Cover Story

Rude awakening

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a campaign rally in Along, Arunachal Pradesh, on March 30. Photo: Anupam Nath/AP

Congress president Rahul Gandhi at an event marking the release of the party manifesto in New Delhi on April 2. Photo: T. Narayan/Bloomberg

Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/AP

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu. Photo: PTI

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M.K. Stalin. Photo: M. Karunakaran

Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Photo: asdfasd

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Photo: Arun Sharma/PTI

Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar. Photo: Subhav Shukla/PTI

The BJP realises that its muscular nationalism evokes little response from people and returns to its traditional campaign style aimed at communal polarisation.

Throughout Narendra Modi’s five-year term, the core political establishment of his government, consisting of not only the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but also its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, has made systematic efforts to bring about an electoral paradigm shift, driven primarily by its Hindutva agenda. These efforts have had different practical and organisational features, but from the beginning, all of these were directed towards building up a singular nationwide electoral narrative as the main focus of politics.

Sangh Parivar leaders in different parts of the country used to portray this as an exercise to change the character of the Indian general election. A senior RSS leader from Uttar Pradesh explained the basic concept of this exercise to Frontline as early as 2015. “For decades, the general election has been described as an aggregation of regional contests, but our target is to alter it comprehensively by setting up and strengthening a powerful national narrative. This narrative may be founded on the political and individual personality of a mass leader like Modi or a decisive event or a powerful nationalistic idea.” He went on to add that in 2014, even though the BJP was able to get enough seats to have a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha, the election was not bound by an all-encompassing national narrative despite the potent combination of Hindutva-based polarisation and the projection of Modi as a development visionary. “Large parts of southern India and the north-eastern regions had not been influenced by the Modi plus Hindutva narrative in 2014 and efforts are on to change this by the 2019 general election.”

When the Election Commission announced the 17th general election on March 10, the collective first response from the ruling political establishment, including the Uttar Pradesh RSS leader and many of his associates, was that the context of the 2019 election was conducive to attaining the long-planned objective of the Sangh Parivar. “The sequence of events leading to the announcement of the election has filled our leaders and rank and file with a sense of ebullient confidence,” was the common refrain. The sequence being referred to here was indeed obvious; the Pulwama terrorist attack of February 14 resulting in the killing of 40 Central Reserve Police Force jawans, the February 26 Balakot air strike across the Pakistan border by the Indian Air Force and the consequent debate on national security and patriotism that had consumed all parts of the country.

The consensus in the ruling political establishment was that the combination of patriotic fervour and the projection of Modi as the protector of the country could easily be developed into a commanding national narrative. It was also concluded that the opposition parties—the Congress as well as the many regional outfits arraigned against the BJP in different parts of the country—would have no effective counter to this emotive campaign as they all could be branded as enemies of the nation if they questioned this narrative. It was also held that the irritating partners in the National Democratic Alliance would fall in line in this charged political atmosphere.

However, as the seven-phase election process moves on to its first voting stages, through the polls of April 11 and 18, the so-called “ebullient confidence” in the BJP is being replaced more and more conspicuously by a shuffling political narrative, which has betrayed a sense of frustration on the lack of adequate popular response to the grand, muscular nationalism agenda being led from the front by the indomitable leader. So, a campaign that was originally launched with patriotism as the basic motif and the projection of Modi and the BJP as the exclusive proprietors of national interests is going, as the voting dates approach, in many directions.

This has essentially been triggered by the growing realisation in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar that the agenda of muscular nationalism has not generated the kind of all-encompassing national narrative that they had wished for. Equally importantly, there is the grudging admission from the BJP-Sangh Parivar leadership that the 2019 general election is more of a “collection of regional contests” than it was in 2014. Thus, in the southern States, the BJP and its agenda continue to be a marginal presence, barring in Karnataka where the party has built up a base over the past decade and a half. In central Indian States such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress is posing a stiff challenge, threatening to reduce the number of BJP seats considerably, while in the important north Indian States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, regional forces like the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) have emerged as powerful opponents to the BJP. The Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and many regional parties in the north-eastern States have come up with similarly tough opposition to the so-called all-encompassing nationalism narrative.

Significantly, the election scenario in every one of these regions reflects people’s fundamental concerns, including unemployment, the agrarian crisis, price rise and inflation. On every single count, the track record of the Modi government has come in for public scrutiny, highlighting its many deficiencies and misplaced priorities. Of course, national security concerns are also part of the popular discourse, but they are not the only issue under discussion, as the BJP and Sangh Parivar believed during the phase of “ebullient confidence”.

The public response to the well-calibrated and calculated moves of the principal opposition, the Congress, focussing on fundamental issues of the people, has also added to the sidelining of the muscular nationalism narrative. In a series of moves starting with the announcement of the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY), a minimum income scheme, and followed up by a substantially social-welfare-oriented election manifesto, the Congress and its president, Rahul Gandhi, managed not only to catch the eyeballs of the media, including social media, but also to inspire hope of a new beginning.

Among the key features of the manifesto are, apart from NYAY, the promise on employment generation, waiver of farm loans, enactment of a direct taxes code, enhancement of the minimum employment guarantee scheme to 150 days’ guaranteed employment and modernisation of public infrastructure in fields including railways. The promise on employment specifically addressed the four lakh vacancies that exist in the Central government, the Central public sector enterprises and the judiciary. The promise is to fill these before the end of March 2020. The manifesto also said that the Congress would request State governments to fill all vacancies, estimated at 20 lakh, in the two sectors and in local bodies.

Other parties like the S.P. in Uttar Pradesh and the Left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), have come up with their own manifestos and policy-programme outlines that have once again focussed on core people’s issues. It is the cumulative effect of all these initiatives and the public response they have evoked that has divested the muscular nationalism campaign of the BJP and its Sangh Parivar associates of its effect. Naturally, the BJP was impelled to alter its unicentric agenda for the election and look at some other issues and slogans that have worked for the party in the past.

Multifarious efforts have marked this shuffling of narrative. From reiterating corruption charges made against the opposition parties during the period when they were in power, five or more years ago, to making blatant appeals to the Hindu community calling for united strikes against the minority Muslim and Christian communities and to literally calling opposition parties names, likening them to alcohol that harms the political body of the country, these efforts are all marked by a sort of frenzy. Indeed, a far cry from the much-touted ebullient confidence.

Modi’s campaigning

A closer look at Prime Minister Modi’s individual election campaign itself reveals the strains that have come upon the ruling establishment and its election machinery. In all his early election campaigning held through public meetings across the States of Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir and through select interviews on television, Modi had emphasised the muscular nationalism agenda and how only he and his party were capable of advancing it. He also stressed that the opposition’s rise to power would only help the enemies of India, such as Pakistan. An oft-repeated comment was that Pakistan wanted him to lose in the elections and wanted the opposition in power. “Pakistan is praying that the ‘chowkidar’ [the new sobriquet he has adopted for himself] should somehow lose the election so that this mixture of sorts comes to power in Delhi.” Modi had also claimed that Pakistan was still counting bodies even a month after the Balakot strikes. “We take action against terrorists, enter their home and kill them, then some here ask for proof.”

However, in about a week after these taunts, Modi was seen to be harking back to the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal of the erstwhile Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the allegations of kickbacks received by the Congress leadership in the deal. Indeed, a supplementary charge sheet filed by the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.), which stated that “kickbacks were paid to defence officials, bureaucrats, media persons and important political persons of the ruling party”, came in handy for this throwback to past cases. While this reference to the AgustaWestland case had the justification of the E.D.’s supplementary charge sheet, the return to overt Hindutva communal propaganda was supported by no such rationalisation. In a shocking display of political desperation, the Prime Minister asked the Hindus of western Uttar Pradesh “to remember the atrocities committed against them” and “injustice against and torture of their daughters” during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. These riots of August-September 2013 had led to the death of over 60 people and caused widespread loss of property and means of livelihood (see separate story on the field situation in western Uttar Pradesh). With utter disregard to the facts and a responsible leader’s commitment to communal harmony, Modi alleged that a conspiracy to divide the country was being hatched in western Uttar Pradesh. “Recall, when there was Mahamilavati [Modi’s aspersion on opposition alliance politics] government in Delhi, and the S.P.’s government here, they conducted an experiment in Muzaffarnagar. Atrocities were committed on the basis of caste and community. Kaise julm huye, betiyon ke saath kya kya anyay hua, kitna atyachar hua, woh sab yaad hai na, yaad rakhoge na [What crimes were committed, what atrocities happened against daughters, do you remember, will you remember]?” Modi asked rhetorically.

His response to Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad in Kerala apart from his traditional constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh was also laden with communal vitriol. Making an oblique reference to the community-wise break-up of votes in Wayanad, Modi said that those (meaning the Congress-led UPA government that ruled between 2004 and 2014) who coined the term Hindu terror are now taking refuge in a constituency where the majority community is in a minority. Wayanad has close to a 52 per cent minority population, with Muslims accounting for approximately 29 per cent. Modi went on to assert that no Hindu has ever indulged in terrorist activities.

The other star campaigner of the BJP, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, too, had initially embarked on the muscular nationalism campaign but later moved on to other issues. He started by calling the Indian Army “Modiji ki sena” (Modi’s army) and saying that under Modi the Army treated terrorists with bullets and bombs while the Congress used to feed biryani to terrorists. This evoked much criticism from large sections of the public. So much so that even General (Retd) V.K. Singh, who is a Minister in the Modi government and the BJP candidate seeking re-election from Ghaziabad constituency in western Uttar Pradesh, was forced to criticise Yogi Adityanath’s comment. V.K. Singh said point blank that whoever called the Indian Army after an individual could not be considered patriotic.

L.K. Advani’s blog

Another development in relation to the muscular nationalism campaign was in the form of a blog written by the veteran BJP leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, which virtually questioned the basis of the BJP-Sangh Parivar campaign. In his blog, titled “Nation First, Party Next, Self Last”, Advani said that the BJP had “never regarded those who disagree with us politically as enemies, but only as our adversaries”. He added that the BJP’s conception of Indian nationalism never regarded those who disagreed with it politically as “anti-national”. Modi and other BJP leaders did not join issue with the sidelined veteran. Modi remarked patronisingly that the senior leader had clearly encapsulated the views and position of the BJP. Clearly, many twists and turns in the muscular nationalism campaign were affecting the BJP and its election campaign negatively.

One of the most important twists of this type emerged after the Prime Minister’s March 27 address to the nation about the Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test and his assertions later at political rallies that “he had the courage to conduct surgical strikes on land, air and in space”. According to many political observers and activists, including those from the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, this pronouncement and the manner in which it was delivered by Modi had a major role in alienating people from the muscular nationalism campaign. The overwhelming public perception on this announcement was that Modi was trying to appropriate the credit that was originally due to Defence Research and Development Organisation scientists. It was also interpreted as a clear indicator of the politicisation of national security issues being done as part of the muscular nationalism campaign (see the story on Uttarakhand election scene for more details).

This developing situation has forced the BJP’s leadership to increasingly depend on organisational manoeuvres, underscoring its acceptance of the importance of regional forces and the regional contests that they force. Cases in point include the weaning away of the Nishad party from the S.P.-BSP-RLD alliance in Uttar Pradesh by offering many allurements, including Lok Sabha seats to contest. The Nishad party’s alliance with the S.P.-BSP-RLD combine had resulted in a stunning defeat for the BJP in the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha byelection last year. The seat was held by Yogi Adityanath for two decades, from 1998, and was considered a BJP bastion. A similar effort to effect some mid-course correction is evident in the new alliance in Rajasthan with the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party led by Hanuman Beniwal, who is considered influential among the Jat community in the State. Beniwal has also been allotted the Nagaur Lok Sabha seat to contest. The dropping of all sitting MPs in Chhattisgarh and the removal of six sitting MPs from the first list of 29 from Uttar Pradesh also point to the persisting efforts in this direction. Sangh Parivar insiders are of the view that these organisational manoeuvres and an aggressive return to the Hindutva polarisation tactics may help veer the election in its favour as the voting continues through seven phases, until May 19.

On the other side, in spite of the popular appeal of the emphasis laid on fundamental issues and social welfare schemes by the opposition parties, particularly the Congress, there has been no follow up by them to take advantage of the goodwill that has accrued. In fact, the principal opposition seems to be in an organisational mess. Lack of clarity on its own political strengths and weaknesses on the one hand and the hubris that has characterised interactions with other parties on the other have been limiting the forward march of the party in many States. Cases in point include the national capital of Delhi and West Bengal, where the party is yet to firm up proposed alliances with the Aam Aadmi Party and the CPI(M)-led Left front. Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad in Kerala has also come in for criticism from some quarters as a move signalling that the Congress is more keen to fight other opposition parties than the BJP. An oft-repeated idea in the early run-up to the election was that all secular opposition parties should unite to defeat the BJP. Clearly, that is not happening.

Overview of the election scene

Thus, an overview of the national election scene just before the first round of polling on April 11 can be summed up as follows. The BJP has come down from ebullient confidence and hopes of creating a uniform national narrative on muscular nationalism to careful organisational manoeuvres that overtly admit the power of regional forces and show a willingness to accommodate them, even in terms of seat adjustments. Indeed, their leadership and rank and file hope that with these manoeuvres and an aggressive display of Hindutva politics, the party will regain some lost ground. On the other side, the public positioning of different opposition parties on vital issues has evoked tremendous support on the ground, but almost all of them, and especially the Congress, are still unable to gauge how far this will turn into electoral advantage. The big question is whether the polling trends will live up to the early estimations of a drop of around 100 seats for the BJP from the 2014 tally or whether the figure could get revised upward or downward. The answer is, evidently, blowing in the wind, but it is also clear that the final picture will be decided by the many regional contests that will unfold through the months of April and May 2019.