As the assembly election draws near and candidates across Mumbai pull out all the stops they can to get elected, it’s now clear that issues have become secondary to other factors such as community and caste alignments, winnability and financial clout of candidates, and so on. Campaigns and campaign strategies have taken the place of issues and competing visions.
The Congress, which won the maximum of the city’s 36 seats in the 2009 assembly election, knows just how difficult the odds are for a repeat performance. A week after they broke off their 25-year-old alliance, the Shiv Sena and the BJP both smell a good chance of striking it rich. And, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which had been all but written off till the Sena-BJP split, is back in the reckoning.
This election is less about parties and alliances; more a chief ministerial one, in the mould of the general election that had been turned into a prime ministerial one.
Raj Thackeray would like to be chief minister, by his own admission. He even has a ‘blueprint’ put out to show that he means business. So what if that document was presented to us many years after his vision? The Sena, as much as in the time of its founder Bal Thackeray, is driven by one man. Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, unlike his father, is prevaricating about the top job; there are days on which he wants it and then there are days on which he declines he wanted it. He may have his coterie of advisors but it’s his face.
The Congress, finally, decided to hit the campaign trail projecting Prithviraj Chavan as its leader. On the billboards and the ads, it is Chavan in the foreground while national leaders are relegated to a corner. But, inexplicably, Chavan is looking up, up and away, as if watching his chances float away in the air.
In contrast, the BJP billboards and ads have – who else – Narendra Modi in his Bvlgari glasses looking directly at you, his gaze as piercing and challenging as it was in April-May during the general election campaign posters. There’s a difference, though. He is now the country’s prime minister and unlikely to lead the state even if the party were to be the single largest one after the election.
That the BJP should seek votes in the Maharashtra Assembly election projecting only him as the face of the party says a lot. “He’s still our best mascot,” argued a BJP leader to me. The dissonance is not there for voters, he added. We will all know in the next three weeks.
Projecting only the prime minister for a state election does seem odd but here the BJP seems to have been caught in its own trap: a personality-driven election campaign works better but the competition between its state leaders to be that one towering personality is so intense that it would have been difficult to project one face up there. Besides, the Modi wave can be revived anytime, the party believes.
The personality-oriented campaign was taken to a new and exciting pitch by Modi in the run-up to the general election. Other parties have been forced to replicate that model, building their campaigns around an individual. But they are essentially playing a game they are ill- equipped to. The Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, Shiv Sena do not have leaders in Modi’s mould: ruthless, aggressive, f ocussed, dema go gical. Under the circumstances, they would have been better off drawing up fundamentally different kinds of campaigns.
Till the 1990s, the Congress set a trend, any trend, and other parties followed suit. Now, the BJP seems to be setting the bar based on its own strengths.