When this long, long, election eventually comes to an end and the votes are counted we will know whether Indian voters have opted for the uncertainty of the promise of a bright new future, or the security of a tired past.
A senior Lucknow journalist got it right when he said to me, “Modi is selling a dream.” The future promised by the dream can be summed up in two words, change and development. But dreams all too often vanish in the harsh light of reality. Modi has been very short on the details of his plans for transforming India’s ramshackle, archaic, administrative machinery into a modern engine that can generate and sustain development. Yet that is the change he has to bring about if he’s to fulfil his promise of development.
The Congress, on the other hand, has urged voters not to take risks, not to trust promises, not to dream dreams, but to vote again for what one disgruntled Congress politician described to me as the tired old issues. In speech after speech Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have appealed to voters to chose the security of their version of secularism, their idea of India, warning that if they don’t India will break. But the Congress has used that threat so often in the past to draw attention away from its failures that voters may well shrug their shoulders and say “we’ve heard all that before”.
Sonia Gandhi looks back to Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao as the way to win votes. So it’s not surprising that Rahul has been highlighting the Congress’ pro-poor policies, specially the Right to Food. Those policies relieve but don’t remove poverty. They don’t promise change or development.
Then there is Rahul himself, the scion of the Nehru Gandhi family, appealing time and again to past memories of his family in the hope that he can recreate the magical magnetism which drew voters to his grandmother and at one stage to his father too. But times have changed and recent electoral history has shown that the family’s charisma has worn thin. Rahul has been no match for the boisterous super-self-confident Modi in the competition for charisma. Many in the Congress party feel that the charismatic Priyanka should have been chosen as their leader. When she did come out fighting she pushed Rahul off the front pages.
The Congress campaign has been so lack-lustre and backward-looking that it’s widely believed the party is heading for a humiliating defeat. On the other hand, the polls and the media have forecast a Modi wave. The term has been repeated so often that it could well turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. But a wave would sweep over the traditional issues of caste, creed, and candidate and I found them still relevant in the crucial heart of UP. Among many voters I talked to who were calculating caste equations or wondering which way the Muslim vote would go was the local BJP strongman. He assured me there was a Modi wave but went on to say “there’s a problem too — caste”.
Modi himself does not appear confident that there’s a wave which has swept over central UP. Although the BJP president and Lucknow candidate, Rajnath Singh, appealed to voters to rise above caste and creed at the last moment, Modi appealed to caste with his deliberate misinterpretation of Priyanka’s remarks about low-level politics, and to creed with Ram and his temple at Faizabad. A BJP ideologue told me the party is counting on caste to see it through in UP.
If Modi does form the government he will face an angry backlash very quickly unless his dream becomes a reality and he succeeds in doing what no one else has done, changing India.
The views expressed by the author are personal