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The page 3 election

A slap on Arvind Kejriwal's face or Narendra Modi's admission of his marriage to Jashodaben attracts more attention than real issues. Has any other poll been so dominated by personalities, asks Namita Bhandare.

columns Updated: Apr 11, 2014 23:31 IST

The BJP candidate standing from my constituency has multiple criminal charges against him but my affable neighbour at the polling booth where we are lined up to cast our vote is emphatic. She is voting for Narendra Modi. An individual's criminal past is irrelevant for the larger goal, she says.

The deification — or vilification, depending on your perspective — of Modi has dominated discourse in recent times. But elections in India have always been about personalities. What was 1977 but a referendum against Indira Gandhi and her thuggish son, Sanjay? Going back earlier, what was 1971 but Indira Gandhi's riposte to Raj Narain's rallying cry, Indira hatao (her response: woh kehte hain, Indira hatao, main kehti hoon, garibi hatao or, they say remove Indira, I say, remove poverty)? What was 1985 but a sympathy wave for her other son, Rajiv? Yet, has any other election been so much about individuals and so little about issues?

From Muzaffarnagar to Marathwada, polls tell us what voters want: Jobs, an end to inflation, development. But polls also tell us that voters overwhelmingly believe that one man — not a party but an individual, not an ideology but a person — will deliver this to them. That man is Narendra Modi.

Modi has never fully explained how. It doesn't matter. Brand Modi has been successfully packaged across the country and the so-called Gujarat development model sold as a magic mantra.

Ever since he was declared the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Modi has surged ahead, squashing opposition to the Gujarat riots under his watch in 2002, squashing opposition from within his own party represented by the triumvirate of a now disciplined LK Advani, a now expelled Jaswant Singh and a now chastened Murli Manohar Joshi. BJP publicity posters focus on one man. At a meeting following the filing of his nomination from Gandhinagar, Advani sought to correct the imbalance by suggesting: Abki baar, BJP sarkaar. The crowd corrected him: Abki baar, Modi sarkaar.

Congress publicity posters also focus on one man, its vice-president Rahul Gandhi. Unlike Modi, Gandhi is flanked by various groups: Anonymous women in one, nameless young people in another. But on these posters he is the only Congressman. There is no sign of his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, nor his grandmother, not even his father or mother, leave alone any other Congress leader dead or alive.

With the focus on individuals, nobody should really be surprised at the level of abuse. Modi refers to Gandhi as 'shehzada' (prince). Gandhi warns that Modi will tear the country into pieces (tukde tukde kar denge). This language from the leadership is restrained when you listen to the deputies. Amit Shah talks of 'revenge' and 'honour' in Uttar Pradesh. Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah calls Modi a 'murderer'.

Ironically, Modi has UPA 2 to thank for the rise in his stature. After two terms of lacklustre, uninspired leadership by Manmohan Singh, Modi's strong, muscular style appeals to younger voters, most with no memory of pre-1991 liberalisation. In contrast to Rahul Gandhi's continuing diffidence and clear reluctance to partake of the 'poison' (his mother's word) of politics, Modi's aggressive eagerness seems like a heady rallying cry. The lack of governance, the paucity of jobs and brazen corruption have created a leadership vacuum which Modi has neatly filled.

The media's role in the page 3-fication of this election cannot be discounted. The shrieks of personal slanging matches have dominated television news and programmes. On voting day, camera crews swarm around 'celebrity' candidates — a filmstar here, a cricket player there — for a quick soundbite and photo-op. A slap on Arvind Kejriwal's face gets more primetime space than ongoing farmer suicides in Marathwada. Narendra Modi's admission of his marriage to Jashodaben attracts more attention than the paucity of tickets being distributed to women candidates.

Feeding into the cult of personality, the epic narrative of Elections 2014 is that of a humble chaiwallah pitted against the entitled dynast (or at least that's how the BJP sees it). For now, the voters are lapping it up.

The views expressed by the author are personal