Final battle

Print edition : May 24, 2019

At a polling station on April 23 in Guawahati in Assam during the third phase of the general election. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi after filing his nomination papers for Varanasi on April 26. He is accompanied by Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Photo: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with party general secretary Priyanka Vadra at public meeting in Rae Bareli on April 27. Photo: PTI

By all indications, the Bharatiya Janata Party is set to suffer significant losses in Election 2019, but a number of imponderables make the final outcome uncertain.

ON MAY DAY EVENING, SMALL GROUPS OF labourers and trade union activists were gathering around the Fazalganj industrial area of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh to observe International Workers Day when news came in of the killing of 15 security personnel travelling in a car and their driver in a Maoist landmine attack at Dadapur in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli. The responses of the workers and trade union activists were in line with their varying political affiliations. Those belonging to leftist organisations such as the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) pointed out how the incident had ripped apart the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) grand narrative of being the guardians of national security. Workers supporting the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), key constituents of the gathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh, reacted similarly. “What will Prime Minister Narendra Modi do now? Will he shamelessly ask for votes in the name of the jawans killed here too, just as he invoked the Pulwama martyrs?” Shambunath Upadhyaya, a worker associated with the AITUC, asked a group of workers supporting the Prime Minister and the BJP. The response was: “You cannot generalise on the basis of just one incident.”

The exchanges continued for a couple of hours, and then news came in of the blacklisting of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council. Now it was the turn of the champions of militant nationalism to go on the offensive. “See, the BJP and Modi pushed the international community, especially China, to change its views on Azhar. The NDA [National Democratic Alliance] governments are always much better than the governments of the Congress and other opposition parties in addressing security issues,” said Dinanath Tiwari of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS). Upadhyaya countered that A.B. Vajpayee’s NDA government had released Azhar in 1999 and pointed out that the U.N. ban was the culmination of long-drawn efforts in which all political parties had contributed. “In any case, this May Day our primary concern is the welfare of the working classes of the country, in both the urban and rural sectors and in addressing this, the NDA government has been a colossal failure,” he said, provoking more animated verbal exchanges.

This discussion on national security and socio-economic issues among groups of workers in Kanpur, with its diverse political overtones, can well be seen as a metaphor for the election scenario in the 17th general election, which is drawing close to the last phases on May 6, 12 and 19, with the counting scheduled for May 23. A closer inspection of the trends from different States, and different regions of bigger States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra, pointed towards the alternating dominance of diverse narratives, both at the level of campaign issues and in their electoral impact. As delineated in the earlier election special issues of Frontline, the BJP had started out with a campaign focussing on national security and muscular nationalism, but then changed tack as issues such as social welfare and economic empowerment forced themselves into public discourses dominating the election atmosphere.

Congress on strong wicket in south

The broad picture at the national level after four rounds of polling in April across 374 seats underscores this interplay of alternating narratives. In the southern States of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh,Telangana, Kerala and Puducherry, which account for 130 seats, the BJP’s campaign themes have only limited impact. The party’s own estimates expect its impact to be limited to a maximum of 30 seats. The assessment on winnability in these 30 seats presents an even lower figure, at a little over 55 per cent. The Congress and regional parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, the Telugu Desam Party and the Janata Dal (Secular) dominate the electoral scene in these States. The Left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have a strong presence in Kerala. The Congress’ alliances in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka with the DMK and the JD(S) respectively appear to have worked well for both the mainstream national party and its regional partners.

BJP’s dominant presence in west

Trends in western India are primarily dictated by the electoral swings in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The BJP is a dominant presence in all three, and its alliance with the Shiv Sena adds to its potency in Maharashtra. Polling was completed in April in Maharashtra, Gujarat and 13 of Rajasthan’s 25 seats. The other 12 seats in Rajasthan will go to the polls on May 6. Five years ago, all three States presented a picture of total domination by the BJP, which won all 25 seats in Rajasthan and all 26 seats in Gujarat. In Maharashtra, the BJP-Sena combine won 41 of the 48 seats. A large number of political observers and party activists across the spectrum are of the view that the BJP’s focus on national security issues and muscular nationalism has an intense impact in Rajasthan, which shares a long border with Pakistan, a lesser impact in Gujarat and a markedly moderate one in Maharashtra.

In all three States, voters are also influenced by livelihood issues and by the social welfare projections in the Congress manifesto. However, it has also been noted that barring Maharashtra, the Congress’ organisational machinery is no match for the BJP’s. The broad trends from the three States point towards a notable performance by the BJP in Rajasthan but a relatively less impressive score in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Evidently, as many BJP insiders from these States admit, the party is nowhere near the total sweep of 2014.

BJP’s hopes in the east

In the east and north-east, Odisha, Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland completed polling in the four phases in April. In West Bengal, 24 of the 42 seats will vote in May, and so will 11 of Jharkhand’s 14 constituencies. The manifold narratives that have by turns taken centre stage in different parts of the country over the election process are strikingly manifest in this region. The broad trends in West Bengal and Odisha point towards the dominance of regional forces, the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) respectively. However, the BJP leadership hopes to fare better this time in both the States. In 2014, it got two seats in West Bengal and one in Odisha. In both States, aggressive Hindutva has been the bulwark of the party’s campaign with selective doses of muscular nationalism and social welfare themes. Still, party insiders say they have not been able to quantify the gains they might make. In Assam and Jharkhand, both with 14 Lok Sabha seats, the Modi wave helped the BJP win seven seats and 12 seats respectively. However, campaign trends in both States this time point towards a waning of the wave and also the BJP’s inability to raise the pitch on communalism or muscular nationalism. Pointers from political parties and observers indicate a near equal split of seats in both States.

The Congress is in alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in Jharkhand. In the smaller north-eastern States, too, the BJP’s narratives have not received the phenomenal traction that they received about three years ago, when the party stormed to power in Assam.

Equations in the north

The two big northern States, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, account for 80 and 40 seats respectively and were scheduled for polling in all the seven phases of the current election exercise. Thirty-nine seats in Uttar Pradesh and 19 in Bihar voted in April. In both these States, there is no uniformly dominant narrative. There are pockets where the Hindutva narrative and muscular nationalism have taken strong root. There are also areas where caste equations focussing on Other Backward Classes (OBC)-Dalit-most backward caste (MBC) assertion are crucial and social justice is the dominant theme. In both States, there is a notable stream of voter unrest caused by a persistent agrarian crisis, which is panning out as resentment against the Modi regime. However, the propaganda about there being no alternative to Modi also has traction.

The BJP and its allies swept Uttar Pradesh in 2014 with 73 seats and made significant gains in Bihar with 22 seats. Estimates from all sections of the political class and observers suggest a dramatic reduction of the BJP’s seats in Uttar Pradesh and a marginal reduction in Bihar. The alliance among the S.P., the BSP and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) is believed to have altered the electoral equations in Uttar Pradesh, and the individual charisma of S.P. president Akhilesh Yadav and BSP chief Mayawati has played a significant role.

The opposition alliance in Bihar, comprising the RJD, the Congress, the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) and the Vikassheel Insan Party (VIP), does not appear to have picked up the same momentum. Yet, the constituents of the alliance have the potential to make a formidable OBC-Dalit-MBC assertion. Its leaders say RJD supremo Lalu Prasad’s absence has come in the way of the alliance realising its potential. Even so, however, ground level pointers suggest that the BJP and its allies will fall short of their 2014 score.

Madhya Pradesh presents a mixed picture. The BJP is not in a position to repeat its performance of 2014, when it won 27 of 29 seats. But its principal political adversary, the Congress, is hemmed in by organisational problems, infighting, and a failure to propagate its election themes effectively.

Punjab and Haryana, two other relatively big States with 14 and 10 seats respectively, offer a study in contrast. The Congress in Punjab has a robust organisation capable of taking the electoral themes of the party to the grass roots effectively even while countering the narratives of the BJP and its regional partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s leadership skills add to the party’s strength. However, the Congress’ organisational and leadership weaknesses in Haryana leaves the State a fertile ground for the BJP’s communal and nationalist propaganda.

Evidently, the overall election scenario presents a mixed picture devoid of a single overriding factor or narrative. This also underscores that the NDA will not be able to repeat the roaring success of 2014. Talking to Frontline on these trends, Yatin Oza, a senior advocate based in Ahmedabad and a one-time close associate of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, pointed out that notwithstanding the changed situation, the opposition cannot afford to take lightly the Modi-Amit Shah duo’s willingness to go to any length to win electoral battles. “One has seen it repeatedly in Gujarat and a national-level repetition cannot be ruled out. There are very many signals of this, including in the manner in which the Election Commission of India is repeatedly giving clean chits to the overtly communal speeches and the blatant violation of the model code of conduct by both Modi and Amit Shah. It is conspicuous that Modi and Amit Shah are being treated with kid gloves.”

The Congress has raised the conduct of the E.C. as a major issue, with party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi sarcastically stating that the model code of conduct should be renamed as the Modi code of conduct. The party has also moved the Supreme Court against the E.C.

E.C. capitulation

One of the controversial speeches cleared by the E.C. was made by Modi on April 1 at Wardha. He referred to Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest a second seat in Kerala’s Wayanad as “running away from majority-dominated areas” to “take refuge in areas where the majority is in a minority”. Later, the E.C. gave a second clean chit to Modi’s appeal to first-time voters to dedicate their votes to Pulwama martyrs. This speech was in clear violation of the E.C.’s direction of March 19 to all parties to advise their leaders and candidates to “desist” from “indulging in any political propaganda involving activities of the Defence forces”.

In clearing the speech, the E.C. went against the advice of its own team, including the Maharashtra Chief Electoral Officer and the Osmanabad District Electoral Officer. Both had termed Modi’s appeal as “inconsistent” with the E.C.’s instructions prohibiting the use of the armed forces for political gains. The E.C.’s decisions on these speeches were, reportedly, not unanimous; one of the three Election Commissioners had questioned the clean chit. Apart from Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, the E.C. has Election Commissioners Ashok Lavasa and Sushil Chandra. While the clearance of these two speeches came in for opposition within the E.C., the contentious third speech in which Modi crassly referred to India’s nuclear arsenal as something not meant for Diwali was deemed to be a warning to Pakistan.

There was also the instance when the Prime Minister revealed his personal participation in what can be termed as horse trading. Addressing a rally in West Bengal’s Serampore, he warned Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that 40 Trinamool Congress MLAs were in touch with him and would switch sides once the BJP won the Lok Sabha election.

In response, Mamata Banerjee demanded cancellation of Modi’s candidature for “shamelessly indulging in horse trading” during elections. Oza told Frontline that he would expect more such uncouth and inflammatory performances from the Modi-Amit Shah duo through the elections to the remaining 169 seats in May. The fact that a large number of these seats are from the communally polarised northern States would make the duo all the more aggressive. Modi’s May 2 speech in Ayodhya, where he cited the recent blasts in Sri Lanka and recalled the terror attack in Ayodhya in 2005 to say that terror factories in the neighbourhood were waiting for a weak government in India is a case in point. In another speech, he branded Congress members as hate-mongers who dreamt of his death, Oza said.

Dipankar Chakravarty, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), said that the conduct of the 2019 election could easily be rated as one of the most problematic in recent history.

“From inadequacies in the overall planning of the election schedules and the haphazard monitoring of electioneering to the evidently partisan evaluations overlooking the serial violations of the code of conduct in the ruling party’s campaign, the E.C.’s handling of the election process leaves much to be desired. But, at several places, there seem to be mysterious goings-on in polling also. After the April 29 polling, until late at night, the E.C. website had recorded 64.24 per cent polling for Odisha and 76.72 per cent for West Bengal. However, by the morning of April 30, the E.C. website had revised figures, showing a massive post-poll statistical surge, raising the rates to 72.89 per cent and 82.77 per cent respectively. Where did these huge extra votes come from?”

This question is yet to evoke substantive response from the E.C. This is in line with its sustained lack of response to a public interest petition in the Bombay High Court highlighting the mysterious non-receipt of lakhs of EVMs reportedly supplied by manufacturers and the veritable absence of proper records on the storage of the EVMs. Beyond the perceptible ground level trends and indicators, will the conduct of the E.C. also be a factor in the 2019 election?

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