General Election

A tale of two campaigns

Print edition : April 18, 2014

L.K. Advani. The current BJP campaign has seen a series of insults and humiliations heaped upon a number of senior leaders. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

Sushma Swaraj. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Murli Manohar Joshi. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Jaswant Singh. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

P. Chidambaram. One of the Congress leaders who refused to enter the fray. Photo: Kamal Narang

Manish Tewari. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

K.V. Thangkabalu. Photo: M. Vedhan

The two major parties are finding the going tough. While the BJP is faced with dissent and revolt by senior leaders who are upset with the growing personality cult, the Congress has trouble convincing its heavyweights to enter the election fray.

THE heat of the campaign often generates witticisms from the grass roots that can sum up a developing situation in a better way than political analysts can. One such witticism that has started doing the rounds in several parts of north India, including in Delhi, the national capital, involves inventing new names for the two main parties in the fray, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP has been renamed the Bharatiya Jagada (tussles) Party in this popular refrain. The Congress was first the Indian Reluctant Congress and later the Indian Compulsion Congress. Evidently, these witticisms were linked to the situations that developed in the two big parties around the resistance of leaders to contest and then the choice of candidates.

The internal tussles in the BJP on the question of nominations reached such a stage that many of its veteran leaders decided to challenge the existing power structure and contest as independents. They include leaders like former Union Minister Jaswant Singh, who held such important portfolios as Finance and External Affairs, and Lalmani Choube, one of the senior-most leaders of the BJP in Bihar.

The decision of these leaders to contest as independents came at the end of a series of insults and humiliations heaped upon a number of leaders, including former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj, by the reigning power centres in the party headed by president Rajnath Singh and prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. While Joshi was denied his favourite Varanasi seat to make way for Modi himself, Advani was made to stick to Gandhinagar in Gujarat though he wanted to shift to Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. Jaswant Singh was denied a seat outright, overlooking his sentimental attachment to his home constituency of Barmer in Rajasthan. Along with these humiliations came the accommodation of persons like B. Sriramulu, the controversial aide of the mining baron Janardhana Reddy of Bellary, in Karnataka and Colonel Sonaram Chaudhary in Barmer in Rajasthan. The latter, who was preferred over Jaswant Singh, had switched to the BJP from the Congress only recently. In Sriramulu’s case, the opposition of Sushma Swaraj was brushed aside nonchalantly. Her tweets that the denial of a seat to Jaswant Singh was not decided by the central election committee were also not addressed seriously.

Sections of the BJP and even the larger Sangh Parivar perceive these developments as the by-product of the personality-oriented campaign that the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have built around Narendra Modi. The main slogans of the BJP in this election are “Ab ki baar Modi Sarkaar” (This time Modi government) and “Har Har Modi” (Everybody is Modi). The BJP was forced to withdraw this slogan following objections from Hindu seers who saw it as an insult to the Har Har Mahadev chant praising Siva.

Personality-oriented campaigns have been witnessed only twice before in the country. The first was in 1980, after the collapse of 1977-79 Janata Party government, when the Congress came up with the slogan “Indiraji ko bulavo, India bachavo”. Then, in 1998, the BJP sought to advance its case using Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s candidature with the slogan “Bari, bari, sab ki bari, ab ki bari, Atal Bihari”. But there is little doubt that the scale and magnitude of the current Modi campaign is light years ahead of the 1980 and 1998 campaigns. All this has strengthened the feeling that there is a rising personality cult in the BJP. Such is the strength of this perception that even Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) sarsangchalak Mohanrao Bhagwat cautioned RSS activists at a national meet in Bangalore that chanting Namo Namo should not be their job.

If this is the uneasy and at-times-volatile situation in the BJP, the Congress is going through a different kind of upheaval. Senior leaders are running away from the contest and the party’s top brass, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi, have had to compel many of them to enter the fray. The wisecracks about the Indian National Congress turning into the Indian Reluctant Congress and then into the Indian Compulsion Congress have their genesis in these convulsions.

The pressure exerted by leaders such as Sonia Gandhi did indeed compel relatively junior leaders such as Sachin Pilot to contest the elections, but others, including Ministers P. Chidambaram, Manish Tewari and G.K. Vasan, as well as former Union Minister K.V. Thangkabalu, withstood the pressure and refused to face the electoral challenge. Other leaders who ultimately succumbed to the high command diktat include former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, Punjab State party president Pratap Singh Bajwa, and senior leader Ambika Soni. There are indications that the Congress is cracking the whip on many other reluctant leaders and forcing them to contest.

Amidst all this, the smaller parties are making their forays into the electoral field. These include the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Left parties under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United), the Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by Karunanidhi, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress and the YSR Congress led by Jaganmohan Reddy.

While all these parties have their own areas of influence, the AAP, as in the Delhi Assembly elections of December 2013, has unleashed spirited campaigns in different parts of the country. It has also been able to grab more media space than other non-Congress, non-BJP parties by striking uncharacteristic political postures. The decision of AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal to take on Narendra Modi in Varanasi was one such move. By all indications, the traction that it has generated in the temple town and nearby constituencies is indeed worrying the BJP. The decision of the saffron party to hastily tie up with the Apna Dal, an Uttar Pradesh-based regional party with a predominantly OBC Kurmi support base, is perceived as a reaction to the panic. The Apna Dal has pockets of influence in the Allahabad-Varanasi region and can prove to be a valuable electoral ally for the BJP.

Other regional parties such as the Telugu Desam party (TDP) and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) are playing multiple games at the same time. Both the parties are, so to speak, behaving like political pendulums: they are alternately seeking and distancing from an alliance with the BJP. The TRS had initially announced that it would ally with the Congress but later turned to the BJP. Later, it was in discussions with the CPI. Clearly, these are early days yet in the long election process and one will witness many more such somersaults. In the meantime, the redefinition of the two big parties is also bound to acquire new dimensions.

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