This general election has largely been about optics, muscularity, glamour and positioning. After the attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, and the Indian air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan, the election campaign has been riding on a strong anti-Pakistan sentiment and politicisation of the armed forces. At the same time, the campaign across party lines has been more about actors, cricketers and other “non-political” personalities. As far as ideology is concerned, the BJP’s campaign is more explicitly about Hindutva politics now than it was in 2014.
The inherent paradox in the 2019 election is that although each of the above has been used to appeal to the ordinary citizen, policy matters that affect citizens directly in their everyday life appear to have fallen by the wayside, including healthcare, education, employment, working conditions, water, farming, prices and nutrition. Contrarily, this campaign has sought to deepen majoritarian paranoia, by glorifying one community and demonising another, and through the negative politics of fear, anger and vendetta.
The focus on negative politics is all the more surprising given some of the positive work done by the incumbent government. This includes the reach of gas cylinders, toilets, roads, electricity and, to some extent, housing in rural areas, all of which have seen a considerable push in the Modi era. Why then has this election been ‘issueless’?
One can clearly witness the shift in the BJP’s own issue-based slogans of the past five years like ‘ Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas ’, ‘ Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao ’, and ‘Make in India’ to more direction-less ones this time like ‘ Main bhi chowkidar ’ and ‘ Modi hai toh mumkin hai’ . Does this framing reflect an intent to evade questions around the agrarian and job crisis?
Yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that many believe in the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor. This indicates distrust in the Opposition’s leadership, in regional parties and ‘agenda-less’ grand alliances. However, the danger here is that collective beliefs of this sort might make elected authoritarianism possible, leading to the delegitimisation of the federal structure of our democracy.
This election is also not about party manifestos and local candidates. Otherwise, citizens, irrespective of the political party or ideology they support, would have objected more strongly and widely to, say, people with criminal backgrounds being given tickets. One thing is clear: this election is more about personality than ideology. According to a recent analysis of 35 speeches by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the word he most often used was “Modi”. The real question and its answer then lie with the voters. What appeals to them the most this time: personality cults, charismatic dynasts and movie stars or issues and candidate qualifications?
The writer is a Ph.D. Scholar at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics