General Elections 2019 and ghosts of elections past

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Election campaigning has seen parties try to affiliate the present with history, but the Indian electorate has a way of conveying to its representatives that it cannot be taken for granted.

The 2019 polls are a standout event on their own merit. | PTI

All things are possible. You just have to choose the story you wish to believe in. Looking at the way the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are being framed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition Congress and the regional parties that, some believe, hold the momentum in these polls, the ghosts of elections past, selectively chosen for their lessons of triumph, are looming large on these polls.

Modi vs All, that is, Indira of 1971

First, the ruling BJP. As rumblings of opposition unity, partially and in patches now, first started coming out, the BJP was quick to compare the situation to the one faced by late prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1971, when she faced an opposition that was united against her in parts, but had its own internal contradictions (quite like the Congress versus regional satraps not ready to accord leadership of the opposition to the former).

The BJP was quick to point out that just as Ms Gandhi had faced an opposition that was united in its desire to see the back of her rather than on the basis of any ideological churn, this time too the opposition was banding together against Prime Minister Narendra Modi rather than as an ideologically cohesive alliance. Some of what happened in the opposition ranks, specifically in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, indeed points to that.

But, the Modi vs All narrative circa 2019 has specific differences from 1971.

That election, in fact, pre-dated the Indo-Pakistan war that led to the division of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. So it was not a vote on national security such as the BJP, post Balakot air-strikes, would like to believe. What Indira Gandhi banked on instead was a strong leftward tilt in her economic policy, with bank nationalisation and the “Garibi Hatao” slogan. For Prime Minister Modi, that moment may have passed in 2017, when, after the decision to demonetise, the BJP rode the wave of popular sentiment among the poor that the rich were being made to part with ill-gotten and illicitly stashed wealth to post a historic victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, and subsequent local body elections. In fact, demonetisation as an issue is largely absent from the campaign of the BJP now.

What the BJP can count on are the social welfare schemes that had been launched by it, like the Ujjwala Yojana, the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, and the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, the income-support scheme for farmers launched in the last budget — this bears resemblance to the Congress’ 2009 campaign, run on the back of the MGNREGA and the farm loan waiver. The only point where the 1971 and 2019 polls may converge is the fact that a large part of the campaign on the BJP’s side will be individualistic — not Modi vs All, but Modi vs Whom? This formulation has been around since elections were first held in independent India, in 1952.

India Shining 2004

After filing her nomination papers at Rae Bareilly, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi recalled her own big moment of electoral triumph — the 2004 polls, when she posted what was seen as a huge upset by defeating the NDA. She made a point of mentioning the BJP’s ill-thought-out “India Shining” campaign that seemed to ignore rural distress and even reeked of urban solipsism. The Congress’ manifesto with its attractive promise of minimum income support or NYAY has become a talking point, but all memories of the UPA regime and its rights-based approach to social welfare are not that fragrant.

More important, as ever in electoral politics, is the question of numbers. The Congress, with 145 seats, were just seven seats ahead of the BJP. And more to the point, that 145-seat tally was bolstered by 29 en bloc seats from an undivided Andhra Pradesh. The Congress is hardly in a position to repeat that feat, in Telangana or Andhra Pradesh. It has hopes of a good performance in Maharashtra and the three Hindi heartland States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but will it make up for the losses in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana?

In 1996 and in 1998, the Congress had won 140 and 141 seats respectively but did not form government. It was the Left’s good performance in 2004 (around 60 seats) and pre-poll alliances in Tamil Nadu that provided a fillip to its chances of government-formation at the Centre. The possibilities of a government led by the Congress arise when the Left’s replacement in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, along with the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party, agrees to support the party after the polls; or if YSRF Congress Party chief Jagan Mohan Reddy adheres to his pre-poll assurance of letting bygones be bygones as far as the Congress is concerned. These are all still up in the air.

Finally, the BJP in 2004 lost crucial support of its base, something Mr. Modi has been very careful of not repeating.

United Front and the Dream Budget

The Third Front or the United Front government that governed India between 1996-1998 is another template being talked about. Again, the Left and Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) were the fulcrum around which the alliance was formed with some solidity, with several other regional parties and propped by the Congress. In 2019, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee held a show of strength in Kolkata with the representatives of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, National Conference, Rashtriya Lok Dal, Aam Aadmi Party, Janata Dal (S), the Sharad Yadav–led Loktantrik Janata Dal, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the TDP and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in attendance.

As a bloc it is still amorphous; amiable when its parties are not in competition with one another, and some in alliances with the Congress as well. Will 2019 make it possible for a Third Front–led government supported by the Congress to come to power? It’s not the same set of players, nor is the situation comparable.

A standout poll

The 2019 polls are a standout event in their own right. The BJP of 2019 is not the same as its 2004 version; it has vastly expanded its reach in places where it had no presence earlier. The party is fighting in its largest number of seats (it has declared its contenders in 408 seats so far and will be announcing at least 30 more names soon). It has also expanded its base of social coalitions under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership among the backward sections of society, and hopes to coast on its social welfare schemes in rural areas. The possibility of a united Hindu vote, as witnessed in the 2014 elections, is, as ever, the elephant in the room.

The regional parties are less inclined to cede space to the Congress party as witnessed by the alliances in Karnataka and Maharashtra. The Congress for its part is pursuing the end of its existential crisis, taking the Left head-on with party president Rahul Gandhi fighting a second seat from Wayanad in Kerala, a campaign that will see some bitter exchange of words.

The nature of the beast, the verdict that the Indian electorate will throw up, therefore, is still a cipher. May 23 is just about six weeks away, and the Indian electorate has a way of conveying to its representatives that it cannot be taken for granted.

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