to tribals and peasantry where the Congress campaign was more effective. The Congress, it was felt, had to rework itself to reclaim urban middle-class India.

Congress vs RSS

There was also a sense that Mr. Gandhi’s Congress and its campaign were considered superficial. It was not just their emphasis on personality or short-term scenarios, it was also that by emphasising individuals, the Congress had no sense of organisations, institutions of memory. It could not match the years of sustained work the RSS had put in, like the worker bees of election politics. The shakha could bury itself into a society for decades and wait for its efforts to work. The Congress lacked this sense of the politics of duration. The only sense of time it had was genealogical, but genealogies cut little ice in terms of organisational planning and history.


Despite all this, one had to admit that the BJP goal of 150 of 182 seats was distant. Yet one also realises that 150 for Mr. Shah is not a number; it is a clarion call to battle which motivates his workers. If they fall a bit short they admit they came close to the impossible. If the miracle is occasionally achieved, the myth of the BJP’s invincibility becomes more resonant.

One realises that the basic campaign the BJP is fighting — a mix of middle-class, development and a lovely veneer of Hindutva works for the party. The party has read the sociology right. The new urban voter is the darling of BJP posters. Even their sense of psychology appears immaculate. They realise that regimes produce moments of discontent, but discontentment as a phenomenon is fragile. It appears dramatically, but it takes hard work to convert discontentment to votes. The BJP realises that the Indian voter might be quick to react but he is slow to change. The BJP is better at local homework. A lot of this remains invisible to the media, but it is this that produces the stuff of electoral politics. Amit Shah can rest content that he is still the master of interests and everydayness. He is still the Machiavelli warding off Congress Boy Scouts.

Yet, the BJP cannot afford to be complacent. It is still rolling as a juggernaut but at times the ride looks rickety and vulnerable. It senses, like other practitioners, that society is changing, that new configurations and interests are appearing, new dialects of politics are being born. The present is safe in its hands, but the future might prove the trickster it cannot defeat.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 8:03:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-pixelated-campaign/article22085341.ece

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